Winter Report Card: Boston Red Sox
With little more than five weeks before pitchers and catchers report, we're checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there's still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2014.
Boston Red Sox
2014 Results: 71-91 (.438), fifth place in the AL East (Hot Stove Preview)
The Boston Red Sox made two big splashes this offseason. On Nov. 25, they came to terms with both Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, landing two of the top free agents on the market in one swoop. Then, a little more than two weeks later, on the final day of the winter meetings, they traded for Rick Porcello and Wade Miley and signed Justin Masterson, restocking a rotation that had been gutted in July with the trades of John Lackey and pending free agents Jon Lester and Jake Peavy.
None of those are slam-dunk moves, but in Sandoval, signed for five years and $95 million with a $17 million club option for 2020, the Red Sox are replacing the .211/.271/.308 line they got from their third baseman in 2014 with a 28-year-old two-time All-Star who will be moving from one of the most extreme pitchers parks in baseball to hitter-friendly Fenway Park. Ramirez, signed for four years and $88 million with a $22 million vesting option for 2017, will similarly be playing his home games in a hitter-friendly park for the first time since the Red Sox traded him away after the 2005 season. He has no professional experience in the outfield, but in Fenway, he'll be playing the smallest leftfield in baseball, and the position switch could increase his chances of staying healthy.
Ramirez replaces Cespedes, who was sent to Detroit for Porcello in what amounts to a swap of players entering their walk years. Porcello thus replaces Lester, who was traded for Cespedes in July and signed with the Cubs in mid-December. That's an obvious downgrade but a significant savings: Porcello is arbitration eligible coming off a $8.5 million salary, while Lester will make $30 million in 2015 from his six-year, $155 million deal with Chicago. Porcello, Miley (acquired from the Diamondbacks for stagnating pitching prospects Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster and minor league infielder Raymel Flores), and Masterson (signed for one year and $9.5 million) combine with Joe Kelly, acquired in July for Lackey, to give Boston a ground-ball heavy rotation that effectively increases the role of their infield defense in run prevention.
It's a good gamble by Boston. Dustin Pedroia is arguably the best defensive second baseman in baseball, and Mike Napoli has proven to be an outstanding defensive first baseman. The left side of the infield is more suspect, but Sandoval is solid at the hot corner and Xander Bogaerts is young enough (still just 22) to make significant strides at shortstop, particularly now that he has the security of knowing he won't be moved to third base on a whim.
In addition to those big moves, the Sox also re-signed closer Koji Uehara for two years and $18 million, brought back lefty reliever Craig Breslow on a one-year deal worth $2 million, and traded failed third base prospect Will Middlebrooks to the Padres for catcher Ryan Hanigan. Uehara will turn 40 in April, but his supposed late-season struggles were confined to a span of six appearances in an otherwise outstanding season. Breslow, now 34, struggled with home runs, walks and lefties in 2014, but comes cheap enough to cut loose if those struggles continue. Hanigan, meanwhile, is an ideal veteran caddy for the team's anticipated transition to top catching prospect Blake Swihart and is three-and-a-half years younger than the man he's replacing, David Ross.
Unfinished Business: Rotation ace, bullpen depth, thinning the outfield glut
The Red Sox did well to restock their rotation, but, as noted, by failing to re-sign Lester, they have also failed to replace him adequately. Max Scherzer and James Shields are still out there as free agents, and the Phillies may yet trade Cole Hamels, but the general impression is that the Red Sox will go to battle with the rotation they've got. Next winter, however, they could make Porcello a qualifying offer and decline Clay Buchholz's option, then take their chances with a free-agent class which could include David Price, Jordan Zimmermann, Johnny Cueto, Zack Greinke (who has an opt-out after the coming season), Doug Fister, Hisashi Iwakuma, Mat Latos, Kyle Lohse and Jeff Samardzija, among others (though surely at least a few of those pitchers will sign extensions in the interim).
Meanwhile, though the Red Sox did re-sign Uehara and Breslow and swipe Anthony Varvaro from the Braves for minor league reliever Aaron Kurcz, the bullpen remains thin. Clever re-purposing of near-ready Triple A starters could flesh it out, but another solid setup arm or two would improve the outlook significantly. A simple reunion with the still-available Badenhop is one solution, or the team could use its glut of outfielders to beef up its bullpen.
With Ramirez set to start in left and Cuban defector Rusney Castillo in center, the list of candidates for rightfield includes prospects Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr., veterans Allen Craig and Shane Victorino, and organization soldier Daniel Nava. Bradley, a career .196/.268/.280 hitter, is a good candidate to return to Triple A, but he'll be 25 in April and is on the verge of proving a bust. Trading him now would be selling low, but given that he's blocked in center by Castillo, who was signed to a seven-year deal, Boston may be better off trying to cash him in now rather than after demoting him in late March.
Speaking of selling low, it wouldn't make much sense to try to move Craig and the three years and $26.5 million left on his contract after his dismal showing in 2014, particularly given the fact that he can back up Napoli at first base. However, eating some of the $13 million Victorino is owed on the final year of his deal could make him an attractive low-risk option for a team looking for outfield depth. The Sox could then give the 22-year-old Betts, who impressed as a rookie last year, the first crack at the rightfield job, with the righty Craig and switch-hitting Nava as excellent options off the bench.
Preliminary Grade: A-
The minus is there because Boston's well-laid plans could go bust. Ramirez could get hurt, Sandoval could continue to decline, the rotation could be mediocre at best, Uehara could show his age, and Breslow could be a bust. Still, those plans are well-laid. The Red Sox were aggressive in addressing their needs, landed two of the top free-agent hitters on the market and, when stymied in their efforts to reunite with Lester, quickly enacted a well-thought-out Plan B for the rotation that substituted strategy for star power.
Having gone worst-to-first-to-worst over the last three years, the Red Sox appear poised for another radical change in fortunes. They're not an obvious pick to win their division in the coming year, but that outcome would be far less surprising than another last-place finish given the work they've done this offseason.