The modern Red Sox are gamblers. They win big and—don’t we know it—they lose big. Thus, postmortems are typically straightforward, since either it all worked out (2013) or it really didn’t (last-place finishes in 2012, 2014 and 2015). But last year was different, confounding in a way that’s familiar to fans who remember the pre-2004 Red Sox, those teams that had so much talent but could never solve the puzzle of the American League postseason.
The 2016 Red Sox were the best team since 2013, winning the AL pennant and looking poised to return to the World Series. Well, it didn’t work out that way. And not because of some persistent flaw, some built-in self-destruct mode that we knew would take us down. When you send six players to the All-Star game, score the most runs in the league (by a wide margin) and have the Cy Young winner leading a top-10 pitching staff, that ought to equate to at least an ALCS appearance. Certainly, nobody was expecting a divisional sweep by Cleveland. But sometimes teams just peak early. The grind of the 162-game schedule culminates in a weariness that’s expressed, as it turned out, by losing eight of the final nine games of the year. Slumps happen. The Sox’s simply happened at the worst possible time.
If it makes you feel better, nobody was beating the Cubs anyway. At this point, Theo Epstein should probably go run the Cleveland Browns, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey or some other hapless entity desperately in need of success. Put Theo in charge of Sears and five years from now every kid on the block would be wearing a pair of Toughskins. He is, hands down, the most successful Boston baseball executive ever to leave town while hiding inside a gorilla suit.
But we digress. The past has passed. It’s springtime, and the air will soon be redolent with blooming flowers, hot-yet-stale MBTA air and optimism. There’s always optimism as spring training winds down, and this year we have more reason than ever to be hopeful about the next six (or seven) months. After all, we didn’t finish last. And in fact, we have reason to think that this year’s team is set to surpass last year’s performance. There are a few hurdles, but let’s examine the thesis that the 2017 Red Sox are destined for the World Series. Feel the optimism!
First Big Advantage: No More Papi
Actually, wait, this is NOT an advantage! Papi can’t be replaced! And Price is hurt! And can we really trust Panda? We’re doomed! Doomed!
OK, OK. Breathe. We’re starting with the bad news first. And the bad news is that, at age 40, David Ortiz was possibly the best hitter in baseball. Which is only bad news in that he had the nerve to retire on a high note instead of lingering around for a slow decline like everyone else does. Dude totally pulled a Barry Sanders on us.
Last year, Ortiz bashed 38 home runs and hit for a .315 average while drawing 80 walks. He won a Silver Slugger while also being old enough to trigger a Silver Alert. His Wins Above Replacement stat was 5.1—meaning that the Red Sox probably won five more games just because of Ortiz. And now he’s retired. He shouldn’t even have a WAR stat, actually, because David Ortiz is irreplaceable. Even if another player could come in and hit for the exact same exalted numbers, that guy wouldn’t have been there in 2004. And 2007. And 2013. That guy won’t be a recurring character on SNL’s Weekend Update. That guy won’t remember what the Red Sox were like pre-success.
However, all is not lost. Hanley Ramirez will rotate into the designated hitter spot, which should be salutary for his numbers. And Mitch Moreland will take over at first base. Moreland won a Gold Glove last year, and even if he doesn’t hit 23 home runs (his career high), he ought to bang plenty of doubles off the Monster. He’s like a modern-day John Olerud without the high batting average and the full-time helmet.
So, look: The Sox offense won’t have the octane it did last year. We will not score 878 runs. But this is still an exciting lineup. And who knows, maybe we can persuade Papi to pull a Brett Favre and un-retire at least once. But if we don’t, history shows that no single player is indispensable. Just ask Nomar.
OK, Serious Advantage: Chris Sale
Built like Gumby (6’6”, 180 pounds) and only 27 years old, Chris Sale was the offseason blockbuster that signaled the team’s all-out approach to the 2017 season. To acquire Sale, the Red Sox farm system surrendered four players, including Yoan Moncada, the top prospect in baseball. In return, the White Sox handed over a 17-game winner who also pitched 226.2 innings last year. Look around the league, and there are not too many innings-eating workhorses who have a career ERA of 3.00. Plus, Sale’s physique can probably help inflict some helpful body dysmorphia on Panda. Our starting rotation is now so stacked that one starter will probably have to move to the bullpen—oops, never mind. There goes Price.
The Price Is All Right?
Remember when the Red Sox had so many starters that they traded Bronson Arroyo, and then everybody else got hurt and it turned out they actually still needed Bronson Arroyo? We only bring that up because it looked, for a microsecond or two, like the Red Sox once again had more starters than they knew what to do with. But then David Price got a sore elbow, and suddenly the composition of the starting rotation changed drastically, possibly casting newly minted Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Clay Buchholz as the new Arroyo. But let’s hope not. And not just because Buchholz doesn’t own a boat named Nasty Hook.
According to Baseball Reference, Price—who led the league in innings pitched last year—has thrown 26,319 pitches in the past nine years. After 26,000 pitches, you might have a sore elbow, too.
