2014 Boston Red Sox Team Preview
The famously unkempt Red Sox rallied around ugly beards, clubhouse karma and BostonStrong all the way to the October classic, where they dispatched the Cardinals in six games. Those are the intangibles often cited when talking about the success of the world champs, but between the lines, timely hitting, starting pitching, a preposterously efficient season from closer Koji Uehara, and the unyielding bat of David Ortiz were the real reasons for Bostonís achievements. They could win, and did win, in a variety of ways. Boston led the majors in runs scored and batting average, but when the bats went silent in the World Series, starting pitching carried the team.
The stigma of the September 2011 collapse is behind them. And the Bobby Valentine carnival of 2012 is never mentioned. These new age Red Sox are a different breed. They limit long-term commitments to free agents and build from within. Armed with this new management philosophy, the Red Sox are looking to fill key personnel losses by promoting home-grown prospects or signing free agents to limited contract lengths. Player acquisitions from outside the organization consist of a couple of middle relievers and a catcher, none of which signed for longer than two seasons. Gone is Jacoby Ellsbury, Stephen Drew (for now) and Jarrod Saltalamacchia; here comes Jackie Bradley to play center, Xander Bogaerts to move back to short and A.J. Pierzynski to catch. Thatís three-quarters of the up-the-middle defense. As it projects now, the Red Sox will have three players with unproven track records in the starting lineup. Bradley, Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks have a total of 817 plate appearances in the major leagues. General Manager Ben Cherington has said heís fine with the crew on board and ready to open the season with it.
Starting pitching projects to be an area of strength Ė both in terms of quality and depth Ė and will provide a storyline about which the local media can obsess on in spring training. The Red Sox will roll out six starters Ė Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Jake Peavy, Felix Doubront and Ryan Dempster. The old adage about never having enough starting pitching rings true, but the Red Sox have a deep system and cheaper arms are ready to fill a long reliever/spot starter role. Do the Red Sox want to pay Dempster $13 million or Peavy $14 million to be a long reliever? They could move Doubront to the pen, but heís been much more effective starting than relieving. If all six starters are healthy at the end of spring, thereís the possibility of a trade. The Red Sox could add a piece to improve an area of perceived vulnerability Ė perhaps one or two of the young players have horrible springs and are better served at Triple-A. The bullpen should be pretty deep and they probably wonít require one of the young starters to convert to a relief role, as Brandon Workman did in 2013. That means Workman can get back on a starterís path and take a turn every fifth day at Triple-A Pawtucket. The biggest story in relief centers around Uehara and whether he can approximate the success he had last year for a full season.
The A.L East didnít get any easier in the offseason. In the surest sign of Americaís economic comeback, the Yankees spent $438 million on free agents, including adding a piece, in Ellsbury, that directly takes away from Boston. They are determined to get back to the top. Can the Red Soxí frugal path to talent acquisition compete with that? Have they done enough to replace the losses?
Lost Jacoby Ellsbury (Yankees), Jarrod Saltalamacchia (Marlins), Stephen Drew (unsigned), Andrew Bailey (unsigned), Ryan Kalish (Cubs), Joel Hanrahan (unsigned), Matt Thornton (Yankees) and Quintin Berry (Orioles) via free agency.
Three integral members of the championship team have left for free agency, though Drew is a possibility to return. Until the Drew situation is resolved, Boston will pencil in top prospect Xander Bogaerts at short, which means Will Middlebrooks will start at third. If Drew returns, some sort of rotation will be in place on the left side of the infield. The Red Sox werenít about to offer Saltalamacchia the three years he got from Miami, so they signed A.J. Pierzynski short term (one year). Replacing Ellsbury is the difficult part Ė in center field, atop the batting order and on the base paths.
Traded Luis Ortega to the Brewers for Burke Badenhop.
Ortega is a minor leaguer who didnít fit into Bostonís short-term plans; not a big loss there. Badenhop will give Boston another quality arm in middle relief. Heís thrown more than 60 innings at the major-league level each of the past four seasons. While Bostonís bullpen performed admirably over the long haul, there was attrition due to injury and a late stretch when Junichi Tazawa tired under a career-high workload. Adding Badenhop is all about extending the depth in the bullpen and giving manager John Farrell another option to deploy when leading up to Koji Uehara.
