Ft. MYERS, Fla.—The fact is that the Red Sox are supposed to win. They are today’s George Steinbrenner Yankees.
Since John Henry brought Dave Dombrowski in to replace Ben Cherington in August, 2015, they have signed David Price for $217M, traded 13 prospects—some very good—for Craig Kimbrel, Drew Pomeranz, Chris Sale and Tyler Thornburg. The front office has seen a significant exodus.
And they should be very good. To all-stars Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., they add Andrew Benintendi, who might well be the rookie of the year, to form a young, athletic productive and defensive outfield that combined will make less than a middle reliever. Xander Bogaerts is 24 with his arrow pointing upwards. Will they score 101 more runs than any other team in the American League again? Probably not, but offensively and defensively they should be excellent and, with first baseman Sam Travis in Pawtucket and the multi-positional 24-year old Marco Hernandez growing into an important contributor, they have positional depth.
But before they begin printing World Series tickets, there are some questions that have to be answered:
1). What can they expect from David Price? Before in-canting his post-season record, remember he is a career 25-7 in September, has averaged 227 1/3 innings (including the post-season) the last seven years and while one front office executive says “we think we dodged a bullet on his elbow” the reality is that it bothered him, his fastball command was an issue last season, he has “a unique elbow” and hadn’t thrown a pitch to batter through St. Patrick’s Day. The idea was was to have Price, Rick Porcello and Sale at the front of the rotation, three of the eight A.L. starters to average 20 outs an outing (Steven Wright was the fourth), which in turn would allow John Farrell to use his bullpen diligently. There is essentially a blackout on Price information—which is probably good so he doesn’t have to give a daily update—but the fact that he says that if he were younger he’d have had an operation is cause for concern for a fiercely competitive horse.
2). Is there enough starting depth to get through the season? Remember, last season teams averaged 10.4 starters, and only one used less than 9. The good news is that Eduardo Rodriguez has appeared to be healthy and made major strides to this spring and has encouraged them that he has matured to the point where he can give them 30 starts of legitimate power stuff. His knee bears watching, but his fastball command on both sides of the plate has been improved all spring, and the depth of his slider may make that a big pitch for him. If Wright is healthy and the shoulder holds up, he is at the stage of his career where he is like Tim Wakefield, Phil Niekro and R.A. Dickey where he emerges as a reliable knuckleball starter.
Pomeranz’s stem cell treatment of his elbow and the wrap he wears on his arm in the clubhouse is troublesome, and the fact remains that he has never thrown 171 innings in a season. With the help of Brian Bannister and Carl Willis, Kyle Kendrick has thrown like the guy who started 30 games a year for the Phillies and could be possible depth. And Farrell still hopes Henry Owens finds a comfortable armslot and Brian Johnson regains his velocity, curveball, and command in the first two months at Pawtucket. While there are encouraging signs in the lower part of the system, Boston’s lack of development of starting pitching is something they are working to improve.
3). How will the bullpen piece together? Dombrowski loves power arms, and while they gave up a lot for Thornburg, his ability to dominate lefthand hitters (.130/.223/.190, 45 K, 11 BB) seemingly makes him an ideal eighth inning guy who doesn’t require a complimentary lefthanded specialist. But he has been hurt doing the Boston shoulder program, and his return is uncertain. When Joe Kelly ditched the Cardinal sinker-slider mantra(his sinker actually didn’t sink, it skidded into lefties’ batpaths) and went to four-seamers and curveballs he had a monster September, so he, Heath Hembree with major adjustments, Matt Barnes and Robby Ross are part of the rest of the setup for Craig Kimbrel. They will get Brandon Workman back, and there is a possibility Carson Smith could pitch after the All Star Break, and some non-roster pitchers—Jamie Callahan and lefties Edgar Olmos and Jalen Beeks—have opened enough eyes so that if they have to open the optionable expresses to Pawtucket and Portland they could get to 15-8 relievers by the end of August.
4). How much will they miss David Ortiz? Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia, who is in incredible agility shape, have backboned this team for years. Ortiz had a presence and monster production history that will not be duplicated. Hanley Ramirez has seemed joyous in his DH/1B role, Benintendi may bat third, Bogaerts at 24 should keep moving upwards and Ron Washington thinks Mitch Moreland was born for Fenway. Travis likely will make it up at some point, and Chris Young mashes lefthanders. I’m not alone—Hernandez has been the camp story, 4.0 to first, outstanding defense at second and adequate at short and third. Coaches compare his swing to Bernie Williams. They got him for Felix Doubront when Jared Porter was overseeing pro scouting. Porter then went to the Cubs, and now is with Mike Hazen in Arizona.
5). What is Pablo Sandoval? Watch him take ground balls, and his light feet are what they were in his early Giants days, he is getting very low on ground balls and has looked good at third. No one knows if he will hit lefthanded pitchers—he last hit over .200 against them in 2004—and they will learn what power remains after the weight loss. He might be Panda II, then again, using The Wall, if he hits righthanders in the manner of Bill Mueller, they’ll be happy as they await Rafael Devers and Bobby Dalbec. If Josh Rutledge hits, he could play third against lefties.
6). Who catches? Sandy Leon was a savoir for four months, petered out at the end, but gets first shot. Catchers normally need two years off Tommy John Surgery to regain all their skills, and Christian Vazquez is now there. He has altered his plate approach to better utilize his balance, is a decent line drive situational hitter and his throwing seems back to normal. Chili Davis thinks that Blake Swihart has made huge offensive strides this spring and is going to be an offensive threat, but he has started 371 games at catcher (remember, he was a high school shortstop) as a professional, 219 fewer than Gary Sanchez, and with the other two catchers out of options likely will go back to Pawtucket and catch five games a week. Swihart is an exceptional athlete who can run, has a catcher’s legs from his high school days as a champion wrestler, and is a baseball junkie like his sidekick Alex Bregman.
7). If Price, Pomeranz and Thornburg are not available in the first month of the season when they face cold, the Pirates and Cubs, Yankees, Orioles, Blue Jays and the imposing Tampa Bay pitching, will Farrell get blamed, and where does that lead? Boston is tough on managers, so can some folks upstairs. Boston can be tough on a Price, Thornburg, Pomeranz…anyone.
By trading more than a dozen young players, investing $75M in their Big Three starters and closer, the Red Sox are perilously close to crossing the luxury tax threshold, which would have severe economic ramifications in coming years. So there is little that can be added if they are short on starting pitching, and there is pressure to perform from the start, when the Celtics and Bruins playoffs are opposing television options.
They are supposed to win. And they are young enough and good enough to win. But what happens if they’re not doing so the first six weeks of the season might be a NESN soap opera.