2013 MLB Season Preview: Boston Red Sox

Leading up to the 2013 MLB regular season, Greg Kaplan will be taking a close look at all 30 teams, division by division. Along with previewing each team heading into the season, Kaplan will try to predict which teams will be playing baseball deep into the October playoffs, and which teams will be playing golf come that time of year.

American League East

red soxFifth Place – Boston Red Sox

Starting Line-Up –

C – Jarrod Saltalamacchia (27) – 121 games, .222/.288/.454, 25HR 59RBI, 55 runs, team-high 139 strikeouts

1B – Mike Napoli (31) – 108 games, .227/.343/.469, 24HR 56RBI, 53 runs, 2012 All-Star (w/ Texas Rangers)

2B – Dustin Pedroia (29) – 141 games, .290/.347/.449, 15HR 65RBI, 81 runs, 39 doubles, 20 steals

3B – Will Middlebrooks (24) – 75 games, .288/.325/.509, 15HR 54RBI, 34 runs, 120 OPS+

SS – Stephen Drew (30) – 79 games, .223/.309/.348, 7HR 28RBI, 38 runs (w/ Arizona Diamondbacks and Oakland A’s)

LF – Jonny Gomes (32) – 99 games, .262/.377/.491, 18HR 47RBI, 46 runs, 140 OPS+ (w/ Oakland A’s)

CF – Jacoby Ellsbury (29) – 74 games, .271/.313/.370, 4HR 26RBI, 43 runs, 18 doubles, 14 steals

RF – Shane Victorino (32) – 154 games, .255/.321/.383, 11HR 55RBI, 72 runs, 29 doubles, 39 steals (w/ Philadelphia Philles and Los Angeles Dodgers)

DH – David Ortiz (37) – 90 games, .318/.415/.611, 23HR 60RBI, 65 runs, 26 doubles 171 OPS+, 2012 All-Star

David+Ortiz+Jacoby+Ellsbury+Baltimore+Orioles+Ah8iG78ztcplThe Good News –

When everybody is healthy and in the line-up every day, this is a very powerful group from top to bottom. David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia are still two players that can carry a line-up and help produce runs. Mike Napoli will be a good influx of muscle in the middle that the Red Sox lacked from first base before, during and after the Adrian Gonzalez era. The Red Sox will also have a nice balance of speed near the top of the order, with free agent addition Shane Victorino joining Jacoby Ellsbury in the outfield to keep opposing pitchers uncomfortable when either one is on the base paths.

Speaking of Ellsbury, depending how you look at it, he is in the final year of his contract before officially hitting free agency. Not trying to forecast where he will call home in 2014, for the sake of the 2013 Red Sox, it’s probably the best situation to have Ellsbury in. It has been a struggle for their once-budding star to stay healthy, and Ellsbury will want to prove he’s completely healthy and capable of playing a high level in center to build his stock back up on the open market. Should Ellsbury have the monster year he’s absolutely capable of having, it may be bad news for the 2014 Red Sox in the sense they might not be able to re-sign him, but it’ll make the 2013 Red Sox a much stronger team, and more capable of competing with the other teams in the East.

Mike NapoliThe Bad News –

In theory, yes, this is a powerful line-up that has a strong complement of speed. However, it has been a very long time since all of these players were healthy at the same time. Even in the off-season when they were trying to finalize the Mike Napoli contract, a potential lingering hip injury forced Boston to re-work the deal from three years to one. Jacoby Ellsbury has had only one truly healthy season in Boston and will be playing this year in a potential walk year. It’s been a number of years since their new shortstop, Stephen Drew, was both healthy and productive. When you include Will Middlebrooks, who was a pleasant surprise in his rookie year before getting shut down with an injury, a total of five Red Sox expected in the starting line-up are coming off injury-shortened years. Only Dustin Pedroia played in 140+ games last season. In a division that’s tough from top to bottom like the American League East, the Red Sox will need everyone playing at their absolute best and staying healthy all the way through the season.

Also, though it’s maybe the 12th-biggest storyline for the Sox this year, I’d keep an eye on Jonny Gomes out in left. Yes, he was a big surprise last year in Oakland and finished with an OPS+ of 140. However, numerous teams have tried to go down the Gomes route in terms of giving him a full-time gig. There’s a reason he’s bounced around the league in his young career. He’s probably best used in a platoon-type role. Again, Gomes won’t be the reason the Sox win or lose this year. Just wanted to mention it.