Traded Franklin Morales and Chris Martin to the Rockies for Jonathan Herrera.
Morales had been a useful piece on Bostonís staff the last two-and-half seasons, serving both as a starter and reliever. In 2013, he missed the first two months due to injury and became redundant as the Red Sox had developed enough starting and left-handed relieving depth at Triple-A. They needed a utility man more than a third or fourth lefty out of the pen, hence the decision to acquire Herrera, who played shortstop, second base, third base and left field for Colorado in 2013. His at-bats will likely drop this season, particularly if Stephen Drew is re-signed.
Signed free agent Grady Sizemore (no team).
Sizemore hasnít played in the big leagues since 2011 and itís been even longer since he played a full season. Among the various injuries that made Sizemore a part-time or sidelined player, the most serious are both knees requiring micro-fracture surgery. The list of professional athletes successfully coming back from micro-fracture knee surgery is a short one. Any thoughts of Sizemore as a sleeper should be left unsaid. If heís able to fill a part-time role as a backup center fielder, the Red Sox will view this signing as a success. If Jackie Bradley is not ready to replace Jacoby Ellsbury as the full-time starter, Boston will likely seek a more reliable option than Sizemore.
Signed free agent A.J. Pierzynski (Rangers).
The Red Sox let Jarrod Saltalamacchia walk to South Beach because they werenít about to lock up the catching position long-term with minor leaguers Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart 12-24 months away from Boston. Pierzynski agreed to a one-year deal, which suits Boston just fine. Heíll be the primary backstop, ahead of David Ross. Pierzynskiís been around the block a few times, so ramping up to learn new pitchers should not be a huge impediment.
Signed free agent Edward Mujica (Cardinals).
Much like the addition of Burke Badenhop, adding Mujica gives manager John Farrell a seasoned reliever to call on out of the pen. He doesnít walk batters and has no history of arm problems. Mujica certainly built up his high-leverage credibility in 2013 when he saved the Cardinalsí bacon to become the teamís closer from mid-April through August. Weíre not implying heís closer material Ė thereís still a fly-ball tendency that makes him a bit scary Ė but that experience should serve him well in the A.L. East. Heíll join Junichi Tazawa in a setup role, leading to Koji Uehara.
Re-signed Mike Napoli to a two-year, $32 million deal.
Napoli gave the Red Sox everything they thought he would and then some when he signed as a free agent. He was a middle-of-the-order bat who got on base and wore down pitchers as the league leader in pitches-per-plate-appearance. He also gave them something they had concerns about Ė health and defense. Napoli, whose signing before the 2013 season was delayed due to a chronic hip condition found during a physical, played a full season while providing credible defense at first base, a position at which he had never been a full-timer. Napoli, as one of the leaders of the beard brigade, became a big clubhouse guy as well. In short, he earned this deal.
Signed Mike McCoy (Blue Jays), Tommy Layne (Padres), John Ely (Dodgers), Brandon Snyder (Red Sox), Carlos Rivero (Nationals), Dayan Diaz (Cubs), Matt Spring (Red Sox), Miguel Celestino (Red Sox), Shunsuke Watanabe (Japan), Justin Henry (Red Sox), Jose Valdez (Astros), Ryan Dent (Red Sox), Scott Cousins (Angels), Michael Brenly (Cubs), Jose Mirajes (Giants), Rich Hill (Indians) and Corey Brown (Athletics) to minor league deals.
Thereís nothing in this bunch to threaten for a spot on the 25-man. Hill is a former Red Sox pitcher who could be useful and Snyder got some at-bats as a fill-in third baseman in the summer of 2013. Mostly, this is adding some pitching depth and insurance at positions (center-field, second base) where the Red Sox are thin at the upper levels of the system.
