Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2018 season. Next up: The Boston Red Sox.
The Boston Red Sox won 93 games and the AL East last year. They had one big need to fill — power — and they did so, signing 45-homer man J.D. Martinez. They have an outstanding young core of players including Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr., Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts. They have one of the best closers in the game — maybe the best — in Craig Kimbrel and able and durable setup men in Joe Kelly and Matt Barnes. They have 300+ strikeout man Chris Sale at the top of their rotation, Drew Pomeranz coming off of an excellent year and two pitchers in David Price and Rick Porcello who, while underachieving in 2017, are more than capable of rebounds. Top to bottom, the Red Sox look like one of the strongest teams in baseball.
So why does it feel like they’re getting so little love heading into the 2018 season?
Part of it is that the Yankees had a sexier offseason. They acquired Giancarlo Stanton in the early going while the Red Sox waited all winter before signing Martinez. Yankees fans were high-fiving each other through the holidays while Red Sox fans were largely frustrated at how long it took to land their big slugger. That doesn’t matter on paper, but it understandably led to an enthusiasm gap.
Another part of it is that, while the Yankees weaknesses, such as they are, involve questions like “will this young player be as good in 2018 as we think he’ll be,” the Red Sox weaknesses are characterized in terms of “can this old player show that he’s still good and capable of being healthy all year?” Again, on paper, there’s a lot of reason to think that, say, Dustin Pedroia, David Price and Hanley Ramirez can be more valuable, in the aggregate, than, say, Brandon Drury, Gleyber Torres and Greg Bird, but it’s nowhere near as exciting to ask those questions as it is to project greatness on young talent.
All of that is the perception game, though, right? Hopefully everyone can agree that the 2018 Boston Red Sox are a playoff team and should challenge for the division title all year long.
Most of the reason to think of that is that young core. Betts finished 6th in the MVP voting in what was supposedly a “down” year. That “down,” by the way, was mostly a function of bad luck on balls in play. The guy’s a beast. Bradley is a gold glove talent outfielder. Benintendi was projected to win the Rookie of the Year last year and, in a lot of years, would have. Those three, Devers and Bogaerts, who took a step back in 2017 largely due to a wrist injury, all have room to improve. That’s downright scary in Betts’ case and downright encouraging in the case of everyone else. With Martinez plopped into the middle of the lineup to add that much needed power, the Red Sox lineup should improve in 2018. That after being sixth in the AL in 2017, despite the league’s worst power.
Not that there aren’t questions. Dustin Pedroia is coming off his worst season and will not be ready for Opening Day. He is said to look good in light work this spring, whatever that means. It’s unreasonable to think that he’ll be the Pedroia of old when he returns, but it’s not crazy to think that he can contribute more than he did in 2017, which was his worst season as a big leaguer. First base will consist of some combination of Mitch Moreland and Hanley Ramirez. That’s not the most inspiring thing in the world, even if Ramirez claims to be a new man in better shape, yadda yadda, etc. etc. The performance of those two in 2017 was a big reason they needed to go find someone like J.D. Martinez this year. But again, improvement is not out of the question.
There are questions in the rotation too, also focusing on health and durability.
Chris Sale was the leader in the clubhouse for the Cy Young Award last season before sputtering to the finish line in the season’s final month. Did he wear out? Striking out as many guys as he did is a lot of work, that’s for sure. It’s also the case, however, that people have been predicting that Sale’s beanpole frame will fail him for pushing a decade. It hasn’t failed yet. He’s the last one in that rotation you really have to worry about in my view.
More troublesome were the seasons of Rick Porcello and David Price. Porcello followed up his Cy Young campaign with a 4.86 ERA, 17-loss, tater-iffic season. Price was hurt much of the year and took a lot of heat from the Boston press as he recovered (he brought a lot of that heat on himself too). When he did pitch he was fine, finishing with a 3.38 ERA and a 76/24 K/BB ratio in 74.2 innings, but he only made 11 starts and five relief appearances all year. His playoff redemption has to give Sox fans some hope heading into this year and a return to even his 2016 form will give the Sox a big boost. It seems totally reasonable to expect at least that. Drew Pomeranz enjoyed his best season in the bigs in 2017. An early spring training flexor strain looks to be a mild thing, but obviously the Red Sox are crossing their fingers that Pomeranz does not return to his once-fraglie state.
The back of the rotation will eventually feature the knee-injury-rehabbing Eduardo Rodriguez, knuckleballer Steven Wright, and lefty Brian Johnson. More like the Boston Left Sox, amirite? All in all it’s a solid group. Try the veal. As mentioned above, the Red Sox’ bullpen is also a strength with Kimbrel, Kelley and Barnes, who will be joined by Carson Smith, who returned from Tommy John surgery late last year and should be at full strength.
