The 2018 World Champs are ready to repeat.
Beyond the Box Score will be previewing all 30 teams prior to Opening Day. Luis Torres kicks off the project by tackling last year’s champions, the Boston Red Sox.
It is going to be hard for the Boston Red Sox to follow up a season like 2018, but they are set up beautifully to do so. Thanks to great home grown talent, smart trades, and wise use of the free agent market, the Red Sox are essentially returning the same team from last year, the team that won 108 games and went 11-3 during the postseason on their way to their fourth World Series championship this century.
Returning the same team as last year does not mean that the Red Sox made zero moves this offseason, though they have not exactly been busy either. They are paying World Series MVP Steve Pearce $6.2 million to spend another year in his hometown. More significantly, they brought back Nathan Eovaldi $68 million over four years, who was a World Series hero by his own rights. I don’t care that he lost, his extra-inning performance in Game Three was one of the most impressive things I have ever seen in a baseball game.
The Red Sox lost only a few players this offseason. Ian Kinsler (hardly a impact player at this point of his career) signed with the Padres, which is not surprising because Dustin Pedroia is supposedly ready to be the everyday second baseman again. Injuries are still a concern with him, so I doubt anybody is expecting him to play 150 games this season. I would much rather have hung on to Kinsler than Eduardo Núñez, who was one of the worst players in baseball last year, but at least the team still has the lovable Brock “BrockStar” Holt. (I highly advise you follow his Instagram if you enjoy his particular sense of humor.) It is possible that Núñez was still suffering the ill effects of a knee injury he suffered at the end of 2017. The Sox probably feel the same way, because they could have bought him out this offseason but instead chose to bring him back.
The bullpen suffered some departures in Joe Kelly and Craig Kimbrel (who as of this writing, is still a free agent). Kelly signed a three-year, $25 million deal with the Dodgers. I saw it as a risky move because Kelly’s track record does not merit a three-year deal for a reliever, but I can see the Dodgers rationale behind signing him. He was lights out during the postseason as a result of ditching his slider. As for Kimbrel, it is still possible for him to return to the Red Sox, however, as I wrote in our Free Agent Preview series, his control fluctuates so much that I would not go anywhere near him at the prices that elite relievers command. Teams deserve a lot of criticism for not spending this offseason, but if Kimbrel really is asking for five years as the rumors go, teams can hardly be faulted for staying away.
Speaking of teams not spending, the Red Sox absolutely do not deserve any criticism for that. Why mess with perfection? According to Spotrac, they spent a record $227.4 million in payroll last year, and the number is going up over $238 million this year. This team is so well put together that they do not need to make anymore big free agent moves, and over the next year or two, will likely focus more on signing extensions with their home-grown stars.
This Red Sox lineup is stacked. They led the team in runs scored, and were tied with the A’s and Astros for third in the league by wRC+, just barely behind the Dodgers and Astros. If you want to go by wOBA, which does not account for league and park effects, their .340 wOBA was the best in baseball. What makes that level of offense even more impressive is that they did it with the worst offensive catchers in baseball. Furthermore, that offense suffered 502 PA of a 78 wRC+ from Núñez, and 490 PA of a 90 wRC+ from Rafael Devers.
While we are on the subject of Devers, there is no reason to give up on the 22-year-old, but he really does need to take steps forward in 2019. His third base defense is shaky at best, so he really needs to start hitting in case a move to first base is in his future. That is unlikely to happen this year with Pearce and Mitch Moreland on the team, but next year is a different story.
Of course, the Red Sox still have AL MVP Mookie Betts, who hit .346/.438/.640 in 2018 with elite right field defense and excellent baserunning. He also won the Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, and the Heart & Hustle award. He won all the awards, is what I am trying to say, including my wife’s heart forever, not that I can blame her. Somehow he also won the Cy Young, NFL MVP, last night’s NBA All-Star MVP, and the Nobel Prize. There is just nothing he can’t do. He will be making $20 million this deal, which is a steal for what he can provide.
I expect Mookie Betts to be the lead-off man again, and even though it is strange to have someone who slugged .640 hitting lead-off, it is hard to argue against a speedy player with a .438 OBP at the top of the lineup. I thought it would be more helpful to have Andrew Benintendi hit lead-off and move Betts down one spot, but Benny’s second half struggles made me rethink that. If Benintendi does bounce back to his first half form this year, switching those lineup spots could make a great offense even better. I expect some regression from other offensive stars such as Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martínez, but I still expect this lineup to score lots of runs, especially if some of last year’s lackluster hitters show some improvement.
The catcher situation is one to keep an eye on, as both regulars last year were pretty lousy at the plate. Despite hitting a paltry .207/.257/.283 last year, Christian Vázquez will likely be the starting catcher this year. At least he was worth 1.2 WAR thanks to his pitch-framing. Sandy León is the back-up catcher, who is even further proof that teams value defense in their catchers above all else. His second half numbers were so bad that I am hesitant to post them on a family-friendly site. Blake Swihart is still on the team, but he is really going to have to hit to put pressure on the other two catchers. The thing is that he might be able to do that.
The starting rotation looks to be in good shape, anchored by ace Chris Sale. David Price is started looking more like his old self near the end of last year, especially during the playoffs. The rest of the rotation should be rounded out by Rick Porcello, Nathan Eovaldi, and Eduardo Rodríguez. Steven Wright should be healthy enough to add some depth, but that might not be enough. There is a fair amount of injury history between Sale, Eovaldi, and E-Rod, and you never know what can happen to the rest. If the Sox need further depth beyond Wright, that is going to be a problem.
The one big weakness for the Sox right now looks like their bullpen. I am not sure whom I would pick to pitch in late game, high leverage situations. Maybe Matt Barnes could be the guy if he can continue to keep his strikeout rates close to 36 percent, though he does have control problems. There is not much in the free agent market, and as I alluded to with Kimbrel, it can be very dangerous to overpay for relievers.
The bullpen and starter depth is something that Dave Dombrowski and Alex Cora are really going to need to figure out. The organization’s farm system is pretty weak right now, so they are not going to find their solution there, either directly or through trades.
I expect the Red Sox to win the AL East again, but it will likely be a much tighter race than it was last year, when the Sox basically ran away with the division. FanGraphs projects the Red Sox to win 97 games and win the division by two games over the Yankees. PECOTA is far more bullish on the Yankees, projecting them to win 96 games and take the division by seven games. I am siding with FanGraphs on this one, but the PECOTA outcome is not surprising. If the bullpen performs like the Indians’ last year, and the starting rotation suffers significant injuries, the Wild Card game could be their most likely outcome.
The Red Sox are set up to repeat with the best record in baseball again, but the Yankees and Astros will provide serious challenges. It will be fun to see how it plays out!
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.