Winter Report Card: Red Sox reload with David Price and Craig Kimbrel
With less than five weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season while acknowledging that there's still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2015. Now up: the Boston Red Sox. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
78–84 (.481), fifth place in American League East (Hot Stove Preview)
Off-season In Review
Last winter, the Red Sox—fresh off their second last-place finish in three years—overhauled their lineup and rotation, spending big on free agents Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez but failing to emerge with a front-of-the-rotation starter. The results were ugly: The starters were rocked for a 5.05 ERA over the first two months of the season, and by mid-June, the team was again running fifth in the division, drifting into a double-digit deficit that it never overcame. In mid-August, less than two full years removed from a world championship, general manager Ben Cherington was ousted in an organizational reshuffling that brought in former Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski as the new president of baseball operations.
As he did so often in Detroit, Dombrowski went big. In mid-November, he strengthened the bullpen by trading four prospects from a deep farm system for four-time All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel. In December, he signed former Cy Young winner David Price—whom he'd traded for at the 2014 deadline and then away at the '15 one, sealing his own fate in the Motor City—to a seven-year, $217 million deal, the largest ever for a pitcher. Around those signature moves, he's made some smaller ones that have added additional depth.
The 30-year-old Price is coming off a strong season split between Detroit and Toronto, one in which he led the AL with a 2.45 ERA in 220 1/3 innings, struck out 9.2 per nine, ranked second in Wins Above Replacement (6.0) behind Dallas Keuchel and finished second in the Cy Young voting. His contract calls for him to make $30 million per year for the next three seasons prior to an opt-out, after which his salary rises to $31 million for 2019 and then $32 million for the final three years. The Sox are taking on considerable risk, but it's for a pitcher who has consistently been among the best in baseball for the past six seasons and has shown he can handle just about everything the AL East throws at him. The reward could be huge, particularly given that none of the division’s other four teams wound up with any of the market’s other top-tier pitchers.
As for the rest of the rotation: Wade Miley, who led the team in starts (32) and innings (193 2/3) but was roughed up for a 4.46 ERA, was dealt to the Mariners along with 25-year-old righty reliever Jonathan Aro (who made six appearances for the big club) in exchange for starter Roenis Elias and reliever Carson Smith. The 27-year-old Elias pitched to a 4.14 ERA and 4.52 FIP in 115 1/3 innings for the Mariners, struggling with home runs (1.2 per nine) and spending part of his season with Triple A Tacoma. He doesn't have a clear shot at a rotation spot right now, with Rick Porcello, Clay Buchholz, Eduardo Rodriguez, Joe Kelly and Henry Owens ahead of him on the depth chart; lefty prospect Brian Johnson, who made one start for the big club but was lost in early August due to elbow tightness, is hopefully back in the picture as well. But given Buccholz's never-ending spate of injuries—he made just 18 starts last year, which didn't stop the team from picking up his $13 million option—and the failures of Porcello and Kelly to find their footing in Boston thus far, Elias is a spare part who shouldn't be taken for granted.
Kimbrel arrived at considerable cost in the form of four prospects: lefty Logan Allen, infielder Carlos Asuaje, shortstop Javier Guerra and outfielder Manuel Margot. Of that group, only Asuaje and Margot reached Double A last year, so the impact on the 2016 Sox is negligible, but Margot placed in the upper half of both the Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus midseason prospect lists, so the loss is hardly painless. The arrival of Kimbrel beefs up the bullpen by pushing going-on-41-year-old Koji Uehara, who has saved 72 games for the team over the past three seasons, back into a setup role. Uehara was limited to 40 1/3 innings last year due to a season-ending right wrist fracture via a batted ball, but he was strong when he pitched, posting a 2.23 ERA with 10.5 strikeouts and just 2.0 walks per nine. The 26-year-old Smith, meanwhile, is coming off a stellar rookie season in which he pitched to a 2.31 ERA with 11.8 strikeouts per nine and 13 saves in 70 innings. He and Uehara will pair nicely in front of Kimbrel, who struggled early in his lone year in San Diego but finished with a 2.58 ERA and 13.3 strikeouts per nine.
