The Boston Red Sox: A Study in Extremes

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Trying to predict the American League East in 2015 seems about as straightforward as solving a Rubik’s Cube while blindfolded. This division looks as competitive as ever, even though every team has potentially fatal flaws. After a busy off-season, the popular pick to win the East, seemingly by default, is the Boston Red Sox.

Going first-to-worst-to-first in consecutive years would be quite the accomplishment, but minimally surprising considering the lavish club’s financial situation (projected payroll of just over $178.5 million), and the fact that 2014 was an utmost aberration for the perennial playoff contender.

GM Ben Cherington has taken advantage of his team’s immense affluence, inking free agents Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval to enormous new contracts that amass to nearly $200 million in total. Whether they overpaid for the two sluggers is a story for another day, but the Red Sox, without a doubt, acquired two tremendous players who effectively solidify what already looked to be a dangerous lineup.

All in all, I’m extremely impressed with Boston’s offensive assemblage. They don’t have a clear weakness in their lineup, and they’re exceptionally deep. Aside from Ramirez, Sandoval, and mid-season signing Rusney Castillo, Boston’s projected starting lineup will be comprised of a very similar assortment of athletes as their 2014 unit, much of that being homegrown talent. See for yourself:

(Statistics are based off Fangraphs’ Steamer projections)

  1. Mookie Betts – RF (2015 projections: .283/.348/.423, .140 ISO, 116 wRC+, 2.6 WAR)
  2. Dustin Pedroia – 2B (.284/.351/.406, .123 ISO, 112 wRC+, 4.8 WAR)
  3. Hanley Ramirez – LF (.291/.364/.470, .179 ISO, 133 wRC+, 3.6 WAR)
  4. David Ortiz – DH (.277/.364/.492, .216 ISO, 133 wRC+, 2.2 WAR)
  5. Pablo Sandoval – 3B (.291/.346/.463, .172 ISO, 124 wRC+, 3.9 WAR)
  6. Mike Napoli – 1B (.243/.350/.440, .197 ISO, 121 wRC+, 2.5 WAR)
  7. Xander Bogaerts – SS (.258/.318/.411, .154 ISO, 103 wRC+, 2.1 WAR)
  8. Christian Vasquez – C (.248/.309/.353, .105 ISO, 84 wRC+, 1.6 WAR)
  9. Rusney Castillo – CF (.279/.322/.422, .143 ISO, 106 wRC+, 2.3 WAR)

This is an extremely powerful group that should do major damage in compact Fenway Park. I thought the most intriguing aspect of those statistics is the Steamer’s expectations for Mike Napoli. The algorithm envisions a significant power surge for the 33-year-old first baseman in 2015. His projected ISO, slugging %, and home run marks are up considerably from the numbers he posted a year ago.

The singular potential shortcoming in this lineup is lack of diversity, specifically regarding handedness. This is a very right-handed heavy group with only one exclusively left-handed hitter in that projected lineup, David Ortiz. In a league that’s dominated primarily by right-handed pitching, a logjam of the matching handedness in the lineup could prove to be a limitation. In all honesty, that’s a nit-pick on my part. It’s hard to find many holes in an offense that will likely have quality players such as Shane Victorino, Brock Holt, and Allen Craig on the bench.

While taking a very aggressive approach to add game-changing talent on the offensive side, the Red Sox opted to reconstruct their starting rotation in polar opposite fashion. In the midst of Boston’s tremendously disappointing 2014 campaign, Cherington strategically cleaned house, predominantly throughout his starting pitching. He managed to deal four-fifths of the club’s rotation in the span of a week, just before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

The pitching staff was obviously the primary point of emphasis for Boston management at the commencement of the off-season. This year’s free agent crop of starting pitchers was relatively thin but particularly top-heavy, with Max Scherzer and James Shields front-lining the list. Naturally, the Red Sox were linked to those two hurlers on multiple occasions, especially Shields at the beginning of the free agent frenzy.

But they didn’t sign Shields. And they didn’t sign Scherzer. They did something that’s rarely associated to big-market teams like the Red Sox: they employed a remarkably conservative approach. Normally, I would praise the club for doing their research and not splurging on a major free agent like most of us expected. But I’m hesitant to proclaim Boston’s management a team full of geniuses because I remain a resolute non-believer in the makeshift rotation they seemed to have thrown together on a whim.

Boston acquired Rick Porcello from Detroit to begin this palpable renovation. Later that day, the team inked Justin Masterson to a one-year contract worth a base salary of $9.5 million, and followed that up by trading for lefty Wade Miley, formerly of the Diamondbacks. All these moves amass to a starting five that should look like this:

For the sake of continuity, I’ll also provide the Steamer’s projections for this rotation.

  1. Rick Porcello (2015 projections: 3.92 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 3.67 FIP, 6.23 K/9, 3.2 WAR)
  2. Clay Buchholz (4.14 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 4.03 FIP, 6.93 K/9, 2.2 WAR)
  3. Wade Miley (4.17 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 3.96 FIP, 6.98 K/9, 2.1 WAR)
  4. Joe Kelly (4.56 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 4.32 FIP, 6.08 K/9, 1.2 WAR)
  5. Justin Masterson (4.20 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 4.03 FIP, 7.00 K/9, 2.1 WAR)

Rick Porcello enjoyed his finest Major League season a year ago, posting career-bests in ERA (3.46), WHIP (1.23), and innings pitched (204.2). Detroit intelligently dealt him at his peak value, and were able to turn him into slugging outfielder Yoenis Cespedes and two prospects. Although Porcello’s aptitude to induce ground balls translates well in the hitter-friendly confines of Fenway Park, his career numbers and consistently low strikeout rate suggest that his recent success may not be sustainable. I anticipate a fair amount of regression, likely to around his career averages.

Buchholz is immensely talented but far too inconsistent for my liking. His effectiveness from start-to-start is anyone’s guess. While there’s certainly reason for some optimism in regards to the ceilings of Miley and Kelly, neither appears to have the upside of a true front-line starter, of which the Red Sox are in desperate need. Masterson is a bit of a project. Coming off a dreadful 2014 season, he will need to find himself and return to his previous form in order to be the serviceable back-end starter that he’s going to be expected to be.

It’s not the lack of an ace that’s most alarming. It’s the previously noted inconsistencies of each member of the starting five and lack of depth. Henry Owens is an excellent prospect, but counting on him to be the next man up in case of inevitable injuries and ailments is a precarious strategy. Brandon Workman is also still around, although his brief Major League experience has not been especially promising.

These entirely opposing approaches have surely made for an intriguing development. Ultimately, this team’s offense should be enough to keep them near the top of division standings, but I’m inclined to stick to my belief that starting pitching is the essential component to championship-level ball clubs. Whether this rotation holds up over the course of an entire season is left to be seen, but until I see it happen, I’ll remain skeptical.

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