The 2017 Red Sox face few challenges when it comes to their roster. There will likely be a change or two we don’t see coming, but as it stands now the roster is set with the one obvious exception being at DH. David Ortiz’s magical 14-year run with the Red Sox is over and with his departure Boston’s front office faces two questions. The first is who will play DH, and the second, the answer to which isn’t necessarily the same, is who will replace Ortiz’s production?
The interesting aspect to this comes when you consider the fact that the Red Sox had one of the best offenses in baseball this season. By Runs Scored they were first by a lot. They were also first in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. Most total offensive metrics had them first or second as well, though our TAv had them sixth (no, I can’t explain it). The point is, the Red Sox won a lot of games in 2016 and many, especially in the first half of the season, were due to the overpowering nature of their offense. Ortiz’s loss in the clubhouse can’t be replaced, but while he was magnificent on the field, authoring maybe the best season ever by a 40-year-old, the raw numbers and production can be.
The largest portion of the replacement may come from the free-agent market where there is actually a healthy number of options to directly fill Ortiz’s position. Players like Edwin Encarnacion, Carlos Beltran or Jose Bautista could replicate some decent-to-large percentage of what Ortiz did this season. Team President Dave Dombrowski hasn’t indicated whether he will look to add someone from that pool of players, but whether he does or not, it likely won’t fill the hole entirely. That’s because finding someone to step in and hit .315/.401/.620 as Ortiz did this season is a difficult proposition. Perhaps the Red Sox will acquire Freddie Freeman from the Braves or Joey Votto from the Reds, but outside of a huge addition like that, the trick will be to make incremental improvements across the lineup. The Red Sox will explore all avenues of improvement but the plan likely isn’t to add one big player and expect him to replace Ortiz one-for-one. Instead, they’ll need to get small bits from everybody in the lineup and with each step or half-step forward the loss of Ortiz is slightly lessened.
We’re talking about the highest scoring offense in baseball here, so improvement will be difficult, right? Is Mookie Betts going to hit better than a .900 OPS with 31 homers? Is Sandy Leon really going to reach .310/.369/.476 again, let alone best it? Well, no, probably not. I don’t count Mookie Betts out of anything, but it’s hard to see him doing better next season. However, that does bring up an interesting point, which is this: Betts is 23. He’ll be 24 next season. The Red Sox feature a number of important players in that age range, including Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Blake Swihart, who figures to play a more significant role in 2017. Players in their early and mid-20s are typically candidates to improve, simply based on normal aging patterns. It’s not outlandish to think Betts could improve his on-base next season as pitchers stop challenging him inside the strike zone. In fact, if you look at Betts’ monthly splits, you can see that kind of thing happening. Betts got off to a rough start in April with a .298 OBP, and put up .348 and .331 numbers in May and June. In July he kicked it up to .415 and August was virtually the same at .414. September saw a .373 OBP, so you could see some improvement there as Betts was forced to become more selective due to pitchers’ fears of getting burned. Maybe the homers aren’t quite there next season but the OBP more than makes up for it and there is some of Ortiz’s value.
Jackie Bradley did his all-or-nothing act again in 2016, going from being the best hitter in the game to the player who lost his major league roster spot in 2014. Some consistency in between scorching hot stretches would push Bradley into the upper echelon of hitters as well as hold on to a bit of Ortiz’s production. There are numerous other possibilities as well. Andrew Benintendi should get a full season in left field which will help. Can Hanley Ramirez or Dustin Pedroia get even a little bit better? I’m skeptical but maybe.
A bigger and more easily gained improvement is available at third base as 2016 was yet another season the Red Sox production from third was awful. That figures to change in the next few seasons as Yoan Moncada and/or Rafael Devers make their way(s) to Boston, but for now the team seems to be stuck with Travis Shaw. Perhaps Moncada makes the leap next season and provides the spark he was unable to give this season, but there’s a more likely long shot here and that is Pablo Sandoval.
Sandoval missed virtually the entire 2016 campaign after shoulder surgery, but he’s been a better-than-league average hitter in every season but his first in Boston in 2015. It’s not unreasonable to think that after a year off he can come back healthy, which he presumably wasn’t before, and in good shape (relatively speaking). Simply achieving league average would be an improvement over the low bar the team set at third base in 2016.
Other than a Sandoval reinvention, the Red Sox’s best hopes for offensive improvement probably lie with Xander Bogaerts. Bogaerts has ticked up offensively each season he’s spent in the majors, but each season has also come with significant down periods. In 2016, Bogaerts fell apart towards the end of the year, highlighted by an especially difficult August. Even so, an .802 OPS from shortstop is quite good, but with Bogaerts’ obvious talent, it’s not crazy to say there is another gear in there somewhere, one with more power, more consistency, and better on-base ability. If there’s a player who can take a significant step forward in 2017 on the Red Sox roster and in doing so take a huge chunk out of the heap of productivity the Red Sox are losing through David Ortiz’s retirement, it’s Bogaerts.
Taken individually, each of these along with others are good, but taken together, the Red Sox can offset the loss of Ortiz to some large degree. Of course, forecasting improvement across the board is a dicey proposition. Typically some players improve while others, maybe some you don’t see coming, fall down. For the Red Sox to withstand losing David Ortiz and maintain their title as the best hitting team in baseball, they’re going to need Bradley, Bogaerts, Betts, Swihart, and Andrew Benintendi as well as others to improve. Given the ages and talents of the players involved it’s probably less pie-in-the-sky than you might think.
Or they could just go out and trade for Mike Trout. Either way, really.
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