Five Red Flags for 2015 Boston Red Sox

There’s no question that the Boston Red Sox’ ownership brass is weary of finishing in last place in the American League East. Following two last place finishes with a World Series championship sandwiched in between, Ben Cherington and company have spent well over $300 million this winter on premier offensive talent. However, the question remains whether these dollars were allocated in a way that will make the Red Sox, once again, a viable threat to a relatively weak American League.

On paper, the Red Sox lineup is among the best in baseball after inking third baseman Pablo Sandoval and shortstop outfielder Hanley Ramirez to multi-year contracts worth a combined $180+ million. The two newcomers will graciously surround 39-year-old designated hitter David Ortiz in the middle of the order. The Red Sox also made a splash on the international market in August of last season, signing Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo to a 7-year pact worth $72.5 million.

The Red Sox had no choice but to break the bank this winter after finishing 11th in the American League in runs scored, 13th in OPS, and 12th in home runs last season. This juxtaposes President and CEO Larry Lucchino’s previous comments in February 2014, in which he mockingly stated, “I cringe when people lump [the Red Sox and Yankees] together… They are still, this year at least, relying heavily on their inimitable old-fashioned Yankees style of high-priced, long-term free agents.” How the tables have seemed to turn for Lucchino, whose team spent more money in the last six months than the Yankees did in the entire 2013-14 offseason.

Hypocritical comments aside, spending money is the correct approach for any team with the financial resources to do so. Instead of relying on A.J. Pierzysnki and Grady Sizemore to carry an offense, the Red Sox smartly targeted the best bats on the market and successfully came to an agreement with them. But that is where the offseason praising comes to an end. If you delve deep into the roster and farm system, there are some very noticeable red flags that instantly make you wonder whether or not the Red Sox are as primed to succeed as many believe. Below are five glaring concerns for the Red Sox that may hinder their chances at a deep run into October.

5. Catcher

Vazquez, 24, will likely miss the 2015 season if Tommy john surgery is recommended this week by Dr. Andrews

Vazquez, 24, will likely miss the 2015 season if Tommy John surgery is recommended this week by Dr. Andrews

Heading into 2015, the Red Sox heavily were relying upon highly-touted catching prospect Christian Vazquez to take the role as the everyday catcher in April. That was until Vazquez suffered an elbow sprain that would ultimately have him land on the 60-day disabled list. The amount of time the Red Sox will be without Vazquez is uncertain, as he will be visiting Dr. James Andrews this upcoming week to determine whether or not Tommy John surgery will be necessary. Orioles’ catcher Matt Weiters underwent the same procedure in June of last season and was sidelined for nine months. That certainly does not bode well for Vazquez and the Red Sox if Tommy John surgery is recommended by Andrews.

In response, Cherington acquired catcher Sandy Leon from the Washington Nationals shortly after placing Vazquez on the disabled list. Leon, 26, has spent eight years in the Nationals system and has hit .189/.280/.253 in 107 MLB at-bats. Defensively, Leon has thrown out 5 of 8 batters, which indicates he has more of a defensive presence than an offensive one. Leon will join Ryan Hanigan and Humberto Quintero as catching depth that will potentially be competing for time behind the plate. None of the aforementioned names are known for consistently hitting above .230 or being a starting catcher on a daily basis.

While Boston has a strong lineup and certainly weren’t relying on Vazquez’s bat, they needed the consistency of playing 130-140 games that they believed he is willing to handle. For a rookie catcher, Vazquez was widely regarded for his game-calling, his ability to halt baserunners, and his veteran-like presence in the clubhouse. That’s not necessarily replaceable with their current assets. Can a 34-year-old Hanigan handle a full-time role as the backstop? While he has the most impressive resume out of the three catchers (which isn’t saying much), asking him to play over 100 games is going to be too much for him to handle. There is always Blake Swihart in the minor leagues if worst comes to worst, but would the Red Sox be willing to call up a player who isn’t fully developed just to fill in? Based off of what has recently happened to Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts, I’d wager to say we won’t see Swihart until at least July or August.