Here’s the strategy, if we’re putting on our armchair managerial hats (which have artfully curved brims, no matter what the kids think is cool): Slow-play Price’s return as long as possible. Don’t rush him back to win a few games in the spring, or even the summer. Because the postseason, assuming you get there, looks a lot different with three aces than it does with two. With three killer starters, your opponent barely comes up for air. With two, it’s a whole other situation.
In the meantime, Sale is awesome. And Rick “I Struck Out Tim Tebow” Porcello won the 2016 Cy Young, albeit with the fewest first-place votes since Fernando Valenzuela in 1981. (He also pitched 223 innings and was bust-acular in 2015, but let’s assume he’s going to be 2016 Porcello again.) Then we’ve got Drew Pomeranz, Steven Wright and Eduardo Rodriguez. Fun fact: Last year there were four Wright starts in which the bullpen got a day off because Wright pitched a complete game. Ponder that, praise be to Tim Wakefield, while you’re wondering who might take the mound on days three through five come August.
At least the bullpen still looks good: Joe Kelly and Tyler Thornburg setting up All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel, who can hopefully keep that fleeting closer magic channeled for another year. Which isn’t always easy. In baseball, as in life, there are a lot more Eric Gagnes than Jonathan Papelbons.
And Now, A Warm Welcome for Pablo Sandoval!
Remember this guy? Last year Pablo Sandoval looked about as svelte as Narcos-era Pablo Escobar, except Wagner Moura would’ve had to gain about 100 more pounds to play Sandoval. This year, a shockingly lithe Panda will be starting at third base, right where the Sox expected him to be when they handed him $95 million in guaranteed money two years ago—that contract is even sweeter than Manny Ramirez’s new one with the Kochi Island Fighting Dogs, who are providing unlimited sushi. To say that Sandoval has something to prove would be a smidge of an understatement, since last year he was injured and hit for .000. It’s easy to improve upon .000.
Perhaps he’s a master of low expectations, but Sandoval looked great this spring, playing more like the guy who once hit three home runs in three at-bats in a World Series game. If he can return to anything like his 2011-2012 All-Star form, Panda will make a big impact on the infield. And not just literally.
Speaking of Contracts…
Last season, Mookie Betts hit .318 with 31 homers and 26 steals. Unsurprisingly, he approached the Red Sox and asked for a little something extra for the effort. But Mookie’s not a free agent till 2021, and not eligible for arbitration till next year, so the Sox threw him $950,000 for 2017—a sum that was evidently not to his liking. Said Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, “He just had a different number in mind than what we had.” Did the Sox make a big mistake by potentially alienating a young star? Well, let’s not go ape that the Sox didn’t throw $300 million at him just yet. Recall that in 2011, Jacoby Ellsbury put up very similar numbers. And Ellsbury never had another year like that. Nonetheless, he’s making $21 million a year with the Yankees and will be through at least 2020. Betts lived up to his hype, but the onus is still on him to prove he can do it over the long haul.
Photo credit: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox
Besides Betts, Behold Bogaerts and Bradley!
Everybody calls them the Killer Bees: Betts, Bogaerts and Bradley Jr. Did we say everybody? Maybe we meant nobody. But anyway, they’re the young core of the team, and they’re the kinds of players that baseball executives lust over—prospects who panned out, putting up big numbers on the cheap. And as an aside, the homegrown approach is certainly a viable path to a championship, especially when you mix some Marlins-style craftiness with the flexibility of a big-market payroll. Right now we’re in the sweet spot between too green and too jaded, which is why it made sense to go after Sale rather than hold onto yet another star prospect. Remember that when Yoan Moncada turns out to be the next Jeff Bagwell.
Oh, One More: Benintendi
Left fielder Andrew Benintendi skipped right past Pawtucket and went from AA to the majors, joining the Red Sox on Aug. 2 and doing much to validate his status as one of the top prospects in baseball (his postseason debut at-bat, a home run, was one of the few highlights of October). Over the off-season, Benintendi gained about 20 pounds of muscle, which might help him hit for a little more power and will definitely help conjure fond memories of Gabe Kapler, who was a real dreamboat.
So, Warm Up the Duck Boats?
With so much young talent, it’s tempting to pronounce the Red Sox the obvious favorites for the AL pennant, and right now Vegas is favoring a Red Sox-Cubs World Series. But the crusty, grumpy New England realists among us ask if Sandoval can make good on his comeback, if the starting rotation can stay healthy, if the rest of the lineup can adjust to Papi’s outsized absence. Really, it’s all up to Dustin Pedroia. No, not really, but we just wanted to remind you that he’s still here getting it done. We suppose that this year, the Magic 8 Ball isn’t spitting out any obvious answers. This team is way too seasoned to auger into last place. Alternative outcomes? Let’s just say that there is a decent chance that the Cubs make the World Series and meet a Sox rotation led by Sale, Porcello and Price. And if that happens, Theo might want to make sure he still fits into that gorilla suit.