The Red Sox are coming into the 2017 season with lofty expectations. Despite losing a Hall of Fame caliber bat to retirement, the Sox have the same World Series odds as the defending champion Cubs, and projected for 93 wins (per Bovada). While I really wish I could buy into all the hype, I just can’t do it. The Red Sox roster is littered with question marks, and we need to proceed with caution.
You can’t start a what-could-go-wrong article without mentioning Pablo Sandoval. Is it possible that “Kung Fu Panda” recaptures the magic that he had in 2010? Sure, but I wouldn’t count on it. His collapse in Boston hardly came without warning. Prior to signing his disaster of a deal in the 2015 offseason, he was clearly a player on the decline. His OPS had dropped four years in a row, peaking at a fantastic .909, and falling to a pedestrian .739 as he headed into free agency. While technically a “switch hitter”, he is really just a lefty who refuses to give up hitting from the right side. If Pablo finally abandons switch hitting, he could once again return to being an above average third baseman. Is Sandoval as bad as his .658 OPS in 2015 indicates? Probably not; but expecting him to transform back into an all-star is ill-advised.
For some odd reason, Mitch Moreland has already cemented himself as a fan favorite. Sure, he has serviceable pop, but please don’t let that fool you into thinking he’s actually a good hitter. 2015 was the only time in the last four years that Moreland has had an OPS+ over 100. For those of you that aren’t sabermetrically savvy, that means that Moreland has only been a statistically above average bat once in four years. Keep an eye on his platoon splits moving forward. While he’s historically hit righties far better than lefties, he suddenly turned into a reverse-platoon guy last season. Nobody can replace Big Papi, but Mitch Moreland doesn’t even come close.
As for catcher, we should be expecting no offensive production. Sandy Leon’s 2016 was a fluke, (I can hear the hate now), and Christian Vazquez is about as intimidating as a newborn baby (unless your name is Dellin Betances). Leon entered last season with a career .438(!!) OPS over an admittedly small sample of 235 PAs. For absolutely no justifiable reason, Sandy slugged .476, nearly 40 points higher than his career OPS. That mark was higher than notorious sluggers such as Jose Abreu, Justin Upton, Todd Frazier, and Chris Davis. He predictably crashed late in the season, putting up a .515 OPS over his last 31 games. Sandy Ballgame was fun while he lasted, but Sandy Leon will likely be back for 2017. Vazquez might be a worse hitter than Leon, and has never caught lightning in a bottle like Sandy did last year.
Blake Swihart is the only catcher whose bat potentially warrants excitement. After hitting .303 with an .805 OPS over the second half of 2015, there was reason for optimism for 2016, at least until he was randomly moved to the outfield. An ankle injury limited him to just 48 pro games last year, with only 19 of them being with the big-league club. Paired with the fact that he is the only one of the three catchers on the 40-man roster with minor league options left, Swihart has himself a ticket to Pawtucket.
Lastly, we come to the most maddening player in the MLB. There’s no question that Jackie Bradley Jr. can glove it. For years, scouts and fans alike have been asking for even league average offense to supplement his Gold Glove-caliber defense in center field. In 2016, Bradley delivered a superb .835 OPS, resulting in a 4.8 WAR (5th highest of any outfielder in the MLB). But as Red Sox fans know, he is perhaps the streakiest hitter in the MLB. Over his first 16 games of the season, he put up a miserable .586 OPS. JBJ then tried to challenge Joe DiMaggio , rattling off a 29-game hitting streak. Come late July he crashed back down to earth, posting an underwhelming .669 OPS over the final 62 games of the season. The final stat line looks great, but the stretches of uselessness can kill an offense. Bradley at his best can make a push for Silver Slugger consideration, and is a candidate to lose his job at his worst. Which Bradley will we get in 2017? The answer to that could determine whether or not the Red Sox make it out of the AL East.
As murky as the Boston bats may seem, the real concern with this team lies within the pitching. Yes, the Red Sox traded away arguably the top prospect in the game for a legit ace, but doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything.
Chris Sale is good, and will continue to be good. Beyond that, who knows what to expect. Rick Porcello was fantastic in 2016, as proven by that shiny Cy Young plaque that lies on his mantle. Unfortunately, Porcello is one of the likeliest regression candidates in the MLB. He posted a career best in both BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) and HR/FB% in 2016, indicating that his performance may have been unsustainable. He should still turn in over 200 innings with an ERA somewhere around 3.55, which is nothing to scoff at, but not hardware worthy.