New manager Alex Cora is in much the same boat as his counterpart in New York: win or get the blame. Each is inheriting an excellent team which made a major offseason addition. Each is expected to make a deep playoff run. Unlike Aaron Boone, Cora just came off of one, coaching the Houston Astros. Those two will be a good case study in the value of a new manager and dealing with extraordinary expectations in a new gig.
Because young players are more likely to improve than old, injured players are likely to return to form, I’m leaning to the Yankees in the AL East this year. But that is no slight to the Red Sox. These two clubs, along with the Astros, are the class of the American League and it will not be anything approaching an upset if the Red Sox repeat as AL East champs. I’m just not quite prepared to predict that at the moment.
Prediction: Second place, AL East.
By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — After pushing the Astros to a seventh game in the ALCS and then going out and getting superhuman slugger Giancarlo Stanton, the New York Yankees looked poised to regain control in the AL East.
They may still be in line to do that, but the Red Sox evened the playing field by making a late addition in J.D. Martinez.
It all makes for an interesting battle shaping up in the division, and it just might stoke the embers of a rivalry that’s really fallen flat over the past several years. We can’t properly forecast exactly how the 2018 season will play out, but for the time being, it’s worth taking a look around the diamond — as well as up and down the pitching staffs — to see which team has the edge on paper heading into the season.
BOS: Hanley Ramirez
2017 stats: .242/.320/.429, 23 HRs, 62 RBIs
NYY: Greg Bird
2017 stats: .190/.288/.422, 9 HRs, 28 RBIs
Without David Ortiz’s comforting presence in the lineup, Ramirez took a big step backward in 2017. That could have been just a down season, or it could have been the start of a decline (he turned 34 in December). Whichever it was, Ramirez has the backing of manager Alex Cora, who said this week that he’d like bat Ramirez third in the lineup. With J.D. Martinez now filling that vacated cleanup spot, Ramirez will be put in a good position for a bounceback season with some protection in the lineup. (Ramirez hit .571 in four ALDS games last postseason.) The Red Sox also have Mitch Moreland (.246/.326/.443, 22 HRs, 79 RBIs in 2017), but as of now, he figures to be the odd man out of the everyday lineup after the Martinez signing.
The Yankees have Greg Bird, a young player who got some real big league experience last year without the ballyhoo of Aaron Judge or Gary Sanchez. Bird batted just .190 but showed plenty of pop, hitting nine home runs and seven doubles in his 170 plate appearances. He also hit three home runs during the Yankees’ playoff run while drawing 12 walks in 13 games for a .938 OPS.
Bird could sneak up on a lot of people outside New York who aren’t currently keeping an eye on him. So it’s a close call. But the safe bet is with the veteran pairing of Ramirez and Moreland.
First Base Edge: Boston
Hanley Ramirez (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
BOS: Dustin Pedroia
2017 stats: .293/.369/.760, 7 HRs, 62 RBIs
NYY: Gleyber Torres
2017 stats (combined AA/AAA): .287/.383/.480, 7 HRs, 34 RBIs
The Yankees had to give up Starlin Castro to get Stanton. It was an exchange any team would make, but it did force the Yankees to give away a .300 hitter who slugged .442 during his Yankees tenure. And they may be replacing him with an unproven rookie.
Fresh off his 21st birthday, Torres may be the Yankees’ leading candidate to start at second base. He batted .309 in 23 games at Triple-A last year, hitting four doubles, one triple and a pair of home runs for an .863 OPS. He also played 32 games at the Double-A level, where he posted an identical .863 OPS over 139 plate appearances. If he doesn’t win the job this spring, the Yankees have some options in Danny Espinoza and Ronald Torreyes, as well as with another prospect in Thairo Estrada.
Pedroia, meanwhile, won’t start the season, as he recovers from offseason knee surgery. But with an unrealistic cast of characters in place (Eduardo Nunez, Blake Swihart, Brock Holt) to steal his job in the interim, and with a new manager who’s quite fond of Pedroia, it’s fair to assume the job will be waiting for him whenever he’s ready.
Pedroia hasn’t been the impact player he was early in his career, but he remains consistent at the plate, and his defense is still exceptional. If that knee surgery provides some rejuvenation qualities, Pedroia can perhaps get back to his 2016 self, when he batted .318 with 15 homers.
Second Base Edge: Boston
Dustin Pedroia (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
BOS: Rafael Devers
2017 stats: .284/338/.482, 10 HRs, 30 RBIs
NYY: Brandon Drury
2017 stats: .267/.317/.447, 13 HRs, 63 RBIs
The Yankees made a late addition of their own last week, acquiring Brandon Drury from the Diamondbacks. Though just 25 years old, Drury has more than 1,000 plate appearances at the big league level, hitting .271 with a .767 OPS over the past three seasons. His 13 homers last year don’t jump off the page, but his 37 doubles had him tied for seventh in the National League. He’s a candidate to continue progressing forward as he shifts his career to New York.