None of their catchers have bona fide experience as a starting catcher, which is widely known as the hardest position to play. There needs to be a consistent game-caller for the pitching staff and a reliable threat to runners on a daily basis. Maybe Hanigan can carry more of a load than anticipated, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

4. Too Many Outfielders

Often teams considered too much depth on their roster as a “good problem.” I respond by inquiring how any problem can be good in any way. I apply this same question to the Red Sox. How is having 500 outfielders a good problem to have? Let’s just take a look at who those outfielders are: Ramirez, Mookie Betts, Castillo, Shane Victorino, Allen Craig, Daniel Nava, and Bradley. That’s seven MLB-ready players to find spots for, presumably. Oh, and of course superutility man Brock Holt can fill in whenever needed. This is maybe a “good problem” to have in the offseason because of all the trading chips you have. Less than a week until Opening Day? This is just an old-fashioned problem.

Let’s first note that Ramirez is playing left field no matter what. He was signed to start on a daily basis and he’ll do just that. Betts seems to have also locked in a position as the starting center fielder after being sensational offensively and defensively throughout Spring Training. Teammates have gone to lengths to compare Betts to All Stars such as Andrew McCutchen. Lastly, John Farrell has proclaimed the injury-prone Victorino will be the starting right fielder despite Castillo’s breakout performance this spring following his injury. Barring injury, this leads Castillo, Craig, Nava, and Bradley either on the bench or in Triple-A to begin the 2015 season.

Sorting things through, Nava will almost certainly be on the MLB roster due to his ability to hit left-handed and play several positions. His versatility and ability to consistently get on base has made Nava one of the most underrated talents in the league. Speaking of underrated, Bradley has had a phenomenal spring, hitting .381/.469/.452 in 18 games. Is it possible Bradley might have finally figured himself out at the plate? If so, Bradley becomes a very valuable trade chip, as it seems the Red Sox have abandoned any aspirations for long-term relationship for the 2014 Gold Glove runner up. Craig will presumably be on the bench in pursuit of returning to form he did in St. Louis. But even if he does, there’s no room for him on this team. Unless there is a serious injury, Craig is just another trade chip that Boston has in the bust that was the John Lackey trade.

The most interesting component of this all is undoubtedly Castillo, who will likely begin the season in Triple-A. Castillo has been very impressive in his short time in Spring Training and seems to be the heir apparent to right field once Victorino inevitably pulls a muscle and lands on the DL. He should be on the Opening Day roster because he simply is more valuable in 2015 than Victorino is, but Farrell loves his veterans. Regardless, Cherington needs to move some pieces and quickly because this arrangement cannot last all season. Egos clash in the clubhouse and controversy arises (e.g., Victorino’s recent battle with talk show hosts). It creates a lot of tension and having so many question marks will result in problems as the season goes along. Even if Cherington needs to sell lower than he’d like, it will prevent many future problems if they could even get rid of one of their outfielders within the month.

3. Minor League Pitching Depth

Knuckleballer Steven Wright is a favorite of John Farrell’s, but is completely unproven in the majors.

Moving away from position players, my next red flag really concerns the minor league depth of the Red Sox farm system. Currently, the pitching rotation consists of Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Justin Masterson, Joe Kelly, and Wade Miley. Only Miley and Porcello have demonstrated the ability to start 25+ games in recent seasons. Masterson has also shown this durability, but has been sidetracked with concerning injuries last season with Cleveland and St. Louis. Either way, if one or two of these pitchers goes down, who replaces them? When you look down at the farm, it is difficult to spot any “sure things” who can hold their own in the MLB for a reasonable amount of time.

Brandon Workman and Steven Wright have displayed glimpses of that capability, but that’s all they have been: glimpses. Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa were shipped to Arizona in the Miley deal, while Anthony Ranaudo was dealt to Texas in exchange for Robbie Ross. Beyond Wright and Workman, who can be called upon in May if there is an injury that will sideline Kelly for a month or two? Henry Owens probably won’t be ready for MLB until the second half of the season (and that’s if his development goes really well), while Brian Johnson has never even pitched in the big leagues before. I’m not necessarily saying they don’t have anyone who can be a spot starter here and there, but they don’t have a name you can just call up and know what you’re getting. Workman can either toss six shutout innings or be shellacked in two innings, giving up six earned runs. Nobody has shown that consistency, especially in the tail end of 2014 where all these pitchers had significant time to prove themselves when Jon Lester and Lackey were shipped out of town.

