The Red Sox offseason has been dominated by their search for a big bat. After last season’s offense took a step backwards, the team’s decision-makers determined the Red Sox need to definitively replace David Ortiz’s power in the middle of the lineup. That search has, as you surely know, mostly focused on former Tiger and Diamondback J.D. Martinez. Talks have reportedly been ongoing, but there is no certainty that Martinez ends up with Boston when pitchers and catchers report in less than a month’s time. So let’s take the still-unsigned Martinez out of it and see where the Red Sox figure to be despite him. What can the Red Sox expect from their offense as currently constituted?
Let’s look at a few easy ways to make educated guesses.
We know one of the biggest indicators of player quality is age. Hitters tend to improve before age 27, peak at that point or close to it, and decline after. The good news for the Red Sox is they feature a number of players who are not yet 27. Xander Bogaerts (25), Rafael Devers (21), Mookie Betts (25), and Andrew Benintendi (23) are all starters who figure to improve simply based on what we know about aging curves. That’s almost half of the Red Sox lineup. Further, Jackie Bradley (28) and Christian Vazquez (27) are in their peak seasons. This is good!
Beyond, Mitch Moreland (32), Dustin Pedroia (34), and Hanley Ramirez (34) are all likely to decline in the overall skills department. Thing is, Moreland wasn’t all that spectacular last season so much more than a very gentle decline from him would make him close to unplayable. The same goes for Hanley, though he has bounced up and down in terms of quality throughout his career. What’s more, should Martinez come to Boston, both Moreland’s and Hanley’s roles would be somewhat diminished.
Pedroia is the wild card here, though his age alone indicates we shouldn’t be expecting much more than league average production.
Even so, age gives us an overall positive picture of how the 2018 Red Sox offense could look. Betts, Bogaerts, Devers, Benintendi, and perhaps Bradley could all improve, and I think that’s actually relatively likely to happen just based on how their 2017 seasons went as well. That should be more than enough to offset what little production Boston receives from Pedroia, Moreland, and Ramirez.
PECOTA hasn’t been released yet and I don’t have a copy of the new BP 2018 Annual (which you should definitely buy right this instant) nearby, so regretfully, even though this is BP, we’re going to take a look at FanGraphs. The truth of the matter is, though we like PECOTA around these parts, at this point most projection systems are going to give you roughly the same thing, and that’s all I’m interested in for this exercise: rough estimates.
Going by those same rough estimates, of the Red Sox starting nine, FanGraphs projects seven of the Red Sox to improve, five of which significantly. Only Pedroia and Mitch Moreland are projected to improve only slightly from their 2017 performances. Rafael Devers is projected to perform just as he did last season, only to play a full season’s worth of games, which would be a large upgrade over what the Red Sox have been getting from third basemen over the past half decade or more. Only Christian Vazquez is projected to put up a worse performance.
That roughly matches my expectations for these individual players and it comes close to matching our guesses based simply on player age, which is a factor in the projections as well so there’s admittedly a bit of double counting going on here.
Lastly we can look at how players did last season relative to our expectations. A good proxy for that is the 2017 PECOTA, so let’s look and see how the 2017 Red Sox, our baseline for 2018, did compared to how we expected them to do. I compared the members of the starting lineup’s projected TAv’s to their actual TAv’s. Betts, Benintendi, Hanley, and Bogaerts all came in well below their TAv projections, with Betts and Hanley at their 15th and 10th percentile PECOTA projections for TAv. That’s pretty rough. Bradley and Pedroia were right about where PECOTA pegged them, well, Bradley was a bit worse, but roughly in the vicinity. Only Moreland and Devers beat their projections. Moreland was in the 60th percentile and Devers was in the 95th, which you’d probably expect given he wasn’t supposed to make even a Triple-A roster let alone start for multiple months in the majors.
So this is the part of the article where we try to put some of this information together. Looking at all this, it seems safe to assume a good chunk of the Red Sox starting lineup should be expected, for a variety of reasons, to put up better seasons than they did in 2017. In fact, it’s not just a numerical chunk of the lineup, but the very best players in it, like Betts, Bogaerts, Benintendi, and Bradley. Devers is a bit of a wild card given his youth, as are Ramirez and Moreland for their ages, and Pedroia for his age and injury history. It’s not hard to see Ramirez turning things around, Pedroia getting healthy and hitting better if not returning to his late-aught MVP form. Similarly, this could be the end of the line for these guys. Sometimes baseball doesn’t let you down gently. Sometimes it smashes you into the concrete. But the smart guess is that both Ramirez and Pedroia have something approximating league average hitting left in them.
Add that to a stronger front of the lineup featuring everyone with a surnamed starting with B, and you’ve got a potentially strong lineup. So, do the Red Sox need J.D. Martinez to improve their offense in 2018? I suspect they don’t. I suspect it will get better simply by running the same team out there again. But in a league where the Astros are World Champs and the Yankees are maybe even better than that, it’s hard not to say, well, heck, get J.D. Martinez anyway. Can’t hurt.
Photo by David Kohl — USA TODAY Sports