Those acquisitions bump Junichi Tazawa (4.14 ERA in 58 2/3 innings) lower in the pecking order and will more than offset the losses of Alexi Ogando (3.99 ERA in 65 1/3 innings) and Jean Machi (5.09 ERA in 23 innings). Outrighted off the roster in November, the former signed with the A's, the latter with the Cubs. Also gone are lefties Rich Hill and Craig Breslow. Hill spent seven seasons wandering in the wilderness of various injuries and uniform changes, managing just 153 big-league innings with a 5.41 ERA in that time, before opening some eyes by whiffing 36 in 29 innings over four late-season starts, his first in the majors since 2009. He signed a one-year, $6 million deal with the A's. Breslow pitched to a 4.15 ERA in 65 1/3 innings and even made the first two starts of his 10-year MLB career, but he yielded 1.7 homers per nine. There's no reason to fret his departure given that lefty holdovers Robbie Ross and Tommy Layne both had better seasons.
As for position players, the key new face is Chris Young, who hit .252/.320/.453 with 14 homers and a 112 OPS+ in 356 plate appearances for the Yankees last year. The Sox signed him to a two-year, $13 million deal on the strength of his lefty-mashing ways (.263/.362/.474 career) and ability to play all three outfield positions. Barring a trade, he'll back up whatever configuration of Rusney Castillo, Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. the team settles upon, with most of his playing time likely to come at the expense of the lefty-swinging Bradley (who has actually shown a reverse platoon split during his young big-league career). Gone from the stable is former prospect Garin Cecchini, whose star had fallen with two underwhelming years at Triple A Pawtucket—including a .213/.286/.296 line in 469 PA in 2015—not to mention the emergence of so many other prospects in the system. Designated for assignment in December, he was sold to the Brewers.
Unfinished business: Trading Hanley Ramirez
The signing of the notoriously injury-prone Ramirez to a four-year, $88 million contract in November 2014 didn't make a whole lot of sense given the Boston brass' plan to convert him to leftfield on the fly, and the results in year one of the deal were even worse. Ramirez hit just .249/.291/.426 with 19 homers and a 90 OPS+, including .239/.275/.372 in 327 plate appearances after spraining his left shoulder in a collision with Fenway Park's leftfield wall in foul territory. He didn't go on the disabled list for that injury, instead functioning as a leaking tire in the lineup. In late August, he revealed that he had injured his right shoulder several weeks earlier while making a throw. Ramirez said nothing for several weeks, which hardly helped matters except by removing him from the lineup for the remainder of the season. In all, he cratered to -1.3 WAR, and in September, the Sox unveiled a plan for him to switch positions again, this time to first base, since David Ortiz remains on hand as the designated hitter.
Will it work? It should be an easier position to learn given the lack of a Green Monster towering over him, but the 32-year-old Ramirez carries so much baggage with regards to his level of commitment and has averaged just 114 games per year over the past five seasons. With Travis Shaw and Brock Holt on hand, the team does have contingencies in place—including moving fellow free-agent bust Sandoval (.245/.292/.366, 76 OPS+, -13 Defensive Runs Saved at third) to first base—and nobody is going to rush to absorb all $66 million remaining on Ramirez's deal. Dombrowski will have to wait until at least spring training (when Ramirez is back on the field) and likely until midseason (when he has shown he's healthy and productive) to free himself of one of the previous regime's most pivotal mistakes.
Preliminary Grade: A-
After back-to-back dismal seasons, the Red Sox have shaken things up, with Dombrowski putting his stamp upon the team by acquiring both an ace for the rotation and significant help for the bullpen. What’s more, he’s done that while retaining the bulk of the team's top prospects as well as the enviable young core of position players—including the much-coveted Xander Bogaerts and Blake Swihart—and pitchers. The only knocks upon his work to date in this context are for a more reliable first base solution and the trimming of enough payroll to keep Boston under the $189 million luxury tax threshold, but the new guy can only make so much lemonade out of the various lemons he's been handed. Expect this team to contend in 2016.