This question extends into the bullpen as well, but to a lesser extent. There is far more confidence in Workman, Wright, or Matt Barnes as late-inning relievers, which is what all of them have proven themselves to be. If Wade Davis’s transition to the bullpen in Kansas City has proven anything, it’s that some pitchers deemed to be starters are just so much better in the bullpen. Either way, the starting rotation depth is very concerning because there is not one pitcher in the minors you can call up for an extended period of time and know what you’re getting. That’s a very underrated concern.

2. The Bullpen

There’s a reason David Robertson, Andrew Miller, and Zach Duke earned such rich contracts this offseason: reliable relief pitching is instrumental in a team’s success in not only the regular season, but in the playoffs as well. Don’t believe me? Ask the 2014 Kansas City Royals. When I look at the Boston Red Sox bullpen, especially when lacking Koji Uehara, I see great vulnerability. The projected bullpen this season is more than likely: Edward Mujica, Junichi Tazawa, Anthony Varvaro, Craig Breslow, Alexi Ogando, Tommy Layne, and Ross.

Relief pitching is widely known to be difficult to predict, but it is difficult to envision this bullpen being among the better ones in the MLB. Minus Junichi Tazawa and potentially Anthony Varvaro, I have various concerns about the rest of the bullpen. To start, Mujica is probably one of the most terrifying closers to watch in baseball. Despite a strong finish in 2014 (in which there was absolutely no pressure), Mujica mightily struggled in the first half of the season and previously fell out of favor with the St. Louis Cardinals following a series of injuries. He’s not necessarily bad, but wildly unpredictable. Which Mujica will we see on April 6th? Will it be the dominant closer we saw in late 2014 or the shaky Mujica who didn’t display a lick of confidence on the mound in the beginning of last season? Without the lights-out Uehara, the role of closer will be up for debate unless Mujica can show the maturation he did in August/September of last season.

Speaking of Uehara, how terrifying is it that he is already breaking down after signing a 2-year contract worth $18 million? Koji is an investment for Ben Cherington and it may just blow up in his face. Uehara, who will be 40 next week, has been worked to death by John Farrell in his first two seasons, pitching in 137 games (not including the playoffs) and has pitched 138.2 innings. It’s hard to blame Farrell for working Koji so hard, as he carried the entire bullpen on his back by 1.75 ERA with 181 punchouts between both seasons. But now, that overuse may cause for concern, as Koji will definitely need to be limited.

1. The Rotation

Was their ever any doubt the starting five would be Boston’s greatest concern? After poorly handling the Lester contract negotiations, their homegrown ace signed a 6-year contract worth $155 million with Theo Epstein and the Chicago Cubs. This led to Boston quickly assembling the trio of Porcello, Miley, and Masterson to join Buchholz and Kelly in the rotation. Shortly thereafter, Cherington noted that there was no further need for addition to the rotation. Manager Farrell also commented on the necessity for an “ace” when stating that, “€œI think we have five number ones. The number one for us is going to be that night, the guy that pitches that night.”€ That may fly for fans, and Farrell is certainly smart by not burying his pitching staff. But let’s face the fact: that notion is comical and the notion that a bona fide ace is not necessary to championships, then I direct you to a column I wrote about the matter in February. While Boston is not doomed without an ace, they aren’t a championship caliber team until they get one. It’s history.

Clay  Buchholz may be the most hard-to-watch Opening Day starting pitcher in the league. You never know what you'll get.

Clay Buchholz may be the most hard-to-watch Opening Day starting pitcher in the league. You never know what you’ll get.

Anyway, the real focus needs to be on the guys who are in Boston, not the ones who are not. And there are real concerns about almost every single player in the rotation heading into next week. Starting at the back end, Kelly sports a career 3.48 ERA in 78 games started throughout three seasons of Major League experience between Boston and the St. Louis Cardinals. Kelly has been widely recognized for his stuff and potential, being a product of the predominantly successful farm system of the Cardinals. However, he has had concerns staying on the field, as evident by the fact he has never started more than 17 games in a season. He has also never pitched more than 125 innings. The silver lining is that Kelly is only 27 years old, which indicates he is now entering his prime years as a pitcher. We should find out sooner rather than later what kind of pitcher Kelly can be, but it likely won’t be the lights-out version we saw in 2013. It doesn’t help Kelly’s case that he’s dealing with elbow soreness that will more than likely wind him up on the disabled list to begin the season.

