The Once-Cursed Red Sox Seem Set to Bounce Back

Posted: 02/01/2016 by levcohen in Baseball

Well, we know the Red Sox aren’t cursed any more. With three World Series championships in the last 12 years, they’ve been as successful as any team in baseball (the Giants also have three championships in that span). But that doesn’t mean they’re predictable. In fact, since 2012 the Red Sox have finished last in the AL East three teams. The fourth season? That would be 2013, when they won 97 games and the World Series. But the last two years haven’t been pretty, as high expectations (and payrolls) have yielded just 71 wins in 2014 and 78 victories last season. And let’s not forget 2011, when the clubhouse fell apart (remember the fried chicken scandal? If not, look it up) and the team blew a nine-game September lead with a 6-18 finish, culminating in one final Jonathan Papelbon blown save on one of the craziest days in MLB history. Anyway, it’s about time for another good Red Sox season, don’t you think? Their #3 payroll certainly indicates that they have the talent to do so, although we all know how little that payroll number often means.

First of all, the Sox probably have to improve less than many would expect after a last-place finish. They weren’t a good team last year, but their -5 run differential indicates that they should have finished around .500. That’s not to say improvement isn’t needed, because it is; it’s just easier to imagine a team going from a slightly unlucky 78-84 to the top of the division than it is, say, a 68-94 team to do the same.

The Red Sox made very few acquisitions this offseason. In fact, their lineup will look very similar to the one that closed last season. Up-the-middle players Mookie Betts (CF), Dustin Pedroia (2B), and Xander Bogaerts (SS), will hit atop the lineup, followed by DH David Ortiz. Jackie Bradley Jr. and Rusney Castillo will man corner outfield positions, while Blake Swihart will catch. The key differences, though, will likely come with the return of (hopefully) healthy Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. HanRam and Sandoval, two players who were awarded huge contracts by the Red Sox before last season, are both major reasons the team underperformed last season. In fact, Ramirez and Sandoval finished 964th and 965th among 966 hitters last year in WAR, costing the Sox a combined 3.8 wins compared to a replacement-level player. Any talk of a rebound for the team has to start with even a modest rebound for the highly-paid disappointments. Ramirez wasn’t good offensively last year, but his real problems came defensively, where he was one of the worst left fielders of all-time. Good news on that front: he’s moving to first base, where his lack of range will presumably be less harmful to the team’s defense. His shoulder is also healed, so his offensive numbers should also rebound. I expect HanRam to go from -1.8 WAR at least into the +2 range, which would give the Red Sox nearly four more wins by himself. Meanwhile, Sandoval has reportedly lost 20 pounds this winter, which was definitely necessary and should allow him to return to the 1-3 WAR range in his age-29 season. The good thing about having two atrocious performers is that there’s so much room for improvement at those positions, especially since the two atrocious performers are established above-average players. So if you give them eight more wins from just those two guys (and that might be conservative), they’re already at 86 wins and about halfway there.

Let’s assume that, aside from Sandoval and Ramirez, the offense stays about the same. That’s fair to assume, because the Red Sox have a pretty even mix of young players (Bogaerts, Betts, Swihart) who will likely improve and experienced guys (Pedroia, Ortiz) who might drop off a little. Considering that they were the 14th best offense in the league (per Fangraphs) despite getting negative value from their two big acquisitions, that should mean they’ll have a very productive offense. Meanwhile, the one free agent signing (besides outfielder Chris Young, who will platoon against lefties) the Red Sox did make was a big one: David Price. Price is one of the best pitchers in the league, and he will immediately bolster a rotation that was very weak at points last season. There’s also more good news in terms of the rotation. Rick Porcello posted an ugly 4.92 ERA last season, but after a one month DL stint, he finished the season strong, crediting a mechanics change and posting a 3.14 ERA in his final eight starts. I think it’s fair to expect more consistent success this year. And Clay Buchholz will return from injury and be a solid #3 starter after rebounding from a drastic 2014 to post numbers more in line with his terrific 2013. So the rotation looks like it will be at least decent, and certainly much better than it was last season. Meanwhile, the Red Sox also traded for a guy named Craig Kimbrel, so the bullpen will also be improved. Carson Smith, another talented relief pitcher, was also acquired via trade, further bolstering the bullpen. Koji Uehara, who is now almost 41, will no longer be required to pitch all the high-leverage innings in Boston.

While the Cubs’ case is clear, Boston’s is a little harder to see on the surface. Price was a big addition, but he by himself will not win the Red Sox that many more games than they won last season. The real reason that the Sox will be able to turn it around this year is because of guys like Sandoval, Ramirez, Porcello, and Buchholz, players who disappointed last year for a variety of reasons but seem poised to bounce back this season. Breakouts for talented young players like Bogaerts and Betts, each of whom is among the brightest young stars in the league, could also be forthcoming and would obviously help the cause. Last year, a bunch went wrong for the Red Sox. I’m betting that they’ll turn things around this season.

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