1. Shane Victorino, RF
2. Daniel Nava, LF
3. Dustin Pedroia, 2B
4. David Ortiz, DH
5. Mike Napoli, 1B
6. A.J. Pierzynski, C
7. Xander Bogaerts, SS
8. Will Middlebrooks, 3B
9. Jackie Bradley CF
This is just one of a few batting order permutations. Victorino probably emerges as the Jacoby Ellsbury replacement leading off, though a high-OBP guy like Nava is a fit there. Bradley has minor-league experience as a leadoff hitter, but itís questionable whether manager John Farrell puts him in such a high-profile role Ė particularly after the young outfielder struggled against major league pitching in 2013. If Stephen Drew re-signs, that will impact Bogaerts and Middlebrooks. Bogaertsí more consistent bat will get him a spot in the lineup ahead of Middlebrooks. If that bat plays well enough, he could land in the two-hole, pushing Nava (or Jonny Gomes) down to the lower third.
1. Jon Lester
2. John Lackey
3. Clay Buchholz
4. Jake Peavy
5. Felix Doubront
6. Ryan Dempster
Yes, thatís six legitimate starting candidates. And thereís a few more starters at Triple-A that could fill in as a sixth (or fifth) starter should the need should arise. The Red Sox will likely get through spring training without committing to the back end of the rotation until the last possible moment. And there might a trade of its surplus should a need develop elsewhere. Dempster has bullpen experience and seems the likely candidate to fill a long-relief/spot-starter role.
Closer: Koji Uehara - It didnít happen by design, but Uehara emerged as Bostonís closer and perhaps the regular season MVP in 2013. His impeccable fastball command and make-batters-look-foolish splitter played well in 2013. Itís important to note that Uehara was not the closer all season and he logged a career-high in appearances and innings. Manager John Farrell didnít intend to use him in this manner; he said in April that Uehara would not pitch on consecutive days. But his command limited his pitch counts and that efficiency lent to usage on back-to-back days. If there are points in the season when Uehara is not available, we expect Edward Mujica or Junichi Tazawa to get the call.
Key Bullpen Members: The offseason acquisition of Burke Badenhop and Edward Mujica appears to have settled any uncertainty in the bullpen. Those two along with Junichi Tazawa will make up the middle and set up men coming from the right side. Tazawa buckled toward the end of the regular season before righting himself for the postseason. Badenhop and Mujica should keep him fresh for the long haul. If for some reason, the Red Sox need a temp closer, Mujica has experience and manager John Farrell experimented with Tazawa in the role last season prior to settling on Koji Uehara.
From the port side, Craig Breslow and Andrew Miller are expected to earn roster spots. Breslow became a trusted setup man late in the season, but also showed some wear. Miller is coming back from a foot injury. Heís more than a lefty specialist, but thatís his primary usage.
The final spot in the pen could be taken up by Ryan Dempster. If Boston feels comfortable with its starting pitching depth, either Dempster or Jake Peavy could be dangled in a trade. A trade would create room for Brandon Workman, a minor league starter who was used in a relief role for Boston last season and pitched in the World Series. At any rate, this final spot will be taken up by someone stretched out who can pitch long relief, make a spot start, or fill in for a stretch if a starter lands on the disabled list.
Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:
Who replaces Jacoby Ellsbury?
The early favorite to start in center field is Jackie Bradley. The young outfielder was the toast of Fort Myers last spring and forced his way onto the Opening Day roster, never having played an inning above Double-A. The toast loss its fizz when Bradley was given a full glass of major-league pitching. Pitchers jammed him inside and Bradleyís adjustments left him susceptible to pitches on the outer half of the plate. Those early-season struggles showed Bradley needed more development time, and he got that at Triple-A Pawtucket. Is he ready for the bigs the second time around? He probably wonít be the replacement as Bostonís leadoff hitter. Look for Shane Victorino to hit atop the order. The Flyiní Hawaiian has 216 games of experience as a leadoff hitter, more than any other player on Bostonís roster. Daniel Nava (career OBP .369) is also an option.
Whatís the makeup of the left side of the infield?
Last offseason, it was Mike Napoli. This offseasonís contract saga involves Stephen Drew, who won a ring with Boston and then rejected a qualifying offer for a free agency payday. Unfortunately for Drew, the market for shortstops has been a limited one and a return to Boston is a strong possibility. The Red Sox were patient and waited to see how demand developed for the Scott Boras client. Other than Boston, the Mets are the team most often linked to Drew. The Red Sox have stated they are comfortable with Xander Bogaerts at short and Will Middlebrooks at third, should Drew find employment elsewhere. That will leave Boston somewhat thin should either of those young players struggle to hit. Middlebrooks, who was demoted to Triple-A after breaking camp in 2013 as the starter at the hot corner, is the bigger concern.