Starting Rotation –

Ace – Jon Lester (29) – 33 starts, 205.1 IP, 9-14, 4.82 ERA, 166 Ks (7.3 K/9), 2.44 K/BB, 1.38 WHIP

#2 – Ryan Dempster (35) – 28 starts, 173 IP, 12-8, 3.38 ERA, 153 Ks (8.0 K/9), 2.94 K/BB, 1.20 WHIP (w/ Chicago Cubs and Texas Rangers)

#3 – Clay Buchholz (28) – 29 starts, 189.1 IP, 11-8, 4.56 ERA, 129 Ks (6.1 K/9), 2.02 K/BB, 1.33 WHIP

#4 – Felix Doubront (25) – 29 starts, 161 IP, 11-10, 4.86 ERA, 167 Ks (9.3 K/9), 2.35 K/BB, 1.45 WHIP

#5 - John Lackey (34) – Missed 2012 due to Tommy John surgery

The Good News –

It’s almost impossible for the Red Sox starting pitching to be as poor as they were last year. I’m willing to give both Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz a re-do after their unusually poor 2012 campaigns. The addition of Ryan Dempster to the rotation will give it the sort of veteran leadership Boston clearly lacked under the command of Josh Beckett along with more consistency to boot. That, and the return of John Lackey should provide a little more depth and innings from their starting pitchers.

John Lackey Red SoxThe Bad News –

John Lackey is back. I mean, seriously. This guy has been atrocious since he came to Boston from Los Angeles. An argument can be made that a large reason why Lackey has struggled since his arrival was because he was playing hurt, and Tommy John surgery should correct a lot of his problems. However, I’ll believe that when I see it.

Also, while I’m one to give Lester and Buchholz a re-do, buying low into their stock going into the season, I believe I’m in the minority with that opinion. Take into account September of 2011, and it has been a long time since any Red Sox starting pitcher has been overly effective on the mound. Talk that pitchers were misused under Bobby Valentine and quit on their manager is out there, but I don’t buy into it. Then again, that may be my blind allegiance to Bobby V talking, seeing as I’d trade my first-born for the Mets to bring him back into the fold…

Furthermore, it’s important to note that when Ryan Dempster left the Cubs for the Rangers, all of his numbers took a turn for the worst. It’s hard to blame the ballpark for Dempster’s numbers tanking, as there are few parks that play smaller than Wrigley Field when the wind is blowing out. Needless to say, the Red Sox will need Chicago’s Dempster and not Texas’ Dempster to help stabilize the rotation.

Either way you look at it, with how other line-ups in the American League East are stacked up, the Red Sox will need exceptional starting pitching in order to compete. Are these five arms slated to break camp and head north capable of doing that? It’s possible, but it’s been a very long time since they all performed at an elite level at the same time.

Bench –

C David Ross (36) – 62 games, .256/.321/.449, 9HR 23RBI (w/ Atlanta Braves)

IF Pedro Ciriaco (27) – 76 games, .293/.315/.390, 2HR 19RBI, 33 runs, 15 doubles, 16 steals

OF Daniel Nava (30) – 88 games, .243/.352/.390, 6HR 33RBI, 38 runs, 21 doubles

C Ryan Lavarnway (25) – 46 games, .157/.211/.248, 2HR 12RBI

The Skinny -

I anticipate Ryan Sweeney replacing Ryan Lavarnway on the Opening Day roster, as GM Ben Cherington has already committed to having Lavarnway start the season in the Minors. But, with Lavarnway graduating from top prospect territory, I wanted to take a small amount of time out to write about him. Along with Travis d’Arnaud in New York and Mike Zunino in Seattle, Lavarnway is one of the top catching prospects in baseball, but left much to be desired last year in his 46-game audition. Work will need to be done in AAA this year to re-establish his stock, but people shouldn’t close the door completely on this kid. He’s a much better balance of contact and power than current catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

As far as the rest of the bench goes, Pedro Ciriaco was one of the only bright spots Boston had last season. He emerged mid-season as a solid utility guy that can step in for a couple of games if a player is sidelined with an injury. David Ross is a nice addition both from a back-up catching perspective and a quality clubhouse presence perspective. The Red Sox put an emphasis on adding quality bats and even better attitudes to their locker room with Ross, Gomes and Shane Victorino. Will it lead to more wins, however, is the question at hand.

