As you can see from the recent posts on this website, there has been a lot of speculation on the future of the Red Sox. We’ve ranged from guarded optimism, to hoping for several bounce-back seasons, and finally, a call for the Red Sox to go all out this winter. For this current window of contention, these next several months will prove pivotal. Will the Red Sox get the slugger they need? How will they fill the first base void? Will anyone be healthy by the start of Spring Training? Those are questions that need answering, and with the core hitting their arbitration years, the Red Sox have to know that this window will close within the next few years.
It’s not hard to see a rebound for a majority of the key position players in 2018 after 2017’s squad. Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Xander Bogaerts all had down years for one reason or another. Hanley Ramirez and Dustin Pedroia were hampered by injuries, and are getting up there in years. But here’s a thought: what if they don’t rebound as well as you think? You obviously want them to bounce back to their best selves, but the reality is that not all of them will come back strong. I don’t mean they’ll reproduce their 2017 to the letter, however. Some might just show a marginal improvement, or just produce a season that’s blandly decent and nothing particularly special. It happens. Baseball loves toying with your expectations.
We’ve got to talk about the old guard when bringing this up, so that means putting the magnifying glass on Ramirez and Pedroia. Both of them will be 34 years old come Opening Day, and both of them fought through debilitating injuries in 2017, be it Pedroia’s knee or Hanley’s shoulder. With their age and recent injury history, it’s hard to convincingly think that they’ll be right as rain in 2018. Since his trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Ramirez has acquired a reputation for not being the healthiest of players, and apart from 2016, he’s either sat out half a season or attempted to soldier through whatever injury has plagued him. Pedroia himself has been part of the walking wounded. He broke a finger towards the end of the 2012 season and played through it, then tore a thumb ligament in 2013 and played through it, had issues with his right hamstring in 2015 and played through it until it forced him onto the 15-day disabled list, and finally, he attempted to play with a bum knee several times in 2017 until he was placed on the 10-day DL. I’m sensing a distressing pattern here.
The Red Sox’s disastrous injury management aside, that isn’t encouraging for two players in their mid-30s. Pedroia might finally be hitting the downturn of the aging curve, as second basemen don’t age very well in general, and his gritty, energetic style of play might be wearing him down faster than usual. With Hanley, it’s all about how the shoulder responds. Ever since crumpling his right shoulder against the left field wall in 2015, his shoulders have been aching one way or another. That doesn’t exactly portend success. I do want these two to succeed, but odds are they won’t come back as strongly as you might think. Age and injuries tend to damper one’s expectations.
The Killer Bs are a different story. Andrew Benintendi will probably be fine, since he’s only 23 and coming off a good first full season in the bigs. Xander Bogaerts had a bum wrist, and those can put a freeze on your bat really quick. Bogaerts is also only 25 years old. He should be back to normal, and even kept a lot of the power he showed in 2016. With Mookie Betts, it’s a little more complicated. He tried to pull the ball more often and it ended up with more pop-ups and fewer good results. That’s more of a change in approach than an injury or regression, and should be fixed. The real wild card here is Jackie Bradley.
Bradley’s only 27, but he’s also the oldest of the perceived core players of the Red Sox. Despite having nearly 2000 plate appearances, there’s no real baseline for him. He’s so mercurial that just looking at season numbers masks how dramatically he oscillates from power-hitting star outfielder to dead weight in a lineup. Could he come back strong? Sure he can! He could also produce the exact same season where the stellar defense is still stellar, but the hitting only appears infrequently. The best expectations to have here are no expectations. Trust me. It’s better that way.
The pitching carried the Red Sox in 2017, and it’s probably a safe assumption to say they might be just as good again. Chris Sale probably won’t post historic numbers again – and this isn’t a slight against Sale, but more a realistic view on how difficult it is to actually repeat a Cy Young-caliber year – but he should still be excellent. David Price will be back, so at the very least, he’ll be good. Drew Pomeranz has entrenched himself as a solid number-two/number-three starter. Rick Porcello could improve, but his pitch-to-contact ways make him much more volatile. The fifth starter is going to be a merry-go-round of who can throw five innings of two-run ball. Relievers should be good as a group, with “should” being the key word here, because projecting relievers is a lesson in futility. In general, the pitching might be the most stable thing on this team.
So let’s look back at the offense, and imagine the possibility that it lags behind the other contenders’ lineups again. What do the Red Sox do now? Well, in the short run, they can’t really do much. Eduardo Nunez could help, and maybe whomever they put at first base hits a fair amount, but the Sox’s hands are tied if this happens. Outside of Michael Chavis, the high minors aren’t exactly filled with MLB-ready bats, and it’s even thinner on the pitching side. A trade could help, but the farm is getting pretty sparse in terms of value. All the team can do is hope for the best and project realistically.
I’m in no way saying all of the problems of 2017 will continue to be problematic. I want them all to be good, don’t get me wrong! But the realistic side (and probably the pessimistic side as well) of me sees some pretty glaring weak points ahead, even with the optimism surrounding this team going forward. People have gotten so caught up in how good the core (and this team) can be, instead of seeing what they probably will be. If they all reach their 90th percentile PECOTA projections, that’ll be unquestionably incredible. I’ll even eat a few servings of crow. Realistically, they won’t, and the team will have its fair share of players either treading water or falling below expectations next year. Again, that’s just how it goes.
Photo by Bob DeChiara – USA TODAY Sports