Boston Red Sox New Years Check Up

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The beginning of a new year brings a mixture of emotions.  Excitement over the opportunities that may come our way, and nostalgia for the year that has just ended.  We here at the Boston Sports Syndicate decided to do the same with our favorite teams with a series of 2018 reviews and previews for 2019.  Today we look at the biggest Boston sports story of 2018 – the World Champion Boston Red Sox.

Photo courtesy of sbnation.com

2018 Review

The Red Sox ended 2017 the same way they ended 2016 – with an Eastern Division Championship banner and a quick exit from the playoffs.  However, unlike 2016, the Red Sox brain trust decided that in order to move forward, something had to change.  That something ended up being the manager.  John Farrell was dismissed, and the job was given to former Red Sox utility man Alex Cora.  It was a bold move by General Manager Dave Dombrowski as Cora’s only managerial experience came as the skipper of the Puerto Rico team in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. 

As 2018 began, the Red Sox had a new manager, but the roster of players remained virtually the same when pitchers and catchers reported to Fort Myers for the beginning of Spring Training in February.  But Dombrowski had one more move up his sleeve.  In what was the worst kept secret of the offseason, the Red Sox landed prized free agent slugger J.D. Martinez at the end of February.  There was a brief controversy over Martinez’s medical history which lingered for a few days, but he eventually joined the team and became the big bat in the middle of the lineup the Red Sox desperately lacked.

The additions of Cora and Martinez turned out to be perfect fits.  The team instantly responded to Cora’s managerial style and to Martinez’s work ethic and leadership in the clubhouse.  Both were contributing factors to the improvement of young players like Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts, with Betts bouncing back from a mediocre 2017 to win the AL MVP.

The Red Sox established their winning ways early on.  They went 22-9 in Grapefruit League play, and continued that trend into the regular season with a 21-7 record in March and April.  The Yankees, who were the consensus pick to dominate the AL after adding 2017 NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton to a young core of sluggers, struggled out of the gate under their inexperienced manager Aaron Boone.  This stumble was enough for the Red Sox to take control of the East.  Though the Yankees made a couple of pushes, the Red Sox were able to maintain a comfortable lead throughout and won the East comfortably with a team record 108 wins.

While the Red Sox may have appeared to be a juggernaut team based on their record, many will place an asterisk on their record win total.  The balance of power in the American League rested with only a handful of teams in 2018.  While almost half the teams in the league finished with records above .500, three teams (Boston, New York and Houston) had more than 100 wins, with a fourth (Oakland) winning 97 games.

The 2018 Red Sox certainly had flaws, the biggest of which was their bullpen depth.  Although Closer Craig Kimbrel was one of the best in the league, no one else performed consistently in the set-up roles.  Joe Kelly, Matt Barnes, Scott Thornburg, Heath Hembree, and Carson Smith were all given the chance, but none could lay claim to the job.

With needs in the bullpen, it was expected that the Red Sox would make a move to obtain relief help at the trade deadline.  Instead, Dombrowski swung smaller deals to bring in a veteran bat in Steve Pearce and a starting pitcher in Nathan Eovaldi who was still on the mend after Tommy John surgery.  Sports talk radio was abuzz with calls for Dombrowski’s lack of action in addressing the team’s biggest needs.  Whether by design or pure luck, both players ended up being major contributors to the championship.

In addition to the lack of bullpen performance, the second base and catcher spots were revolving doors throughout the season.  Dustin Pedroia never adequately recovered from off season surgery, and played in only three games all season.  Christian Vazquez, who signed a three year contract in the off season, seriously underperformed at the plate and, once his bat began to show signs of life, was lost for nearly two months to a broken finger.  Sandy Leon, while solid behind the plate and the preferred catcher of much of the pitching staff, struggled mightly at the plate.

The AL East was decided for all intents and purposes in late August after a Red Sox four game sweep over the Yankees in a series at Fenway.  Any hopes the Yankees had of making a run at the Division were squelched with Andrew Benintendi’s walk-off single that capped a late inning comeback in the final game.  In a season filled with many memorable moments, it was yet another indication that the 2018 Red Sox were a special team.

Though the Red Sox cruised easily to the Division Title, the lack of late inning bullpen bridge to Kimbrel loomed as a potential stumbling block for a deep post season run.  Little did we know the Red Sox had the solutions already on the roster.  In a season which saw a new trend in baseball of closers starting games to pitch only one or two innings, Cora decided to use his starting pitchers to get key outs in the eighth.  Not a new concept, but what made it unusual was the fact that all four of the playoff starters (Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, and Eovaldi) all took turns pitching out of the bullpen.

The Red Sox made quick work of each opponent it faced in the playoffs, and did most of their damage on the road.  They dispatched the Yankees in four games in the Division Series, and then knocked off the defending champion Astros in five games in the ALCS.  In both rounds, the Red Sox split the first two games at Fenway, and then swept the remainder of the games on the road. 

