Red Sox: Six Other Things to Watch in 2019

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With the Red Sox Opening Day just mere hours away.  The defending World Series Champions enter 2019 with virtually the same team they had in 2018, and many of the same questions they carried with them last year.  These questions have been well documented - the lack of talent in the bullpen, no defined late inning pitching roles; and the health of Dustin Pedroia and Chris Sale.  These issues have generated much discussion on talk radio and print from media outlets such as ours.  But there are other interesting issues to keep an eye on in 2019.  In my Opening Day Red Sox Column to be Named Later, I take a look at a “Syndicate Six” list other things to watch for in 2019.

Photo courtesy of pressherald.com

Benintendi Leading Off

Alex Cora announced at the Winter Meetings in November that he would be flip-flopping Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi at the top of his lineup.  This is being done in an effort to get Betts more chances to bat with men on base, thus more opportunity to drive in runs.

In the past, a team’s best hitter traditionally batted in the third spot in the order. A more recent development is for these batters to hit in the two spot (Mike Trout, Kris Bryant and Aaron Judge fit this trend).  Betts now joins this group.

In theory this may work.  Benintendi’s OBP in 2018 (.359) was close to Betts’ (.370).  However, Benintendi was prone to slumps on occasion.  He also has a habit of being a free swinger, and can be overanxious in some situations.

Betts insertion in the leadoff spot last year, coupled with the addition of Martinez, was heralded as one of the reason for the improvement in the Red Sox offense last season.  The switch to Benintendi appears to fall into the category of “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”  If Benintendi falls into a prolonged slump, how long will Cora stick with his new plan?

Catcher ERA

The Red Sox have decided to go with Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart as their catching duo to start the season.  Sandy Leon was placed on waivers on Sunday, which he has since cleared and has been outrighted to AAA Pawtucket.  He must now decide whether to accept or deny that assignment.

While I thought Leon had the best chance to stay with the team (check out my article here) based on his preferred status with Chris Sale and other Sox starters, the Red Sox felt Vazquez could equal Leon’s catching ability, while providing more offensive punch.  Swihart’s upside was too much to risk giving up, which made Leon and his anemic bat expendable.

The catching position is different from others because of the defensive importance placed on the position, and the trust and comfort with which a pitcher must have in the catcher’s ability to not only call the game, but to block pitches and control the opponent’s running game.  A pitcher must have confidence in his backstop to bury a split finger fastball or a slider with runners on base.  However, the Red Sox have decided to go with offense over defense, which is surprising based on their abundance of offense elsewhere in the lineup.

In order to gauge the success of this move, keep an eye on the pitchers’ ERA.  Leon’s ERA was over half a run better than Vazquez last season (3.28 vs 3.84).  While this was aided by Leon catching most of Sale’s start, it certainly bears watching this season.  A comparison of all three catchers’ ERA is below.

Season
Leon
Vazquez
Swihart
2018
3.28
3.84
5.32
2017
3.41
4.02
0.75*
2016
3.90
4.27
5.71
                                                                                                                  *Six games

With question marks in the bullpen, the starters will need to go deeper into games before turning it over to the relievers.  If starters’ ERAs are up, this is not a formula for success.


Xander Bogaerts Pending Free Agency

Bogaerts is one of now three pending free agents at the end of this season (along with Rick Porcello and J.D. Martinez, who could opt out of his deal).  Bogaerts is coming off a break-out season in 2018 in which he slashed .288/.360/.522 with 34 doubles, 21 HRs and 89 RBI.  Bogaerts put up similar numbers in 2016 (.294/.356/.446 – 45 doubles, 23 HRs and 103 RBI), but had a down year in 2017 (.273/.343/.403 – 32 doubles, 10 HRs and 62 RBI).  Will the cycle continue in a down year in 2019?  Will the pressure of pending free agency weigh on Bogaerts, who is touted as having somewhat of a fragile psyche?

Rafael Devers Continued Development

Devers is coming off his first full season in the majors, a season which saw him slash .240/.298/.433 with 21 HRs and 66 RBI.  He also committed 24 errors at third base.  He was also benched for a good portion of the end of the season, and may have been left off the playoff roster if not for the uncertain health of Eduardo Nunez.  Devers rebounded with a strong postseason, and the third base job is once again his to lose.

Still only 22 years old, he is still a full year younger than Michael Chavis and Bobby Dalbec, the two top prospects behind him in the Red Sox farm system.  Devers should continue to develop both offensively and defensively.  He is projected to bat in the middle of the lineup and should see plenty of fastballs with men on base.  He could be primed for a monster break out year.

Mookie Betts Repeat Performance

Like Bogaerts, Betts has had his ups and downs over the past three years.  His break out year came in 2016, when he slashed .318/.363/.534 with 31 HRs and 113 RBI.  He followed that up with a pedestrian 2017 (.264/.344/.459, 24 HRs and 102 RBI) before bouncing back for his monster MVP season last year.

The question in 2019, like with Bogaerts, is which Mookie will we get?  There has been much talk about giving Betts a major contract extension, but with two years remaining before he becomes a free agent, the Red Sox have the luxury of time to gauge if Betts can repeat his performance.  Will the pressure of living up to his MVP stature change his game in 2019?  All eyes will be on him.

Team Complacency

Finally, the Red Sox will have to contend with the simple fact that no World Series Champion has been able to repeat in the 21st Century.  The 1998 –’99-2000 Yankees were the last team to turn the trick.  Since that time, the 2009 Phillies were able to return to the World Series the year after winning the Series the year before.

A lot of things have to go right for a team to win a World Series.  A team has to get hot at the right time, and key players must stay relatively injury-free.  Both of these happened for the 2018 Red Sox.  In addition, the team was playing hungry and had a chip on its shoulder after being bounced from the playoffs in the first round the previous two years.  After winning, can they play with that same edge?  Are the Yankees and Astros, both teams with talent equal to the Red Sox, now hungrier squads?

Honorable Mention - Do You Believe In Magic?

Last season it seemed that every move made by Cora paid off.  From the insertion of Betts in the leadoff spot, through the release of Hanley Ramirez, to his handling of the pitching staff in the postseason, every move proved to be the right one.  Can he continue this run in 2019?  Has his ego and hubris gotten the better of him with some of his choices for this season?  Only one way to find out.  Let the games begin.


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Boston Sports Syndicate: Red Sox: Six Other Things to Watch in 2019
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