Last week stunk. The Indians completed the AL Division Series sweep of the Red Sox on Monday night, and we said our final goodbyes to David Ortiz (we said four on this site). It was all sorts of sad and frustrating.
But after a week of reflecting and reminiscing, it’s time we look ahead to 2017. The Sox’s season was an overall success, winning the AL East after two straight last-place finishes. And the young core leaves few holes in the roster entering the offseason. That doesn’t mean there aren’t questions to be answered, however. Boston is a division-series bouncer that had its flaws exposed in the playoffs, and there are uncertainties at multiple positions. Dave Dombrowski, Mike Hazen’s replacement and friends now have to put together a roster primed to repeat as AL East champs and make a real playoff run.
What exactly should the Red Sox do? They don’t pay me to know those answers. But there are five questions that will need addressing before Opening Day.
1.) How do they handle their pitching staff?
Pitching was an issue that surfaced and resurfaced throughout the season and carried into the playoffs. First it was the starting rotation and then it was the bullpen through most of July and August. By September, the Red Sox figured it out and finished the year with the sixth-ranked team DRA (4.00). That’s great given where they were as a staff most of the year.
However, top starters Rick Porcello and David Price both struggled in the playoffs, continuing their respective runs of winlessness in October. Clay Buchholz was ok in Game 3. Ditto for Drew Pomeranz out of the bullpen in his Game 1 and 3 appearances. The bullpen, meanwhile, was among the best in the majors in September and remained reliable in the playoffs, as it allowed just two runs (by Pomeranz) over three games.
The Red Sox have all of their starters under contract for next season except for Buchholz, who has a team option for 2017 (we’ll discuss that more later on). They could bring back the same starting rotation and probably contend once again, especially if it looks more like the second-half version than the early season one. However, the starters’ postseason performance may incline management to pursue other options, such as pulling off a major blockbuster for a Chris Sale-like ace or tapping into the weak free-agent pitching market and signing a Doug Fister or Rich Hill type of player.
Next year’s bullpen may look a little different. Junichi Tazawa is probably gone, Brad Ziegler and Fernando Abad are also pending free agents and there’s no telling what will happen with Koji Uehara. A healthy Carson Smith will upgrade a pen headlined by Craig Kimbrel, Joe Kelly and Matt Barnes. The only pending free agent the Sox will likely try bringing back is Ziegler. There are some notable names entering free agency this winter, including Aroldis Chapman, Mark Melancon, Francisco Rodriguez and Fernando Rodney, among others. One of those names could be on Boston’s radar as well.
2.) Who’s their starting third baseman?
The Red Sox made the right decision starting Travis Shaw at third base over Pablo Sandoval to start the season. Shaw was arguably the team’s worst hitter last season, finishing the year with a .246 TAv and 1.6 WARP as he didn’t start a playoff game. However, it was still an upgrade over Sandoval’s .229 TAv and -1.4 WARP in 2015.
The question now is who will get the job at third next season. Right now it looks to be between Shaw, Sandoval and Brock Holt, who started at third in the playoffs and slashed .400/.400/.800 over three games. The Sox could certainly use an upgrade, but will that come from the outside or within?
Odds are it will be the latter. Shaw proved productive enough thanks to all of the offense in front of him. Sandoval’s past success, and apparent weight loss, gives hope that he’s finally ready to turn things around. If none of that works, Holt is available to hold things down until Yoan Moncada is ready to take over. Your guess is as good as mine who will win the job.
3. What do they do with Clay Buchholz?
This is the second straight season the Red Sox have had to answer this question. Last year seemed like more of a no-brainer. Buchholz posted a 3.00 DRA in 2015 before suffering a season-ending injury, and the Sox were desperate for starting pitching. The only question was his durability.
This year, Buchholz’s issue wasn’t health. It was poor performance for most of the season. The right-hander owned a 5.79 ERA through his first 23 appearances. At that point it was a decent bet he’d be gone this offseason. However, his 3.02 ERA in August and September makes it more of a toss-up, if not more likely the Red Sox pick up his $13.5 million option. Price, Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez, Steven Wright and Pomeranz would make for a solid starting rotation. But last season proved the importance of starting pitching depth as various injuries forced Buchholz back into the rotation multiple times.
Essentially, the Red Sox either let Buchholz walk and stick to the five they have or find depth by acquiring another starter and perhaps move Pomeranz to the bullpen. Or, they can bring Buchholz back for an affordable price and give this group another shot next year.
4.) How do they replace David Ortiz?
There’s no replacing Big Papi. However, the Red Sox do need to decide what to do at designated hitter next season. Ortiz was a known commodity for over a decade, and last season he was one of the two best hitters on the highest-scoring offense in the majors. His absence leaves the Red Sox with a major hole in their lineup.
At one point, Hanley Ramirez looked like the heir apparent at DH. Last year he proved to be a pretty good first baseman who will likely remain in that spot next season. The good news is the Red Sox have options. The sexiest move would be to sign a big free agent like Edwin Encarnacion, whom the Sox are expected to pursue. Other free-agent options include Mark Trumbo and Jose Bautista.
The Sox could also try to fill that void internally by using a combination of players. Taking Sandoval out of the field is a plus, especially if he can starting hitting like he did in San Francisco again. There’s also enough depth via Chris Young, Holt and perhaps Shaw that a rotation is possible. Either way, someone not named David Ortiz will have to DH for the Sox next season.
5.) What do they do with their catchers?
The Red Sox had a revolving door at catcher for most of the season. It started with Blake Swihart as the Opening Day catcher, but he struggled and was turned into a left fielder before getting hurt. Then came Christian Vazquez, who was called up in mid April after missing all of 2015 following Tommy John surgery. He looked good early, but slumped mightily in the middle of the year. Sandy Leon was called up in July, and remained the starting catcher the rest of the way as he posted .293 TAv in 283 plate appearances. The Sox also had Ryan Hanigan, who spent the year as the dependable backup through all the slumps and injuries at the position, and Bryan Holaday, who basically served as Pomeranz’s personal catcher.
Hanigan has a team option for next season and Holaday is a free agent. The Red Sox will probably let them go, leaving them with three catchers vying for one starting job next season. Both Vazquez and Swihart are promising despite disappointing seasons. Leon got off to an impressive start, but his .211/.276/.242 slash line over the final 29 games leaves skepticism over the legitimacy of that run.
The Sox have no need to improve the catcher position. However, it’s unclear who’s starting, who’s sitting and who’s going to Pawtucket. Based on his achievements last season, Leon probably deserves the starting job. Vazquez, meanwhile, has plenty to prove. Swihart is the most interesting case. He’s without a doubt the most likely trade candidate of the three, and could be dangled as part of a major trade offer. It’s also unclear whether or not the Sox plan to keep him as a catcher or return him to the outfield.
I suppose the real first step for Dombrowski is finding a new general manager. Once that happens, it’s time to improve a roster that appears close to World Series contention. There aren’t quite as many issues to address this offseason as opposed to the last two, but this winter is an important one for a team as disappointing as the Sox were in the playoffs.
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