Whatís a full season of Bogaerts look like?
A full season of Bogaerts in 2014 will not bear any resemblance to a full season in, say, 2016 or 2017. The 21-year-old has a ceiling approaching the better established shortstops in the majors, but here in the present day, he has just 73 plate appearances in the major leagues. To be sure, his at-bats have been high-profile ones, including an impressive run in the postseason when he hit .296/.412/.481, but thereís some uncertainty. Will he have a full-time job? Where will he hit in the batting order? Opponents are amassing a larger book on him and heíll be challenged in 2013. On the bright side, Bogaerts displayed a mature plate approach last year and will get on base. Heíll be safely locked inside a batting order that generates opportunities for RBI and runs.
Can Uehara sustain over a full season?
Uehara was the kind of ho-hum offseason addition that generated little optimism at the time of its announcement: a one-year deal with a vesting option for 2014, if he could make 55 appearances in 2013. He was projected to be part of the setup crew, was not going to be used on consecutive days due to injury history, and was third in line after Joel Hanrahan flamed out as closer. Itís safe to say Uehara exceeded expectations, but he also exceeded his projected workload in 2013 and will be 39 years old when the season opens. The closerís job is all his and heíll be the man from April on. The makeup is there, but is the arm? And whatís Bostonís backup option should Uehara falter? For those in the mood for speculation, thereís Junichi Tazawa and Edward Mujica.
Which Triple-A player could make an impact?
Like Xander Bogaerts in 2013, there are some minor leaguers capable of stepping into Bostonís lineup this season. It will probably come from a stable of young starters at Triple-A Pawtucket. We were introduced to Allen Webster, Brandon Workman, Rubby De La Rosa and Drake Britton in 2013. Of this bunch, Workman was the most valuable, throwing spot starts and becoming an important set up man late. As for position players, outfielder Alex Hassan and third baseman Garin Cecchini are the most developed hitters.
Thereís plenty to like about Boston. The order produces runs and grinds pitchers, thereís reliable defense, the bullpen is deep and the minor league system is one of the top ones in the majors. But itís six-deep starting rotation figures to be an area of greatest strength. Jon Lester at the top returned to form in 2013 after a career-worst 2012. After nearly being run out of town in 2011, John Lackey became a necessary man and pitched well in the postseason. Felix Doubront has problems finishing off hitters and his conditioning is not optimal, but is a reliable fifth starter. Ryan Dempster provides a quality fill-in for pitchers with some injury history, like Clay Buchholz and Jake Peavy.
The one thing that jumps out is overall team speed. The loss of Jacoby Ellsburyís stolen bases, along with his ability to disrupt pitchers and occupy a catcherís concern should make an impact. There are also some depth concerns if injuries or underperformance hits specific positions. If Dustin Pedroia misses significant time, there isnít a ready-made fill-in at second base. And the Red Sox are relying on some young guys without a proven track record, like Jackie Bradley, Will Middlebrooks and Xander Bogaerts.
Rising: Xander Bogaerts - Bogaerts played at three levels of the organization in 2013, including the final few months in Boston, where he earned regular playing time in the playoffs and World Series. He's the unquestioned top prospect in the organization and will have a full-time role when the upcoming campaign opens. Up until last season, Bogaerts was exclusively a shortstop, but the Red Sox had him train at third base next to Stephen Drew. It's presumed that he'll be the everyday shortstop with Drew out of the picture this year, though thereís a good possibility that Drew re-signs. His growth as a hitter in 2013 was displayed by increased patience and a knack for making in-game adjustments at the plate. The one knock on Bogaerts as a hitter was his aggressiveness, but he incorporated patience as part of his hitting plan last season, boosting his walk rate from 0.34 per game in 2012 to last year's 0.53. As we saw in the postseason, he drew some big walks in Boston's World Series run.
