Overhauled, healthier Red Sox hoping to go from worst to first in AL East
This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 7: the Boston Red Sox.
2014 Record and Finish: 71–91 (.438), fifth place in AL East (25th overall)
2015 Projected Record and Finish: 89–73 (.549), first place in AL East (seventh overall)
The Case For
The last time the Red Sox finished in the AL East basement, back in 2012, they rebounded to win the World Series the next season. With manager John Farrell still at the helm, they've got far less internal discord to overcome than they did while trying to overcome the disastrous Bobby Valentine cameo, and they've added considerable talent to the organization since the end of last season via free agency (hitters Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez) and trade (pitchers Wade Miley and Rick Porcello). Boston will also have a full season of Cuban import Rusney Castillo, and potentially healthier versions of hitters Allen Craig, Mike Napoli, Dustin Pedroia and Shane Victorino and reliever Koji Uehara.
The Red Sox can expect some growth from youngsters Xander Bogaerts and Christian Vazquez, with pitchers Henry Owens and Eduardo Rodriguez perhaps providing a second-half boost. It's entirely possible, in fact, that the team will receive better offensive production than in 2013 at every position besides designated hitter, where David Ortiz should be just fine, thanks. That would provide a considerable shot in the arm to an offense that slipped to 11th in the league in scoring (3.92 runs per game) last year, with its lowest production since 1992.
The Case Against
Amid all of the roster turnover, the Red Sox appear to be significantly short of frontline pitching. The cumulative 2014 stats of the starting five (Clay Buchholz, Porcello, Miley, Justin Masterson and Joe Kelly) are downright ugly: a 4.55 ERA, 4.04 FIP and 1.7 WAR, with Porcello’s career-best season for Detroit (3.43 ERA and 4.0 WAR in 204 2/3 innings) offsetting even worse marks from the rest of the lot. Miley, acquired from Arizona, is coming off a full-season worst 4.34 ERA and 3.98 FIP and owns a career 103 ERA+, which suggests he’s a No. 3 or 4 starter at best, while free agent signee Masterson was tarred and feathered for a 5.88 ERA in a season where he pitched his way out of the rotations of two contending clubs (Cleveland and St. Louis). The top returning starter is Buchholz, who was blistered for a 5.34 ERA in 170 1/3 innings.
With Castillo, Craig, Ramirez, Victorino, Daniel Nava and 2014 rookies Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr., the Sox have an untenable logjam in the outfield. A trade makes sense, and while they certainly have the prospects to swing a deal for Phillies ace Cole Hamels that could also address their need in the rotation, they've been reluctant to meet Philadelphia's asking price by including catching prospect Blake Swihart.
X-Factor: Clay Buchholz
The 30-year-old righty is coming off the worst full season of his eight-year major league career, not that it was that full. Buchholz’s 28 starts and 170 1/3 innings marked just the third time he's reached 20 starts or qualified for an ERA title. His ERAs in those years: 2.33 (2010), 4.56 ('12) and 5.34 ('14). He lost four weeks to a left knee hyperextension last May and June and then underwent surgery on Sept. 30 to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee.
When Buchholz is right, he's certainly a productive starter—he posted a 1.74 ERA, albeit in just 16 turns, in 2013—but it's foolish at this point to presume he's more than a fragile mid-rotation piece. He owns a career 3.92 ERA and 4.06 FIP, and on a staff full of No. 4 and 5 starters, that may very well be a problem.
Number To Know: 155
That's Hanley Ramirez's OPS+ over the last two seasons, the fifth-best in the majors behind Mike Trout (173), Miguel Cabrera (167), Andrew McCutchen (162) and Paul Goldschmidt (159). In other words, it's MVP-caliber. The hitch is that while those other four players each made at least 1,189 plate appearances in that span, Ramirez made just 848 due to a seemingly never-ending stretch of injuries and aches. He underwent thumb surgery and endured shoulder, hand, hamstring and oblique woes that he often played through, avoiding the disabled list but leaving his teams at less than full strength.
If Ramirez stays healthy and can at least battle the Green Monster to a bloody draw in his first season as a leftfielder, the 31-year-old ex-shortstop could put up video game numbers in Fenway Park. Still, he's averaged just 116 games per year over the last four, exceeding 128 games only once.
Most Overrated: Hanley Ramirez, LF
“He still has to prove to me that he can do it the whole year. They signed him hoping, hoping, that he's going to come back and be a quality player again. There's nothing I've seen yet that says he's not going to, but I don't trust him, having seen him so much over the years.”
Most Underrated: Mike Napoli, 1B
“The sleep apnea stuff is all behind him, [and] he's swinging the bat very well. He's a quality first baseman and a good righthanded power bat in a ballpark that needs righthanded power bats.”