2014 MLB Season Preview: Boston Red Sox

Red Sox

It may still be cold outside and snowing in some portions of the country, but spring is nonetheless in the air. 

With the baseball season just around the corner, Greg Kaplan and Alex Herd preview each of the 30 MLB teams and how they will fair in 2014, division-by-division. 

American League East

Baltimore Orioles / Boston Red Sox (97-65 last year)

Starting Line-Up

C: A.J. Pierzynski (37) – 134 games, .272/.297/.425, 17 HR, 70 RBI, 48 runs, 24 doubles, 94 OPS+, 1.6 bWAR (with Rangers)

1B: Mike Napoli (32) – 139 games, .259/.360/.482, 23 HR, 92 RBI, 79 runs, 187 strikeouts, 129 OPS+, 4.1 bWAR

2B: Dustin Pedroia (30) – 160 games, .301/.372/.415, 9 HR, 84 RBI, 91 runs, 17 SB, 116 OPS+, 6.5 bWAR – All-Star, Gold Glove, Finished 7th in MVP Voting

3B: Will Middlebrooks (25) – 94 games, .227/.271/.425, 17 HR, 49 RBI, 41 runs, 98 strikeouts, 88 OPS+, -0.1 bWAR

SS: Xander Bogaerts (21) – 18 games, .250/.320/.364, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 7 runs, 13 strikeouts, 88 OPS+, 0.3 bWAR

LF: Daniel Nava (30) – 134 games, .303/.385/.445, 12 HR, 66 RBI, 77 runs, 51 walks, 128 OPS+, 2.9 bWAR

CF: Jackie Bradley Jr. (23) – 37 games, .189/.280/.337, 3 HR, 10 RBI, 18 runs, 31 strikeouts, 69 OPS+, -0.3 bWAR

RF: Shane Victorino (33) – 122 games, .294/.351/.451, 15 HR, 61 RBI, 82 runs, 21 SB, 119 OPS+, 6.2 bWAR Gold Glove, Finished 22nd in MVP Voting

DH: David Ortiz (38) – 137 games, .309/.395/.564, 30 HR, 103 RBI, 84 runs, 38 doubles, 160 OPS+, 4.4 bWAR All-Star, Silver Slugger, Finished 10th in MVP Voting

Good News:

Dustin PedroiaThe Red Sox are coming off a World Series victory and kept most of the lineup together which is a good sign.  The key departures, Jacoby Ellsbury, Stephen Drew, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia are tough to replace but the Red Sox do have the talent to at least start to fill the holes, even if they don’t get all the way there.

Sox fans may be disappointed in losing Salty after the 28-year-old veteran posted a career year in 2013 with a .273/.338/.466 line and an fWAR of 3.6.  However, these numbers are largely inflated by a BABIP 50 points above his career average, where in reality, his triple slash was well above his usual performance and his ISO was down from the previous 2 years (not to mention that 3.6 fWAR accounting for more than half of his 7 year career fWAR).  To replace Salty, the Sox brought in A.J. Pierzynski on a one year contract whose career numbers are a small step up from Saltalamacchia and gives the Red Sox more flexibility down the road for long term deals.

To replace Stephen Drew, the Red Sox will be turning to MLB.com’s #2 prospect Xander Bogaerts.  Bogaerts made his major league debut last season and found his way on to the playoff roster, becoming the youngest Red Sox player to ever play in the playoffs at just 20 years old. He’s a solid defender and has a lot of power to go with a good approach at the plate.  With young players, it’s often hard to project how they’ll play but Bogaerts handled himself well against major league pitching last season and could do a great job making up for the loss of Drew in his first full season.

We’ll get to who will be replacing Ellsbury shortly but first, let’s look at who is still around from the championship team.  3 of their 9 starters received MVP votes last season which demonstrates just how talented the team is.  Dustin Pedroia had one of his best seasons, finishing in the top 10 in MVP voting, winning a Gold Glove, thanks to a double digit UZR and DRS, and going to the All-Star game. Pedroia has been very consistent his entire career and should keep it up heading into 2014.

David Ortiz is coming off a 160 OPS+ season where he led the league in intentional walks and may be worthy of the name the Ageless Wonder (some attribute the performance to steroids but I’m an innocent until proven guilty guy so I’m going to go with talent).  Although it should only be a matter of time before Ortiz begins to decline, his numbers don’t show it yet.  His ISO (.255) was in line with his career average (.262) and his BABIP (.321) was not far above his average (.305) so it may possible for Ortiz to put up similar numbers again in 2014.