Next is Masterson, who is the most proven commodity Cherington acquired. Formerly a Red Sox prospect, Masterson was an above-average pitcher for the Cleveland Indians and an All Star in 2013. He started at least 29 games between 2010 and 2013 and pitched 180 innings three out of his four seasons in Cleveland. Where the problems lie are in 2014, in which Masterson was frequently battling injuries, including a DL stint for a knee injury after being dealt to the Cardinals. After a relatively sharp Spring Training, it seems as though Masterson is fully healthy. The problem isn’t so much that Masterson is a bad pitcher by any means at all, but he’s a number-three pitcher at this stage … just like everybody else. If healthy, Masterson can give a full season of work and provide a 3.60-4.50 ERA, which isn’t bad at all. The problem is there are five guys who potentially provide this service in the rotation as currently constituted.

Miley also, on paper, seems like a very decent addition, with 29-33 games started in three full professional seasons with a career ERA of 3.79 with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The problem? He pitched for the Arizona Diamondbacks. In a division with big ballparks, no designated hitter, and virtually zero pressure. His transition to the American League is a real concern. He hasn’t looked particularly convincing in Spring Training either, with some shaky outings against the Minnesota Twins and Philadelphia Phillies. If he’s the number four or five pitcher in a strong rotation, I’d argue he’s a strong option. He’ll pitch a reliable number of innings, but there’s no doubt in my mind his ERA will spike into the 4.50-4.75 range, at least initially. He’s probably the addition I’d be most afraid of in Boston.

Then comes Porcello, who was acquired from the Detroit Tigers in exchange for Yoenis Cespedes. Porcello is 26 years old and presumably going to hit the free agent market next winter, unless he can be locked up by Boston beforehand. With six seasons under his belt, Porcello has been relatively underrated and now has the chance to prove himself in a premier market before a big payday. If there’s one pitcher I’m excited about in Boston, it’s Porcello. He isn’t a frontline starter, but he’s a very good number two. Winning 15 or 16 games with a 3.50 ERA isn’t outrageous to predict at all. He’s shown a significant dip in his ERA and WHIP since 2010, which indicates he still will improve as he enters his prime.

Lastly is Buchholz, who I won’t delve as deep into. He’s been around for seven seasons and nobody has any idea who he is. He’s shown the stuff of an ace but the lack of durability, mental stability, or conditioning to reach his potential. Even if he emerges as an ace, it’s almost inevitable he will hit the disabled list at some point or another. Whether you believe he’s an ace or not, he’s not dependable at all. Seven years in, it’s not worth holding your breath.

Summary

Now before Red Sox fans are asking for my head on a platter, let me just say that I still predict the Boston Red Sox to win 84 games this season and have the potential to win a Wild Card spot. The hitting is just that good. But the problems the Red Sox have can’t be ignored. The bright side? Most of their problems are fixable, barring injuries. If moves aren’t made as the season goes on, the offense might carry them into the playoffs, but they won’t last long without a formidable pitching staff. The Red Sox overcame their “holier than thou” attitude towards spending money on position players and they need to do the same with their pitching staff. Scouring through the bargain bin will only get them so far, and until they make upgrades to the catcher position, overall depth, and pitching staff, they will remain overrated.

To put everything into perspective, I turn to an interview with Hanley Ramirez earlier in the spring. Ramirez was asked about his thoughts on the team’s apparent lack of frontline starting pitching, to which he declared, “We’re just gonna try to score 10 [runs] in the first inning to make it easier for them.” Although it was a rather lighthearted comment, just how scary is that idea? As silly as it seems, it is exactly what the Red Sox offense needs to do all season. The bullpen doesn’t look strong and the rotation is mediocre for a team with one of the highest payrolls in baseball. Is it really smart to put the team in the hands of Ortiz and Ramirez?

If the team catches lightning in a bottle like they did in 2013, they could be world champions. But with multiple injuries occurring nearly right out of the gate and so many question marks in so many places, it doesn’t seem likely. The Red Sox will compete, but just how far can this team go?

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