For Boston, the expectations are sky-high for Rafael Devers — and why shouldn’t they be? As a 20-year-old rookie, he burst onto everyone’s radar when he batted .361 and belted eight home runs in his first 20 games. He cooled off a bit thereafter, but he hit .364 with a pair of home runs and five RBIs in the Red Sox’ playoff series.
Devers is likely destined for a great career. But sophomore seasons can be difficult. The edge here goes to the player who’s already gone through the growing pains that all young players experience.
Third Base Edge: New York
Brandon Drury (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
BOS: Xander Bogaerts
2017 stats: .273/.343/.403, 10 HRs, 62 RBIs
NYY: Didi Gregorius
2017 stats: .287/.318/.478, 25 HRs, 87 RBIs
The man who had the unenviable task of replacing Derek Jeter has gotten better in each of his three seasons in pinstripes. He ranked second among AL shortstops with 25 homers last year, which was a career high, and as he enters his age 28 season, he’s a candidate to earn his first ever All-Star nod (though he does face some stiff competition in Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, and Manny Machado, who’s sliding over to short this season).
Bogaerts’ 2017 campaign was really hindered by a hand injury, suffered when he was hit by a pitch in early July. He went from hitting 21 home runs in 2016 to just 10 in 2017, though his 32 doubles were right in line with his 2016 numbers, and six triples had him tied for third-most in the AL.
Didi gets the edge for now, based on last year’s performance. But that doesn’t mean Bogaerts can’t close the gap by getting back to his 2016 numbers. Though opinions on Bogaerts have wavered from year to year, he’s still only 25 years old and is just entering the early part of the prime of his career.
Shortstop Edge: New York
Didi Gregorius (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
BOS: Christian Vazquez/Sandy Leon/Blake Swihart
NYY: Gary Sanchez/Austin Romine
The first no-brainer of the bunch. The group that boasts the catcher who mashed 33 bombs and drove in 90 runs at age 24 gets the ever-so-slight edge in terms of offense.
That being said, Gary Sanchez’s defense remains a major question mark, whereas the Red Sox are sound defensively. But, come on. Thirty-three dingers. Everybody loves dingers.
Catcher Edge: New York
Gary Sanchez (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
BOS: Andrew Benintendi
2017 stats: .271/.352/.424, 20 HRs, 90 RBIs
NYY: Brett Gardner
2017 stats: .264/.350/.428, 21 HRs, 63 RBIs
How Brett Gardner has managed to stay a member of the richest, most popular franchise in baseball for so long remains one of life’s great mysteries. He is … decent. Plays hard. Hustles. He even set a career high with 21 homers last year (though 11 of those came at Yankee Stadium). Still. Given the market and the franchise, you’d figure the Yankees would have at some point sought out a more impactful corner outfielder than Gardner and his .740 OPS over the past decade.
In Boston, Benintendi is a rising star. He put forth an excellent rookie campaign at the age of 22. With a firm spot in the two-hole, behind Betts and in front of Ramirez, he’s in position for an even better follow-up.
Left Field Edge: Boston
Andrew Benintendi (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
BOS: Jackie Bradley Jr.
2017 stats: .245/.323/.402, 17 HRs, 63 RBIs
NYY: Aaron Hicks
2017 stats: .266/.372/.475, 15 HRs, 52 RBIs
Bradley is the superior defensive player, though Hicks is no slouch himself. And in 180 fewer plate appearances, Hicks essentially matched Bradley’s doubles and home runs totals, and wasn’t far off in RBIs.
Center Field Edge: New York
Aaron Hicks (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
BOS: Mookie Betts
2017 stats: .264/.344/.459, 24 HRs, 102 RBIs
NYY: Aaron Judge
2017 stats: .284/.422/.627, 52 HRs, 114 RBIs
Now we’re getting into the heavyweights.
If you’re basing this one off 2017 alone, then it’s Judge by a landslide. Obviously. Judge ranked third in the majors in slugging percentage, trailing only Giancarlo Stanton and Mike Trout, and he led the AL in home runs. He did go through that second-half slump, and he did strike out 80 times in July and August, setting a rookie record on the year and then setting an ALDS record with 16 strikeouts in 24 plate appearances against Cleveland.
But still, the overall numbers speak for themselves, as do Judge’s three home runs in the ALCS.