Bullpen –

Closer – Joel Hanrahan (R) (31) – 63 games, 59.2 IP, 5-2, 2.72 ERA, 36 saves, 67 Ks (10.1 K/9), 1.86 K/BB, 1.27 WHIP – 2012 All-Star (w/ Pittsburgh Pirates)

Set-Up Man – Andrew Bailey (R) (28) – 19 games, 15.1 IP, 1-1, 7.04 ERA, 6 saves, 14 Ks (8.2 K/9), 1.75 K/BB, 1.89 WHIP

Middle Reliever – Koji Uehara (R) (38) – 37 games, 36.0 IP, 0-0, 1.75 ERA, 1 save, 43 Ks (10.8 K/9), 14.33 K/BB, 0.64 WHIP (w/ Texas Rangers)

Middle Reliever – Junichi Tazawa (R) (26) – 37 games, 44.0 IP, 1-1, 1.43 ERA, 1 save, 45 Ks (9.2 K/9), 9.00 K/BB, 0.96 WHIP

Middle Reliever – Alfredo Aceves (R) (30) – 69 games, 84.0 IP, 2-10, 5.36 ERA, 25 saves, 75 Ks (8.0 K/9), 2.42 K/BB, 1.32 WHIP

Middle Reliever – Craig Breslow (L) (32) – 63 games, 63.1 IP, 3-0, 2.70 ERA, 61 Ks (8.7 K/9), 2.77 K/BB, 1.17 WHIP (w/ Arizona Diamondbacks and Boston Red Sox)

Long Reliever – Franklin Morales (L) (27) – 37 games (9 starts), 76.1 IP, 3-4, 3.77 ERA, 1 save, 76 Ks (9.0 K/9), 2.53 K/BB, 1.23 WHIP

tumblr_m9ueokvIM91qhf6cco1_500The Skinny –

As bad as Boston’s starters were last year, the bullpen found a way to be worse. It became comical any time the Red Sox had a late lead that would quickly go away once the game was trusted to certain relievers.

The Red Sox believe they’ve done enough in terms of re-making the bullpen by bringing in Joel Hanrahan and Koji Uehara, plus a return to health for Andrew Bailey and making him the go-to set-up man. To me, Uehara is probably the better of the two relievers, even though it’ll be Hanrahan getting the saves. Uehara was nearly unhittable late in games for Texas last year, and does not issue free passes. On the other hand, Hanrahan was able to rack up a lot of saves in Pittsburgh, but he is a bit erratic. His ever-rising walk numbers need to be a cause for concern, but even with the free passes, he’s still light years better than what Boston had late in games last year.

As for Andrew Bailey, he could be an interesting trade chip should he be able to re-establish his value as a late-inning reliever. If the Red Sox stay competitive this year, having him, Uehara and Hanrahan at the end of games will make each game shorter for the opposition. Also, I’d keep an eye out for Junichi Tazawa. Recently converted from a starter to reliever, Tazawa really found his stride late last season and became a true asset for the Red Sox moving forward. Should he take another step forward, Boston will unquestionably have one of the more formidable bullpens in the league.

Top 10 Prospects (from MLB.com)

1. SS Xander Bogaerts – Expected to start 2013 in AA

Since the Red Sox traded Hanley Ramirez to the Marlins in the Josh Beckett deal, they’ve had a parade of shortstop prospects that haven’t lived up to their hype. However, Bogaerts may be the exception from the other shortstops the Red Sox have had in their system. Defensively speaking, Bogaerts is ready right now to compete for Gold Gloves, and last year hit .307 with 20 home runs between Single-A and AA last year. He’s right now the fourth-best shortstop prospect in baseball, but is probably a full year away from starting in Boston, having yet to conquer AA and AAA.

2. OF Jackie Bradley - Expected to start 2013 in AA

Joining Bogaerts in AA would be the other highly touted Red Sox prospect, Jackie Bradley. Bradley proved to be too much for Single-A in his first full year of Minor League baseball, but slowed down a tick once he faced stiffer competition in AA. He still managed to hit .315 for the year between the two levels, a high for any Boston minor leaguer. His power hasn’t translated into home runs yet, but his 42 doubles and 24 steals highlight his potential both on the bases and in the batters box. Profiling as a plus defender in center helps underline his value, and should the Red Sox lose Ellsbury to free agency at the end of the year, they’ll be able to immediately insert Bradley into the starting line-up.

