Much of the attention given to the Red Sox this offseason has focused on the pitching staff, and for good reason. The team spent nearly a quarter billion dollars to lure David Price to Boston and made two big trades to help upgrade a bullpen lacking in quality.
On the other hand, hardly any ink has been spilled on the club’s offense this winter, and judging by the Red Sox’s moves, Dave Dombrowski saw little need to bolster the lineup. The signing of Chris Young to a two-year, $13 million contract — to serve as a platoon option and fourth outfielder — is the only notable move for a bat that Boston has made this offseason.
On the surface, Dombrowski’s decision to focus intently on improving the team’s pitching makes sense. The Red Sox scored the fourth-most runs in baseball a year ago, but the pitching … well, let’s avoid any unnecessary trips down memory lane.
Nevertheless, despite receiving less scrutiny, Boston’s offense will enter 2016 needing to answer plenty of questions in its own right. The most obvious uncertainty exists in the outfield, where the club’s young triumvirate of Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Rusney Castillo should do just fine defensively but are far from guaranteed to excel at the plate. While Betts is already penciled in at the top of the lineup, neither Bradley nor Castillo is assured of carrying his own weight offensively. Castillo, especially, proved vulnerable against big league pitching in 2015.
The Red Sox can probably survive if either Bradley or Castillo struggles again (this is partially why the team signed Young, after all), but they’ll be hard-pressed to fill in two holes if both fail to produce. Since the start of 2014, Boston’s outfielders have posted the third-lowest wRC+ in the league and batted just .255/.317/.382. There’s no certainty that trend will improve next season.
Of course Bradley and Castillo are hardly the club’s two most costly question marks on offense. Despite persistent trade speculation, Dombrowski has been unable to deal away high-priced headaches Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. Although their track records of success provide some hope for bounce-back campaigns, both players are undoubtedly in the downslope of their careers. Even if their contracts haven’t destroyed Boston’s budget, the squad will still be depending on solid production from the duo.
The real issue when it comes to Hanley and Pablo is how they will perform with the glove moving forward. Ramirez’s disastrous time in left field was well-documented, but Sandoval was hardly better at third base. The Red Sox can’t afford to again play two of the worst defenders in baseball, and last season demonstrated that Ramirez is no guarantee to flourish with a first basemen’s mitt.
What happens if Ramirez and Sandoval again prove to be liabilities on defense? Travis Shaw can provide some security at first base, but Boston has no such luxury in regards to Sandoval, unless they want to hand consistent playing time to Deven Marrero or let Brock Holt play full time.
Beyond these uncertainties, the Red Sox aren’t in line to get sterling production from the catching position. Sure, Blake Swihart showed signs of progress down the stretch last year, but how he fares in his first full season is an open question. Expecting Swihart to simply carry the load if both Ryan Hanigan and Christian Vazquez struggle at the plate is likely wishful thinking.
And while David Ortiz showed any talk of the end was premature in 2015, his ability to keep on bashing home runs with aplomb at the age of 40 is no given.
None of this means the Red Sox are certain to have issues scoring runs next season. Yet while the focus remains largely fixed on the pitching staff, the lineup also has plenty to prove. Unlike 2004, 2007 or 2013, this isn’t a lock to be the type of juggernaut offense that carries the team to the World Series.
As a result, Boston’s front office should be somewhat wary of all the uncertainty up and down the club’s lineup. After all, last year’s team, despite finishing with solid run totals by year’s end, struggled mightily for large parts of the season, most notably in May and June when the team’s hopes of contention fell by the wayside.
The Red Sox lineup shouldn’t endure such scuffles again, largely because of the strides Betts and Xander Bogaerts made last season. In addition, with Price now in town and the bullpen set to vastly improve, Boston doesn’t need to have one of MLB’s best offenses like they were hoping to a year ago. That doesn’t leave the offense without its fair share of potential holes, however, and the outfield and corner infield positions could well become problem spots by mid-season.
Photo by Nick Turchiaro/USA Today Sports Images