That being said, Betts is actually capable of making this a fair comparison. He is just one year removed from .318/.534/.897 season, during which he belted 31 home runs and drove in 113 runs. He didn’t adjust well to a lineup that lacked David Ortiz, but now that he’ll be settling into the leadoff spot in a lineup that’s finally replaced a lot of the lost power, we’ll see if Betts can get back to the near-MVP player he was in 2016.
Right Field Edge: New York
Aaron Judge (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
BOS: J.D. Martinez
2017 stats: .303/.376/.690, 45 HRs, 104 RBIs
NYY: Giancarlo Stanton
2017 stats: .281/.376/.631, 59 HRs, 132 RBIs
This is the big time. Truly, two of the best power hitters in the game have been added to these two teams, and the results will be fascinating to watch.
Stanton is coming off a 59-home run season, the highest single-season total baseball has seen since the steroid era. Inserting him into Yankee Stadium for 81 games can make you think he might flirt with 70 in 2018.
Not to be overshadowed, Martinez hit 45 home runs in just 119 games played. His rate of 9.6 at-bats-per-home runs was actually better than Stanton’s rate of 10.1.
A major question with both players is health. Stanton played in 159 games last year, but he averaged 121 games per year over the previous six seasons. Martinez has averaged 130 games per year since 2014. The winner in this debate may just be whichever player stays healthy.
But, for now, the more-narrow-than-you-think edge goes to the man who might set the all-time home run record.
DH Edge: New York
Giancarlo Stanton (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
While the Red Sox definitely boast two excellent names atop their rotation, this is a battle that is closer than it may seem. Despite the Red Sox’ having a Cy Young candidate in Chris Sale last season, the Yankees’ starters ended the year with a better ERA (3.98) than Boston’s (4.06). The Red Sox did record nearly 100 more strikeouts, but the Yankees may have had the better overall staff.
This year, there are some changes. Sonny Gray, who joined the Yankees midseason and didn’t exactly thrive (4-7, 3.72 ERA), will spend his first full season in pinstripes and should — should — perform better. Luis Severino, who finished one spot behind Sale in Cy Young voting last year and just turned 24 years old, is in position to build on his very successful 2017 campaign.
But the Red Sox should also get a big boost from David Price, who made just 11 starts last year due to an elbow issue. He says he feels much better this spring, so if he can manage to make 30-plus starts at a high level, then the Red Sox’ rotation shoul dbe among the best in the AL.
There are questions on both staffs. Who is the real Eduardo Rodriguez? Will there ever be a team when CC Sabathia is not on the Yankees? Is Masahiro Tanaka his 2016 self (excellent) or his 2017 self (not at all excellent)?
But, admittedly basing it on an assumption for Price, the Red Sox figure to have the slight edge.
Starting Rotation Edge: Boston
Chris Sale (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
We need not list every single reliever who will pitch for both teams. Instead, we can compare the best against the best. It’s an impressive duo.
In the closer’s spot, the inclination is to lean toward Chapman, largely because of his absurd run of dominance that culminated in the 2016 World Series season with the Cubs. But last year, Chapman was not Chapman. He posted the highest ERA of his career (3.22), blew four saves in 27 opportunities, and posted a 1.132 WHIP, which ranked 32nd in the AL (among pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched). He was not at all dominant the way the Yankees expected him to be when they signed him to a five-year, $86 million contract prior to last season. (Rafael Devers can confirm.)
Kimbrel, meanwhile, was outstanding. He posted a 1.43 ERA, his best since 2012. He recorded 16.4 strikeouts per nine (best since 2012) and had a 9.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio (his best ever).
Based on last year, the Red Sox have the edge at closer. How Chapman responds to his worst-ever season will play a significant role in the fate of the 2018 Yankees.
The Yankees — with Dellin Betances, Chad Green and Adam Warren compared to Carson Smith, Joe Kelly, Heath Hembree and Tyler Thornburg — may have the better bullpen overall. But for as dominant as Chapman has been, the edge at this moment in time in the closer’s role goes to Kimbrel.
Closer Edge: Boston
Craig Kimbrel (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Far from being a scientific study, this was more an exercise in taking a big-picture look at the two best teams in the AL East to see how they compare. It turns out to be pretty even.
Strictly from a numbers perspective, the Yankees have the edge at six spots, while the Red Sox have the edge at five.
But some of those gaps are more considerable than others. Betts may end up having a better overall season than Judge, Martinez’s impact with Boston may neutralize Stanton’s impact with New York more than many might imagine, and certainly, nothing in the Red Sox’ rotation is a gurantee — especially any expectation involving David Price.
What’s clear is that on paper, these two teams look about as even as can be at this point in the year. From that, we can surmise that when the Red Sox and Yankees meet on the field 19 times this year, that special feeling that guided the rivalry through the first 10 or so years of the new millennium ought to come surging back in 2018.
You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.