3. RHP Matt Barnes – Expected to start 2013 in AA

The Red Sox first round pick in 2011 has all the talent in the world to one day soon be a front-line starting pitcher. He struck out 133 batters in 119.2 innings during his first full year in the Minors. Given his size (6’4″) and his mid-90s fastball, it’s not impossible to see Barnes continue to churn through the Minors and potentially be in the Red Sox rotation by spring of 2014.

4. RHP Allen Webster – Expected to start 2013 in AAA

Of the six Top 100 prospects the Red Sox have in their system, Webster is probably the closest to making a significant impact on the Major League roster. Webster was the prize of the massive salary dump that sent Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett on their way to Los Angeles. Webster still has some work to do on his secondary pitches, making him a possible bullpen candidate in the long run. However, the Red Sox should give him every opportunity to start and establish his value their. He’s probably the first candidate for the Red Sox rotation should one of their starters continue to struggle or go down with an injury.

5. LHP Henry Owens - Expected to start 2013 in High-A

Much of the hype for the young, lanky lefty that Boston drafted out of high school has to do a lot with his stuff. Owens, who won’t turn 21 until July, struck out 130 batters in only 101.2 innings last year in Low-A ball. Unlike the four players above him on their Top 10 list, Owens is, at minimum, more than a year away from making a meaningful impact in the Majors. However, how he continues to develop his secondary pitch offerings and his command will determine if he’s a middle-of-the-rotation starter or a potential ace.

6. SS Jose Iglesias – Expected to start 2013 in AAA

There is no question that if Jose Iglesias started 2013 in the Majors with Boston, he’d give Elvis Andrus a run for his money for the Gold Glove. Iglesias is without question the best defensive shortstop in the minors, but there is enough concern over his ability to produce enough offensively that the Red Sox felt the need to sign Stephen Drew to a one-year deal in the off-season. He only hit .266 in AAA last year, doesn’t walk nearly enough to justify the low average and will never hit for power. However, he did just turn 23, so it’s not like time is working against him. Should Iglesias even match his .266 average at the AAA level in the Majors, that’ll be plenty good enough to start him everyday with how well he plays defensively. However, the Red Sox decided they needed a little more than that from short this year.

7. OF Bryce Brentz – Expected to start 2013 in AAA

Depending on how Jonny Gomes performs in left field this year, there was an outside chance that Brentz could’ve been in Boston by May. But, Brentz literally shot himself in the leg in the off-season, and likely won’t be fully healthy until Spring Training is winding down. Two years ago, Brentz clobbered 30+ home runs in the Minors, and didn’t disappoint last year, hitting 17 home runs, 30 doubles and posting a .296/.355/.478 line in AA. Should he get healthy, there is still a chance he sees playing time in Boston in 2013.

8. 3B Garin Cecchini – Expected to start 2013 in High-A

Finally putting injuries aside for a full season, Cecchini began to show what he was capable of in his first full Minor League season. Cecchini has a great chance to develop some more pop that will turn a few of his 38 doubles in 2012 into home runs. He also stole 51 bases while posting a .305/.394/.433 line. Should Cecchini come close to duplicating that type of success one level higher, he’ll easily break into the Top 100 prospect list heading into the 2014 season.

9. C Blake Swihart – Expected to start 2013 in High-A

A first round pick in 2011, Swihart won’t turn 21 until Opening Day. He didn’t kick down the gates in his first full year in the minors, and will definitely need to develop some more patience at the plate. However, there is always value in switch-hitting catchers that can develop pop the more they develop. Swihart may be primed for a big break-out in 2013.

10. SS Devan Marrero – Expected to start 2013 in Low-A

A 2012 first round pick, Marrero has plenty of speed and ability to stick at shortstop as he continues to develop. However, he’ll have to do better than the .268/.358/.374 line he put up in short-season New York-Penn league to be considered on the same level as Bogaerts and Iglesias that stand in his way in the Red Sox system.

In Summary –

Even the most optimistic of Red Sox fans don’t believe Boston will be a playoff team this year. Too many things have to go right for them, while also going wrong in the four other cities that make up their division. In any other division in baseball, the Red Sox would not be viewed as a last-place team. They have more talent then that. However, someone is going to have to finish last in the East. Unfortunately for Boston fans, it appears that the Red Sox will be taking that dishonor in 2013.

Season Prediction – 78-84, last in the American League East