Last week was a milestone week as our long wait for Opening Day 2016 continues. Pitchers and catchers reported to spring trainings everywhere, including in Fort Myers, Fla., where Red Sox camp is under way. And, most importantly for BP folks, the first PECOTA rankings of the year were released.
PECOTA was once again kind to the Red Sox, projecting an 88-win season in which the team would post a plus-64 run differential, a .268 TAv and ultimately make the postseason as a Wild Card. Not bad given where they finished the last two seasons.
PECOTA, of course, is far from perfect. It projected the Red Sox to win the AL East in 2015, and we all know how that turned out. But spring training is a time for hope and excitement. PECOTA provided some of that for Red Sox Nation.
Frankly, it’s hard to label this team playoff-worthy until we see it happen. They are talented enough to contend for the postseason, but certain things need to fall into place first. In fact, it would be pretty easy to build a comprehensive list of what needs to go right for the Red Sox to regain the AL East crown, but we can start with three of the biggest factors:
1.) Good Buchholz is alive and well
As Matt Collins wrote in November, there are three versions of Clay Buchholz: The Good One, The Bad One and The Hurt One. The Red Sox got the Good Buchholz for most of last season, as the right-hander posted a 3.37 DRA and 2.65 FIP over 18 starts. That was before he went on the disabled list in July and never pitched again. It was Buchholz’s seventh trip to the DL over nine seasons. And this was his first elbow injury.
Which Buchholz shows up in 2016 could determine the quality of the entire rotation. If Buchholz is at his best, the Red Sox have a viable No. 2 starter behind David Price. If he’s bad or injured most of the season, then the onus falls on the rest of a rotation that is largely unproven to pick up the slack. That means relying on a back end of the rotation that includes two of Joe Kelly, Henry Owens, Brian Johnson or Steven Wright, and, most notably, puts tremendous pressure Rick Porcello and Eduardo Rodriguez.
Porcello showed signs of improvement over the final two months of the season, and past performance suggests he’s better than the 4.69 DRA and 4.10 FIP he posted in 2015, but those poor numbers can’t be ignored. He has enough to prove this season already. The absence of a good Buchholz only lessens Porcello’s margin for error. Rodriguez’s 3.44 DRA and 2.3 WARP at 22 years old were encouraging, but he was still prone to some serious clunkers and there’s no guarantee he repeats last year’s efforts given the small sample size. He’s still best served as a middle-of-the-rotation starter.
2.) Power boost beyond Papi
David Ortiz proved to be an ageless wonder last season, hitting 37 home runs and posting a .280 ISO to once again establish himself as one of the premier power hitters in baseball. The problem was he was the Red Sox’s only reliable source of power for most of the season. The Sox finished with a .149 team ISO in 2015, good for 17th in baseball. Seven of the top 10 teams in that category made the postseason. So yes, power is important.
The Red Sox clearly need a lift in that category. But where will it come from outside of Ortiz? Xander Bogaerts is projected by PECOTA to hit 13 home runs this season, which would be helpful. Mookie Betts hit 18 homers and posted a .188 ISO last year, but it seems unfair to depend a 5-foot-9, 180-pound outfielder to be your second-best power hitter. The Red Sox’s best in-house options are none other than Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. Both have historically been 15-20 homer-per-year players. Heck, Ramirez had 10 last April before a shoulder injury set him back and he settled for 19 homers for the season. Sandoval’s 10 home runs in 2015 were a career low, but so was just about everything else for him.
If we’re going to see improved versions of Ramirez and Sandoval this season, a return to form power-wise — or at least some consistency — should be in order. It would add some pop to the middle of the lineup and perhaps take some pressure off the 40-year-old DH. With career ISOs of .198 and .164 for Ramirez and Sandoval, respectively, that’s not too much to ask for.
3.) JBJ or Castillo? Someone’s gotta hit
The outfield trio of Mookie Betts, Rusney Castillo and Jackie Bradley Jr. figures to be one of the most exciting in baseball — at least from a defensive standpoint. But the Red Sox will need more than flashy gloves out of this group. Betts seems like as close to a sure thing as the Sox will get. He has a .293 TAv and 7.3 WARP over 197 career games, and at 23 is only getting started. However, the seesaw nature of Castillo and Bradley’s offensive careers thus far leaves plenty of uncertainty. Castillo is still unproven after 90 career big-league games, but his .213 TAv last season is cause for concern. Bradley may be an even bigger question mark. His .198 TAv in 2014 was nightmarish, and the Red Sox banished him to Triple-A for most of last season as a result. But his ridiculous .294/.366/.613 line from Aug. 9 onward suggested he finally figured it out.
There’s no telling how Castillo or Bradley will perform this season, but the Red Sox need at least one of them to be good. The Sox signed Castillo to a $72 million deal at the end of the 2013 season for a reason. Brett Cowett wrote that the Red Sox need Castillo to be nothing more than what PECOTA projects him to be — .264/.311/.399 slash line, .250 TAv and 1.2 WARP — this season. That’s not necessarily good, but a nice upgrade from what the Red Sox got last season. Bradley is projected to finish with a .245/.317/.399 slash line and .254 TAv. His numbers, of course, may be impacted if he is ultimately the one benched against lefties in favor of Chris Young.
Simply put, the Red Sox can’t afford to have both Castillo and Bradley at their worst. One of them needs to at least near projections or else the Sox may wind up with one of the most inept bottoms of the order in baseball. Given the uncertainty in the heart of the lineup, it could make for some ugly nights at the plate.
The Red Sox have some reason for optimism for entering 2016, but much of last season’s last-place club remains intact. That means most of last year’s trends can’t remain the same as well.
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