As for David Price, I shouldn’t have to go into much detail as to the concerns. The $217million man struggled last year to the tune of a 3.99 ERA, his worst since his rookie season. Granted he did lead the Majors in innings, and won 17 games if you’re into those kinds of stats. Regardless, he clearly wasn’t himself, and is now currently on the shelf with an elbow injury. Sure, Price has avoided going under the knife for the time being, but it’s still entirely possible that he doesn’t pitch at all in 2017.
Steven Wright, Drew Pomeranz, and Eduardo Rodriguez all fit into the same category. The trio flashed dominance for extend periods of time in 2016, yet none of us have confidence in any of them. Wright made a strong case to start the All-Star Game, posting a 2.68 ERA over his 17 starts. The second half wasn’t so great. He made just 5 starts (with a 5.06 ERA) before landing on the Disabled List after suffering an injury while running the bases. We’ll never know for sure why John Farrell decided it would be a great idea to pinch-run a 31-year old knuckleballer, but it certainly clouds Wright’s projections.
Pomeranz was also named to the All-Star team, but failed to impress in Boston after being dealt for Anderson Espinoza. Pomeranz has the “stuff” to dominate every 5th day (albeit for only 6 innings), but also has the command issues to give up 7 runs in 2 frames. He had a 2.47 ERA in 17 starts with the Padres, and a less-inspiring 4.59 mark 14 appearances in Boston. His biggest concern at this point has to be his health. Weeks after the blockbuster trade that sent him to Boston, it was revealed that Pomeranz had been dealing with an elbow injury. After struggling all spring, he will begin the season on the DL with a forearm injury, but could still be in line for his first start. If healthy, he could honestly put up near-ace caliber numbers, but could just as easily produce near replacement level results. Neither outcome would come as much of a surprise.
Rodriguez is yet another volatile case. An excruciatingly bad June makes his overall body of work deceiving. A 4.71 ERA over 20 starts doesn’t excite anybody, but he was far better than that. After being recalled from the minors in July, Rodriguez struck out over a batter per inning, and had a more-than-serviceable 3.24 ERA in 14 starts. The upside is clearly there. His fastball averaged 93.4MPH, trailing only Carlos Rodon, Robbie Ray, and Danny Duffy among southpaw starters that threw at least 100innings. Still just 24, Rodriguez has plenty of time to put it all together. While a low-to-mid 3’s ERA is certainly in the cards, just be wary that a trip to Pawtucket is also.
If you like overreacting to Spring Training stats, then Kyle Kendrick is the guy for you. Don’t let the dominant exhibition games blind you from how bad Kendrick really is. Over his 9-year career, Kendrick owns a 4.63 ERA and 5.3 WAR across 212 starts (and 14 relief appearances). For comparisons sake, 5 starting pitchers amassed more than 5.3 WAR just last season. Since 2013, Kendrick has a 5.11 ERA over 89 starts, striking out a putrid 5.36 batters per 9innings. He spent last season struggling in the minors with the Angels, managing just a 4.73 ERA over his 15 starts. Kyle Kendrick is absolutely terrible. He might actually be worse than Henry Owens and Brian Johnson, but sadly figures to get a spot start or two early in the season.
Finally, we arrive at the bullpen. Dave Dombrowski arrived in Boston with the reputation of burning down farm systems and crafting ineffective bullpens. A year and a half later, Dombrowski has traded away five of the top seven prospects that he inherited (per SoxProspects), and there’s still uncertainty in the bullpen. The last two winters, the Red Sox have pulled off trades for three big impact relievers in Craig Kimbrel, Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg. Kimbrel was good-not-great last season, struggling immensely in non-save situations, and handing out a career high 5.1 free passes per nine. Smith made just three appearances in 2016 before undergoing Tommy John surgery, and his timetable for 2017 remains uncertain, while Thornburg will begin the year on the DL with shoulder problems that have plagued him all spring. Now that Koji Uehara is gone, Joe Kelly is slated to begin the season as the 8th inning man. Despite the bullpen as a unit having a 3.14 ERA after the All-Star break last year (3rd best in the Majors), it is still a major concern.
The Red Sox will certainly contend in 2017, and not many people will contest that. The notion that they will run away with the division and are World Series favorites may be erroneous. There’s obviously a ton of talent on this roster, but the margin-of-error may be slimmer than people are realizing. Fasten your seatbelts, because we may very well be headed for a wild-card playoff.