Shane Victorino posted the highest WAR of his career and got a Gold Glove with a great UZR of 25 from RF along with 24 runs saved in 2013.  At the plate, Victorino had his 8th straight season of double digit HR and SB and had his 5th season with an OPS+ of over 100 in the last 6 years.  Amazingly, he did this despite posting a considerably worse walk rate (4.7%) and strikeout rate (14.1%) than his career numbers (7.4% and 11.9% respectively). If Victorino can continue to be more patient at the plate, his numbers should stay high even if faced with some regression.

Mike Napoli was a welcomed addition to the Red Sox, hitting 23 HR and scoring an OPS+ of 129.  His power numbers were great, achieving an ISO of .223 as well as playing strong defense, posting a UZR of 9.7 and DRS of 10.  Will Middlebrooks took on a bigger role with the team and while he didn’t put up very good numbers, his power numbers could not be ignored.  He had 17 HR in only 94 games and had an ISO of almost .200.  Plus, his .263 BABIP suggests that his average could be due for an improvement during the next season.  Daniel Nava also had a breakout year, posting a .303 average and an OPS+ of 128.

The Red Sox did lose some of their talent on offense but they have done a good job filling the lineup with strong hitters.  Since the core of the lineup is so strong, they should be able to overcome a good portion of the losses they suffered this offseason.

Bad News:

Mike NapoliAs good as the Red Sox lineup is, there’s no way to fully cover the losses of Ellsbury and Drew who combined for an fWAR of 9.2 in 2013.  Bogaerts could be a strong option to replace Drew but the Red Sox will turn to MLB.com’s #33 prospect, Jackie Bradley Jr. to cover Ellsbury, and there are a lot more concerns there.  Bradley is gold glove caliber defender but he struggled in the 107 plate appearances he got in 2013.  It’s a small sample size and there’s plenty of reason to suspect Bradley can pull it together in 2014 but he doesn’t have the power and speed combo that Ellsbury brought to the table and he’ll need to play at his ceiling to fully plug the Ellsbury sized hole.

It’s worth mentioning that there is no guarantee Bradley takes the CF spot coming out of Spring Training.  The Red Sox signed Grady Sizemore who is expected to compete for the starting job during spring training.  Sizemore has had 7 surgeries since 2009 and has not played in a game since 2011 so it’s hard to imagine him being capable of being an everyday player.  In his prime, Sizemore was a premiere power and speed threat who received MVP votes in 4 consecutive seasons so if he somehow has recovered enough to be more than a shadow of his former self, he may be able to steal the job.  Given the high hopes for Bradley, I think the job will go to him to start the year but Sizemore represents some good depth and, if nothing else, will keep Bradley on top of his game.

Now time for some nitpicking.  As good as Napoli was, he is simply due for some regression.  He had a BABIP of .367 and an incredibly high K% of 32.4 leading to 187 strikeouts.  Even though his 13.3 UZR/150 was nice in the field, his previous high at 1B was three years prior with 1.7 so unless he suddenly got more than 5 times better in field, I would expect some regression there as well.

Bench

1B/OF Mike Carp – 86 games, .296/.362/.523, 9 HR, 43 RBI, 34 runs, 18 doubles, 140 OPS+, 1.3 bWAR

David Ross – 36 games, .216/.298/.382, 4 HR, 10 RBI, 11 runs, 42 strikeouts, 86 OPS+, 0.7 bWAR

OF Jonny Gomes – 116 games, .247/.344/.426, 13 HR, 52 RBI, 49 runs, 43 walks, 111 OPS+, 1.2 bWAR

IF Jonathan Herrera – 81 games, .292/.336/.364, 1 HR, 16 RBI, 16 runs, 2 triples, 83 OPS+, 0.3 bWAR (with the Rockies)

Skinny

One of the concerns in the Red Sox starting lineup is the left side of their infield and their bench does nothing to help ease those.  Jonathan Herrera has never had an OPS+ of more than 83 and has a career OBP of only .325 all while playing for the Rockies.  Defensively, Herrera has played well at 2B (career DRS of 15) but not as well at SS (DRS of -1) or 3B (DRS of -3).

David Ross doesn’t offer much help at the plate with his career AVG of .237 but he plays well enough defensively to not be a liability when taking over for Pierzynski.  Unfortunately for the Red Sox, the same cannot be said about the defense of Jonny Gomes and Mike Carp.  Gomes has a -12.4 UZR/150 for his career in the OF and a career DRS of -50 which is pretty terrible.  Carp’s defensive numbers aren’t much better, although he is much better at 1B than the OF.

Carp is coming off his best offensive season and although he’s due for some regression (his BABIP was 52 points higher than his career average) his ISO was outstanding so he may be able to provide some power off the bench.  Additionally, Carp’s ability to handle both RHP and LHP is a nice tool to have off the bench.  Gomes is also coming off a pretty good season at the plate and may see time against LHP in place of Nava.  Gomes has done well against lefties in his career posting a .277/.377/.502 line and wRC+ of 136 against them.

