It’s baseball time, believe it or not. Sure, there’s an outside chance that the 23rd nor’easter of the spring will drop a foot of snow on April 5, leading to a baseball redux of the Foxboro snowplow game—except this time the plow clears the third-base line so Mookie Betts can steal home for a 1-0 victory. That sounds unlikely, but where the Red Sox are concerned, nothing would surprise us anymore. For instance, last year’s pitching staff had a regular-season ERA of 3.70, the lowest since 1992. Yet it is also true that midseason waiver-wire pickup Doug Fister started Game 3 of the American League Division Series. If you don’t remember how he fared, let’s just say you don’t want to run out and buy a Fister jersey—and not just for the obvious reasons. The 2017 pitching staff was a baseball version of Schrödinger’s cat, both dead and alive simultaneously.
Rafael Devers | Photo Credit: Billie Weiss
So the Red Sox didn’t win the World Series. Or make it to the ALCS. But if a few things shook out a little bit differently—say, if Xander Bogaerts didn’t get hit on the hand by a pitch in July and David Price stayed healthy—maybe the team would’ve gone deeper into October. This team, after all, did best the mighty New York Aaron Judges in the regular season.
All the 2017 Red Sox really needed was better luck and a 45-home-run power hitter. Well, they’ve procured one of those things. Of course, we’re talking about the Talisman of Boggs, an ancient slab engraved with glyphs of chicken and beer that is said to bring wondrous fortune to whoever possesses it. Oh, and they signed J.D. Martinez. So can this crew go further than their 2017 predecessors? Let’s take a look.
First, let’s talk about Alex Cora. We’re psyched that the Red Sox are shaking up the infield with this veteran player, whose deft glo—what? Cora’s the manager? Wasn’t he teammates with Dustin Pedroia, like, yesterday? OK, well, cool. It’s nice to have a manager who could sub himself in, if the need arises. Why, this town hasn’t seen anything like that since Kobe Bryant’s dad, Jellybean, was a player/coach for the Boston Frenzy in the American Basketball Association. And if you think this whole paragraph is primarily an excuse to remind you that Jellybean Bryant played for the Boston Frenzy, well, you’d be right. But we’re also optimistic about Cora. The manager’s job depends on respect from the players, and it’s easy to respect a guy who’s not long removed from the field himself. Cora understands what a modern player goes through because he was one. Very recently.
Jackie Bradley Jr. | Photo Credit: Michael Ivins
And Cora’s going to have some enviable options when it comes to the infield. Pedroia is coming back from knee surgery, so in the meantime Eduardo Nunez looks like the starter at second base. The Sox acquired Nunez from the Giants last July, and he was on fire from the start. He had 19 hits in his first 10 games and ended up hitting .321 with eight home runs over 38 games. Nunez became a free agent at the end of the year but the Red Sox re-signed him in February. Good move.
At third base, there’s Rafael Devers, who, like Nunez, made a big impact when he got his chance last year. Devers came up at the end of July and only played 58 games, but he hit 10 dingers (and a not-too-shabby .284). And he’s young. How young? Last year Devers became the first player in Red Sox history to hit a postseason home run and later get negged by the bouncer at the Cask ’N Flagon. That second part didn’t happen (as far as we know), but it is true that Devers was 20 years old when he helped propel the Sox past the Astros in Game 3 of the American League Division Series. And he’s fast, as proven in the next game when he hit an inside-the-park homer in the bottom of the ninth. The last time we had a homegrown third-base talent this good, we traded him for Larry Andersen.
At short, we have a back-to-full-strength Bogaerts, a guy who’s as likely to win a batting title as he is to get his name butchered at Starbucks. So: pretty good chance.
Eduardo Nunez | Photo Credit: Billie Weiss
The problem area, if you can call it that, is first base. And the problem is that Hanley Ramirez and Mitch Moreland are both good. They combined for 45 home runs last year. But with Martinez likely filling the designated hitter spot most days, there’s only room for one of them at first. And if Martinez is slotted in the outfield, then you lose either Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi or Jackie Bradley Jr. Any way you look at it, there’s a good hitter on the bench.
Which is why Blake Swihart is so important. Swihart can play almost any position from catcher to Lansdowne Street sausage vendor, which gives Cora flexibility to solve the Sale-Leon Conundrum. Which, if you’re not familiar, is thus: Chris Sale really likes pitching to Sandy Leon rather than Christian Vazquez—in the two games Vazquez caught Sale, our ace’s ERA was 13.50. Yet Vazquez outhit Leon .290 to .225. If only we could have it both ways, with the best from Sale and more pop at the plate. Well, maybe we can sometimes, because if Vazquez has a day off to rest the ol’ hammies, Swihart can sub in at catcher after Leon is pulled for a pinch hitter. It won’t happen every day, but mark our words this scenario will generate a win at some point this season. And it’ll all be thanks to Blake “America’s” Swihart.
BMookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi | Photo Credit: Billie Weiss
As is the case with the infield, the outfield looks like an embarrassment of riches. The worst thing you can say about it is that Bradley Jr. hasn’t quite lived up to the extravagant expectations he brought upon himself after his 2016 All-Star year. But he still put up respectable numbers at the plate while playing outrageously good defense. And he’ll be flanked by 23-year-old Benintendi (.271, 20 homers, 90 RBI last year) and 25-year-old Betts (24 home runs, 26 stolen bases). This is a young, fast, strong-hitting outfield. And we haven’t even gotten to Martinez yet.
The Red Sox’ blockbuster $110 million offseason trophy will find himself in the outfield some days. But the Sox didn’t acquire Martinez for his glove. They acquired him because his hitting stats recall 2005-era Manny Ramirez, minus the whimsical insanity. As in, Martinez is a .300, 40-home-run guy who probably won’t disappear into the Green Monster during games or high-five a fan in the middle of a clutch play or sell his gas grill on eBay. OK, fine. We’re getting a little nostalgic now. But what we’re really nostalgic for is a power hitter of the Manny-Papi idiom, a guy whose very presence makes everyone in the lineup more productive as pitchers try to avoid the fearsome cleanup guy.
And Martinez is fearsome at the plate. Last year, he was traded from Detroit to Arizona midway through the season and ended up leading both the American League and the National League in slugging percentage. That pretty much tells you what you need to know.
Craig Kimbrel | Photo Credit: Michael Ivins
Last year’s team had an enviable overall ERA, but injuries were the bane of the staff. We know the wins count the same no matter when you get them, but this year the mission is to make the playoffs without melting the arms of the key starters. Easier said than done, sure, but if there’s a healthy lead in mid-September, then that might be a fine time to try a six-man rotation or have Sale develop a surprise pinkie blister that makes him a late scratch. Last year, Sale pitched 214 1/3 innings during the regular season—more than anyone else in baseball. That’s an indication of excellence in that he went deep into a lot of games, but proactively dialing back the workload could help the cause come October.
Next in the rotation, there’s Price, whose elbow injury limited him to 11 starts last year. Price didn’t get a lot of innings, but his 6-3 record and 3.38 ERA would’ve extrapolated to a very nice season. And he looked great coming out of the bullpen in the postseason. No, picking a fight with Dennis Eckersley probably wasn’t a great move and Price is still looking for his first career postseason win. But that simply means he’s got something to prove. If he can stay healthy, Price can give the Sox an intimidating one-two punch alongside Sale in any series.
Make that a one-two-three punch, depending on which Rick Porcello the Sox get this year. Will it be Cy Young Porcello (2016), or 11-17 Porcello (2017)? Porcello’s pitching last year was actually better than his stats suggest—more often than not, he’d get off to a bad start before settling down after the first inning. That’s a solvable problem, so you can feel good about the top three.
The bottom of the rotation, per usual, is where the questions lie. Drew Pomeranz is a solid fourth starter, but he might be hurt. Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright will probably both start the season on the disabled list, which means there is room for perhaps two starters. Brian Johnson, and not the one from AC/DC, shook the Mariners all night long last May, throwing a shutout. Johnson later won the Lou Gorman Award for perseverance in making the major leagues despite challenges that included multiple line drives to the head and a carjacking at gunpoint. So he’s a likely candidate, as is Hector Velazquez. But whether those guys work out or flame out is anyone’s guess. By July, there could be a solid Tim Wakefield or Bronson Arroyo out there. Or there could be a haggard journeyman with a mid-4 ERA.
At least the bullpen looks good. Last year’s bullpen had an ERA of 3.15, which was bettered by only Cleveland. Ace closer Craig Kimbrel is back, and the setup guys look promising, too. Consider Carson Smith, also known as Smitty. That tall drink of water had a fantastic year for Seattle in 2015, throwing in 70 games with a 2.32 ERA. But in 2016, after the Sox acquired him, he pitched less than three innings and underwent Tommy John surgery. Smith returned at the end of last year and allowed only one run over eight games, hopefully a preview of what he’ll deliver this year.
Hanley Ramirez | Photo Credit: Billie Weiss
It’s exciting to see Joe Kelly back, particularly since he’s given to disguising himself as reporter “Jim Buchanan” at spring training. The getup—which somehow combined a white goatee and a mullet—was convincing enough that neither coaches nor security recognized him when he wandered into the middle of a live fielding practice—even when he picked up a stray ball and tossed it to a coach at about 93 mph. We hope NESN signs Jim Buchanan as its exclusive in-bullpen commentator.
So, the Red Sox are in a not unfamiliar situation. The offense is stacked, the bullpen is right and the top of the rotation looks intimidating. There’s a lot of young players and they didn’t really lose anyone key from the team that won the AL East. Hey, maybe this will even be the year that Rusney Castillo works out. He’s owed $35.5 million, so it would be cool if he were something more than the most expensive Pawtucket player in history. But they can live without him.
Can they live with the bottom of the starting rotation, though, given all the injuries and unknowns? That remains to be seen. In the postseason, that wouldn’t really matter so much. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, the Sox need to win a few games. So by golly, let’s get out there, put on our thermal underwear, warm up the third-base plow and play ball. ◆