Although a couple months still remain until pitchers and catchers start reporting to their teams’ spring training facilities, and there is plenty of player movement left around the league, the Red Sox are likely done with their major moves. This is the result of Dave Dombrowski’s early and aggressive strategy this year, and he’s plugged just about every glaring weakness he set out to address this winter. He got the ace he sought in David Price. He addressed the bullpen in a big way with Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith. He found the right-handed complimentary bat in the outfield by signing Chris Young. Even with all of those holes plugged, however, this still isn’t a complete, undoubtedly successful team.
Among the biggest issues on the roster, in my eyes at least, is the questionable rotation behind Price. It’s certainly an improved group overall compared to last season, but there’s a lot of potential for failure behind their new ace. Eduardo Rodriguez has the ability to take a big step forward in 2016, but there is also the risk that the league figures something out and he struggles in his second season. Rick Porcello has proven to be a decent mid rotation arm, and while he’s still young at some point you are what you are. Clay Buchholz is a really good number two, but we all know how little one can count on him to do so over a full season. Finally, there’s Joe Kelly, who….well you know.
The bad news is that every indication from the front office has been that they do not plan to address this issue before the season begins. They appear to be fine with this group and have faith it can be successful. The good news is they do not have to lock their current roster in for the entire season. If it comes down to it, they are set up well to make a trade in June or July to improve the rotation (or any other area of the team) on the fly. The key, of course, is staying competitive through the first two or three months of the season.
If this sounds familiar it’s because we went through this exact same exercise a year ago. Heading into 2015, everyone knew the rotation was going to be a weakness but most believed they’d be able to keep their heads above water before the Phillies finally dealt Cole Hamels or another starting pitcher became available. Personally, I was on board with this strategy. Of course, it blew up in their faces as the offense completely sputtered, the rotation struggled and the bullpen imploded on a seemingly nightly basis. The season was over almost before it even began, and they never got to a point where it made sense to trade for a big-time starting pitcher. Luckily, the assumed roster heading into the 2016 season is much different than it was heading into 2015, and it’s much more prepared to stay competitive through the first half.
The biggest difference here actually lies in the rotation. It all starts with Price, who represents something the Red Sox haven’t had in a few years. He’ll be the better than his counterpart in almost every game in which he pitches, giving the Red Sox an advantage every five days. Additionally, even though there is plenty of downside behind him, there is plenty of depth, too. Boston will have no need to give Kelly, or anyone in the rotation, more starts than necessary to figure it out. They’ll have Henry Owens, Roenis Elias, Brian Johnson and Steven Wright waiting in the wings. There shouldn’t be another situation in which someone like Justin Masterson gets nine starts before finally losing his rotation spot.
Boston will have no need to give Joe Kelly, or anyone in the rotation, more starts than are necessary to figure it out.
Arguably a bigger advantage this newly formed Red Sox team holds is in the bullpen. After having one or two above-average arms in the unit this past year, the new roster should have at least four of the top 50-or-so relievers in all of baseball. In addition to Kimbrel, Koji Uehara, Smith and Junichi Tazawa, there is also some possibility for guys like Matt Barnes, Pat Light or maybe even Heath Hembree to step up and become legitimate threats. The bullpen has decent-ish threats from the left side in Tommy Layne and Robbie Ross Jr., too. Having a group like this at their disposal makes it much easier for them to win those games where the starters can’t make it through more than four or five frames.
Finally, the offense should be a lot better and a lot more consistent than it was last year. It’s easy to forget now, but Boston’s lineup was at least as big of a contributing factor to their failure in the first half as the pitching staff. David Ortiz was not himself in the first half. Mookie Betts struggled for a big chunk of time. Xander Bogaerts wasn’t quite as good as he was later in the year. Dustin Pedroia missed a lot of games. Offensive production from behind the plate was essentially non-existent. And, of course, Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval were both super bad. Looking ahead to next year, most of those holes should be fixed, with the younger players having another year of experience under their belt — this is especially important for Blake Swihart, who came alive in the second half — and the veterans should get closer to their typical production levels. The rotation shouldn’t have to hold the opponents to one or two runs to win games nearly as many times in 2016.
When you combine these three factors, the Red Sox should be able to stay competitive for a longer chunk of the season compared to last season. Obviously baseball is a weird game and anything can happen, but things look better. Then, if it comes down to it, they should have the chips to make a deal midway through the year. Even if they want to avoid dealing from the big four atop the farm system, guys like Michael Kopech, Sam Travis, Johnson, Owens, and even Luis Alexander Basabe and Michael Chavis could take a big enough step forward to become attractive chips in their own right.
After the disaster that was last year, it’s perfectly reasonable to be wary of trying this strategy again in 2016. However, there are enough key differences where the outcome should be different this time around. Chief among them is having Price around, as well as having more depth behind him. Add in a more consistent offense and a legitimate bullpen and the Red Sox have a stew goin’. If everything comes to pass, Dombrowski will be more than willing to pull the trigger on a deal that puts the team over the top.
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