The Sox bench won’t bring much in the way of defense but they have some key role players they can bring to the plate in different hitting scenarios.

Starting Rotation

Ace: Jon Lester – 33 games, 15-8, 3.75 ERA, 213.1 IP, 7.5 K/9, 2.64 K/BB, 1.29 WHIP, 109 ERA+, 3.0 bWAR

#2: John Lackey – 29 games, 10-13, 3.52 ERA, 189.1 IP, 7.7 K/9, 4.03 K/BB, 1.16 WHIP, 116 ERA+, 2.8 bWAR

#3: Clay Buchholz – 16 games, 12-1, 1.74 ERA, 108.1 IP, 8.0 K/9, 2.67 K/BB, 1.03 WHIP, 234 ERA+, 4.3 bWAR All-Star

#4: Jake Peavy – 23 games, 12-5, 4.17 ERA, 144.2 IP, 7.5 K/9, 3.36 K/BB, 1.15 WHIP, 101 ERA+, 1.5 bWAR (with White Sox and Red Sox)

#5: Ryan Dempster – 32 games, 8-9, 4.57 ERA, 171.1 IP, 8.2 K/9, 1.99 K/BB, 1.45 WHIP, 89 ERA+, -0.2 bWAR

Good News:

Jon LesterAs far as rotations go, the Red Sox have very little to complain about.  Jon Lester had his best year since 2010 and has been consistent for most of his career.  Although his strikeout rate is not as good as it once was, he has lowered his walk rate.  Lester also has not had an xFIP above 4.00 since 2008 and had gone over 200 IP in 5 of his last six seasons demonstrating how reliable he’s been.

After missing all of 2012, John Lackey returned to post his best strikeout rate since 2004 and the best walk rate of his career which lead to a very nice 4.03 K/BB rate.  The question for Lackey is whether he can keep those kind of numbers up or if 2013 was an anomaly.  He did lead the league in ERA in 2007 so he has the talent, plus his xFIP of 3.49 is a good sign that he could repeat last year’s performance.

Clay Buchholz was easily one of the best pitchers in the majors before getting injured in 2013.  Even though his 1.74 ERA is completely unsustainable, he’s a very strong #3 pitcher even if he regresses to his career average.  The Red Sox will be more than happy with an ERA of 3.60 out of their third SP.

Bad News:

There isn’t a whole lot of bad news for the Sox’s rotation.  Jake Peavy has had his own injury concerns which have kept him from starting 30 games more than once since 2007.  Peavy’s 4.04 ERA during his 10 starts with Boston last season was just average and he hasn’t shown really dominant stuff consistently enough to come to expect it from him.  That being said, Peavy is only the #4 starter so an ERA just over 4.00 from a veteran isn’t something that will hurt the Sox as long as he can stay healthy.

One of the Spring Training battles to keep an eye on is who will get the last spot in the rotation.  Ryan Dempster is currently projected to take the spot but Felix Doubront is expected to get a shot to take it heading into the season.  Dempster is the favorite to win the job mainly because of his $13 million+ contract since it’s hard to imagine him not getting a chance to pitch with what they’re paying him.  If that’s the case, Dempster may be a weakness since his first season in Boston resulted in a pedestrian 4.57 ERA and 4.1 BB/9.  Last year was the first season since 2008 that Dempster recorded an fWAR lower than 2.5 so there’s a good chance he got a bit unlucky and since we’re talking about the last guy in the rotation, the Red Sox won’t complain too much about those numbers from him.

As for Doubront, he’s pitched well the past 2 seasons, compiling an fWAR of 4.8 in that time.  If there’s a criticism of him it’s that he does walk a lot of hitters (4.01 BB/9 in his career) but again we’re talking about a potential #5 starter.  The position battle will ultimately come down to the shape Doubront shows up in and how comfortable management is leaving $13 million out of the rotation but pitching depth isn’t a bad thing to have.  If you haven’t noticed, the “bad news” for the Red Sox rotation is mostly good things which shows the level of talent they’ve built there.  Buchholz and Peavy will need to stay healthy but otherwise hard to dislike the starting 5 they’ll bring out on opening day.