After two hard fought series to win the AL pennant, the World Series against the Dodgers was almost anti-climactic.  The Dodgers proved to be no match for the American League Champs.  Though the Dodgers were able to take Game 3 in Chavez Ravine, it took them 18 innings to come out on top.  Games 4 and 5 went to the Red Sox thanks to the heroics of mid-season acquisition Pearce (who was named Series MVP) and the sudden playoff resurgence of Price.  The Red Sox hoisted their fourth Commissioner’s Trophy in the past 15 season and prepared for another Duck Boat parade down Boylston Street.

Once the euphoria of winning the championship subsided, matters quickly turned to business.  Price decided to not take advantage of his opt-out clause and return for three more years at 30-plus million dollars per year.  Eovaldi, Kelly, Kimbrel, and all filed for free agency.  Pearce wasted no time resigning with the Red Sox on a one year deal, and Eovaldi quickly followed with a four year/$68 M deal. 

However, not all players decided to return to the fold.  Kelly choose to leave Boston, inking a free agent deal with the Dodgers.  Red Sox fandom was split over the loss of Kelly.  He had endeared himself to some fans with his wacky antics and gained many more fans when he drilled the Yankee’s Tyler Austin earlier in the season, and then ignited a bench clearing brawl.  But many other fans had grown tired of Kelly’s inconsistencies and blown saves.  For all his natural abilities, Kelly was never able to harness his talents on a consistent basis, though his final weeks in a Red Sox uniform were certainly his best with dominant performances in the playoffs.  Only time will tell if he can replicate this effort in the coming years.

2019 Preview

With the calendar now turned to 2019, the Red Sox are virtually the same team they were in 2018.  As of the writing of this article, the Red Sox had not yet filled their closer role vacated by Kimbrel, though there is still the possibility Kimbrel could resign.  Several potential free agent closers have already signed deals, leaving few openings for Kimbrel’s services, but also few options for the Red Sox should Kimbrel decide to sign elsewhere.

Dombrowski seems content to let the closer situation play itself out.  With the team payroll already close to, if not over the luxury tax, and several players in line for significant pay raises through arbitration or pending free agency, it is likely the Red Sox will prefer to go with a less expensive option in the closer role.  This is a risky move with such a critical position.  The guess here is the Red Sox go with a combination of Barnes and Matt Brasier with the hope one can step up and claim the role.  

If neither steps up, there are a pair of 21 year old potential candidates in the minors in  Durbin Feltman and Darwinzon Hernandez.  It would be a stretch if either could be ready to contribute by mid-season.  Feltman has not pitched above Single A, and Hernandez has only pitched six innings at the AA level.  Neither provide the certainty of experience Kimbrel would provide, despite his struggles in the postseason.

If none of the internal candidates proves to be effective, look for a trading deadline deal featuring one of the stable of potential 2019 free agents.  Bogaerts, Sale and Porcello, are all on the final year of their contracts, and Betts and Jackie Bradley, Jr. could hit the market after 2020.  Either Porcello or Bradley could be deemed expendable to net a quality closer in a trade, and Bogaerts could also be a trade chip if a serviceable replacement shortstop is included in the deal.

Two other positions are uncertain going into Spring Training.  Several players saw time at second base last season filling in for Pedroia before Ian Kinsler was acquired before the trade deadline.  Kinsler has since left in free agency and signed with the San Diego Padres.  If Pedroia is unable to start the season, the Red Sox may be forced with another platoon of Brock Holt and Eduardo Nuzez.  Neither is a long term solution should Pedroia be forced to hang it up.

It is also unlikely the Red Sox carry three catchers again for the entire season.  Vazquez regained the starting job in the postseason, but may be the Red Sox most tradeable commodity due to his contract value.  If he is dealt, the Red Sox still have Leon (favored by the pitching staff, especially Sale) and Blake Swihart, who made major strides as a receiver in 2018 and has the highest upside offensively.

The clock is ticking for the Red Sox.  In addition to the aforementioned potential 2019 free agents, J.D. Martinez has the right to opt out of his contract at the end of the season and return to free agency while still in his prime.  Add in a looming mega contract for Betts, and it will be impossible to retain the team as currently constituted without imposing severe luxury tax penalties.  Ownership has not shown a willingness to exceed the tax threshold in the past, but they may need to do so to compete with a Yankee team that is not only not afraid to spend, but also hungry to get back on the championship podium.

Some other things to look for from the Red Sox in 2019…
  • Chris Sale’s health.  Can he return from the 2018 shoulder issues and be durable enough to make it through the season without spending significant time on the disabled list?
  • The flip-flop of Betts and Andrew Benintendi at the top of the batting order to give Betts more opportunities to bat with runners on base and drive in runs.
  • The continued progression of Rafael Devers, both offensively and defensively.  Can he become a reliable third basemen and a middle of the order left-handed power threat?
  • The development of Michael Chavis.  Can he come back from his 2018 PED suspension and contribute to the major league team.

2019 may have started quietly for the Red Sox, but expect it to heat up quickly.  Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to Fort Myers a little over a month away on February 12th, with the first full squad workout slated for February 18th.  “Reports from the Fort” are always welcome to get you through those cold late winter doldrums.  We should all be looking forward to the spring and the start of another baseball season to watch this Red Sox team go for it one more time.

Follow me on Twitter @BTravers_SYN.

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Boston Sports Syndicate: Boston Red Sox New Years Check Up
Boston Red Sox New Years Check Up
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