Declining: Shane Victorino - Victorino suffered a slew of back/groin/hamstring issues throughout last season and played in just 122 games, but despite the injuries it was a bounce-back year for Boston's right fielder. The Red Sox took some jabs for inking Victorino to a three-year deal in the offseason coming off the worst statistical year of his career in 2012, but it turned out well in the end. Victorino played Gold-Glove winning defense in right field, was a threat on the base paths, and had some key hits, including a grand slam in Boston's clinching Game 6 win over Detroit in the ALCS. The shape of Boston's outfield and batting order will change due to the loss of Jacoby Ellsbury, and Victorino's role in 2014 will adjust because of it. He could be asked to play center field; he could be asked to bat leadoff. Whatever manager John Farrell's plan be for 2014, it will regularly involve Victorino as long as he remains healthy. And therein lies the potential decline. Health is the reason for potentially diminishing returns.
Sleeper: Jackie Bradley - Bradley was a big topic in Boston during spring training, when he strafed the ball during preseason games, earning a spot on the Opening Day roster. However, he didn't fare well once he faced big league pitchers regularly and was soon back at Triple-A Pawtucket. Because it was a level at which he'd never played, the year was one of adjustments for Bradley. He played well for the PawSox, improving his batting average, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS from the previous year at Double-A Portland. Where all this leaves Bradley entering the 2014 season is uncertain, but with Jacoby Ellsbury moving on to New York, Bradley could land on the roster as the starting center fielder and leadoff hitter.
Supersleeper: Garin Cecchini - Cecchiniís sound plate approach continued to show in 2013. He blistered the Carolina League, slashing .350/.469/.547 for High-A Salem before a mid-season promotion to Double-A Portland. He slowed down at Portland, but still managed to post respectable numbers. The power isn't there for him yet, as he had just seven homers in 454 at-bats last season, but he has excellent pitch recognition and manages the strike zone well. Defensively, he can handle the hot corner, but he may not emerge with the kind of slugging ability normally associated with a corner infield spot. Still, his advanced hitting and on-base skills project him as an everyday big leaguer. Third base at the major league level underwent some churn in 2013 with Will Middlebrooks stagnating and the late-season emergence of top prospect Xander Bogaerts, who added the hot corner to his resume. Cecchini will probably start 2014 at Double-A and move to Triple-A, with a shot at seeing some time in Boston.
Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley, Garin Cecchini Ė See above.
Henry Owens, LHP - Owens is a fast-rising prospect, who dominated the High-A Carolina League before earning a promotion to Double-A Portland, where he was equally impressive against more advanced hitters. The tall lefty struck batters out at an 11.3 K/9 clip while limiting opponents to a .177 batting average. Owens was ranked 91 on Baseball America's top 100 prospects list entering the season and will surely ascend those rankings based on his performance in 2013. He's not overpowering -- the fastball ranges between the high-80s and low-90s -- and it tends to lose velocity over the course of games and the season. Walks are still an issue for him and he needs to control the fastball better. His changeup is considered the best offering while his curve, which he can consistently drop in for strikes, lost some velocity over the season. He'll join the major league training camp as a non-roster invite and should open the season in Maine with a promotion to Triple-A a real possibility.
Matt Barnes, RHP - Barnes opened the 2013 season at Double-A Portland following a dominant stretch at both levels of A-ball in 2012. The move up turned out to be a stern test for Barnes, whose pitch efficiency suffered against advanced hitters. His BB/9 rate increased from 2.2 to 3.8 between the two levels and he averaged just 4.5 innings per start. The 6-foot-4 righty was hurt by big innings and an inconsistent ability to throw his secondary stuff for strikes. He finished out his season with a promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket, where his one start was a successful one. The key for Barnes entering 2014 is throwing his secondary offerings for strikes. He commands his low-to-mid 90s fastball well, but neither the changeup nor curveball are considered above average at this point.
Blake Swihart, C Ė Swihart, who will turn 22 before next season, served as a full-time catcher in 2013 and made great strides defensively. He was named Boston's Minor League Defensive Player of the Year after throwing out 42 percent of would-be base-stealers. More importantly, the 175-pounder held up over the grind of catching a full season. Learning the game as a catcher has taken away from Swihart's development as a hitter, but he did alright in that department last year, slashing .298/.366/.428 while increasing his walk total and maintaining a similar number of strikeouts. Along with Christian Vazquez, Swihart represents the catching future in Boston. If Vazquez emerges as the top backstop, Swihart is athletic enough to switch positions (he played third base in high school). It's likely he will open the season at Double-A Portland.