Bullpen

Closer: Koji Uehara – 73 games, 4-1, 1.09 ERA, 74.1 IP, 21 saves, 13 holds, 12.2 K/9, 11.22 K/BB, 0.57 WHIP, 376 ERA+ Finished 7th in Cy Young voting, finished 19th in MVP voting

Set-Up Man: Edward Mujica – 65 games, 2-1, 2.78 ERA, 64.2 IP, 37 saves, 5 holds, 6.4 K/9, 9.2 K/BB, 1.01 WHIP, 131 ERA+ All-Star (with Cardinals)

MR: Junichi Tazawa – 71 games, 5-4, 3.16 ERA, 68.1 IP, 25 holds, 9.5 K/9, 6 K/BB, 1.20 WHIP, 130 ERA+

MR: Craig Breslow – 61 games, 5-2, 1.81 ERA, 59.2 IP, 13 holds, 5 K/9, 1.83 K/BB, 1.12 WHIP, 226 ERA+

MR: Andrew Miller – 37 games, 1-2, 2.64 ERA, 30.2 IP, 6 holds, 14.1 K/9, 2.82 K/BB, 1.37 WHIP, 156 ERA+

MR: Burke Badenhop – 63 games, 2-3, 3.47 ERA, 62.1 IP, 5 holds, 6.1 K/9, 3.5 K/BB, 1.19 WHIP, 114 ERA+ (with Brewers)

LR: Felix Doubront- 29 games, 11-6, 4.32 ERA, 162.1 IP, 7.7 K/9, 1.96 K/BB, 1.43 WHIP, 94 ERA+

Skinny:

Koji UeharaA look at the ERA+ of the members of the Red Sox bullpen should tell you all you need to know: they’re very good and shouldn’t miss Joel Hanrahan or Andrew Bailey too much.  Koji Uehara picked up 21 saves last season and has had double digit K/9 rates in each season since his rookie year.  Even more ridiculous was his 1.09 ERA.  It seems impossible to repeat but Uehara’s career xFIP is 2.85 (2.08 last season) and the Red Sox still have a very good defense so there really may not be a ton of regression for him.  Lefty Craig Breslow helped anchor the pen with his incredible 226 ERA+ in 61 games and while those numbers are not sustainable, his career ERA+ is 149 so he’ll be just fine.

Edward Mujica got 37 saves with the Cardinals and had his third straight year with an ERA+ of at least 130 in 2013.  Andrew Miller is the other lefty, and he has improved each year with the Red Sox including a phenomenal 2.64 ERA and 14.1 K/9 with an even more absurd 15.8 K/9 and 1.33 xFIP against lefties.

Junichi Tazawa and newcomer Burke Badenhop aren’t unhittable but fill in the back end of the bullpen nicely and are better options than most teams have that deep in the pen.  Add whoever loses the battle between Doubront and Dempster to round things out and that’s a very deep bullpen with a lot of options for the 2014 season.  Badenhop isn’t guaranteed a spot as Jose Mijares, Brandon Workman, and Alex Wilson may compete for his spot. Mijares would be a lefty specialist, something the Red Sox don’t need since they have two strong lefties in the pen already.  Workman pitched very well in 20 games last season but with the Sox trading for Badenhop, Workman may start in AAA to begin the season.  Wilson is the odd man out with the worst showing in 2013 of the other 3 so Badenhop remains the favorite for now, but of course things can change.  Just like with their rotation, having a lot of depth in the bullpen is never a bad thing.

Top 10 Prospects (Baseball Prospectus)

1. SS Xander Bogaerts

2. OF Jackie Bradley Jr.

3. 3B Garin Cecchini

4. RHP Matt Barnes

5. LHP Henry Owens

6. C Blake Swihart

7. LHP Allen Webster

8. 2B Mookie Betts

9. C Christian Vazquez

10. RHP Trey Ball

Skinny:

The top 2 Red Sox prospects will be in their starting lineup right out of the gate (unless Sizemore wins the job) so we’ll get to see how they do in their first full season.  Webster, Barnes, and Owens all could see some time in the majors sooner rather than later, not that the Red Sox need the extra pitching depth.

Of the position players, Cecchini is the one most likely to see time in the majors although it might not be until 2015.  He’s crushed it at every level he’s played at so far, earning a promotion to AA last year where he got on base to the tune of a .420 OBP.  Even with all the talent the Red Sox have, they still boast an impressive farm system that can provide depth and trade options during the year.

Season Projection:

The Red Sox are coming off an AL East championship as well as winning the World Series so they have a good starting point.  The team did lose some of their prowess on offense and they’ll rely on a lot of younger, more raw, talent to keep it up.  It would not be unreasonable to expect the Red Sox to decline a bit offensively while the youngsters get acclimated to being everyday players at the major league level.  That being said, hopes are high and if they rise to expectations, the offense will be tough to stop.

As far as pitching, it should be clear by the fact that I struggled to find anything worthy of bad news just how strong their staff is from ace through back of the bullpen.  If the staff can stay healthy, the sky is the limit.  The Red Sox should be right in the mix for the AL East but I think the loss of Ellsbury and Drew will be enough to keep them from repeating as division champs, though they’ll win 90+ games and take the wild card.

Projected Record: 93-69, 2nd in AL East, #1 Wild Card