How does a team with a fertile farm system and a big budget balance the need to compete every year with the need to build from within?
Catcher – Sandy Leon will begin the year as the primary catcher, spelled by Christian Vazquez. Leon was hitting over .350 into September, before a 4-44 tailspin brought his numbers closer to earth. He was a sub-.200 hitter before 2016. Vazquez is a superior defensive catcher, but he hits like a future minor league manager. Both are out of options. Blake Swihart, still just 24, is moving back behind the plate. Swihart has options so he will likely begin the season in AAA, but if he hits he’ll be hard to keep down on the farm. Ryan Hanigan is gone, the Sox having declined his option.
First Base –
Second Base – Dustin Pedroia has been the regular for ten years, and he’s signed through 2021. While his attendance record has been spotty year-to-year because of injuries, he has been remarkably consistent when able to play. Now 32, he was as good in 2016 as he usually is.
Third Base – Travis Shaw was a nice surprise early in 2016, but by the end of the year he was a mess. He played in every game in the first half and had 321 plate appearances. He missed 16 games in the second half, and had just 213 plate appearances. His ops was .790 on August 4, .550 after. He hit under .200 against lefties. He wasn’t terrible defensively, but he was erratic. The Sox spent a ton of money on Pablo Sandoval before 2015, and he has three years remaining on his contract.
Debrief: The Sox won 93 games and the AL Eastern Division title before getting swept out of the playoffs by World Series-bound Cleveland. They led the AL in run differential by 83 over the Indians, leading the league in runs scored by over a hundred and finishing third in runs allowed.
What happened? A lot went right. Mookie Betts took a forceful step forward in his second full season, winning a gold glove and finishing second in the voting for the Most Valuable Player award. Rick Porcello went from 9-15, 4.92 to 22-4, 3.15, and won the Cy Young award. Sox icon David Ortiz went out like a lion, slashing .315-.401-.620, hitting 38 homers and driving in 127 runs in his farewell season.
Hanley Ramirez hit 30 homers and drove in 111. Jackie Bradley, Jr., Xander Bogaerts and Dustin Pedroia averaged 156 games, 105 runs scored, 83 runs driven in, 21 homers and 15 steals to give the Sox an iron spine up the middle. Journeyman catcher Sandy León came out of nowhere to slug his way through the summer, hitting over .350 into September before fading late to .310.
Knuckleballer Steven Wright spent the early summer at the top of the era standings, and won 13 games. David Price, after a rough start to his Red Sox career, rebounded to give the Sox 230 innings, 228 strikeouts and 17 wins. Closer Craig Kimbrell struck out 83 and gave up just 28 hits. Brad Zeigler, brought in to spell Kimbrell in mid-season, posted a 1.52 era for the Sox.
Not everything went right, of course. The Sox struggled to fill the back end of the rotation all season. Veteran fourth starter Clay Buchholz missed 12 starts and was mediocre when he was healthy. Edwardo Rodriguez showed flashes of brilliance, but on balance was about as mediocre as Buchholz. Drew Pomeranz, brought in at midseason to fill a slot, was – you guessed it – mediocre. Four other pitchers started games for the Sox, all of them posting eras north of 6. The group, in a combined 70 starts, finished 16-23, 5.41. They gave up 64 homers, walked 158, and struck out 311 in 359.2 innings.
Their catching, despite León’s hot streak, was offensively below average. Third base, despite Travis Shaw’s early effectiveness, was even worse. Pablo Sandoval missed most of the season, and there is no guarantee he’ll give the Sox any return on the remaining three years of his bloated contract. No pun intended. The back end of the bullpen posted curiously mediocre era numbers beyond Ziegler and Hembree – the cost of doing business when you pitch in Fenway – and the rest of the bullpen was somewhere between pointless and hazardous.
The bench, beyond Chris Young, was nonexistent. Supersub Brock Holt missed most of the first half and his bat missed most of the second half. The catchers, other than León, were terrible. Blake Swihart, moved to left field, was the second most famous converted catcher to hurt himself running around the outfield and miss most of the season. Aaron Hill struggled after he was brought in to platoon with Travis Shaw at third.
Prospect Watch – the Studs
Andrew Benintendi established himself as the Sox’ starting left fielder, burning through the minors from high A in four months. He looks a little bit like Fred Lynn, and the comparison doesn’t end there. Despite a slight frame – at 5-10 he’s closer to 150 pounds than 200 – he has already shown power in the show. Expect him to hit for a good average with lots of doubles and 15-20 homers, with the potential to hit more if he can pull the ball consistently. He’ll be 22 when the 2017 season begins.
Joan Moncada made his Sox debut late in the season. He struggled, striking out 12 times in 19 atbats, but he will get every opportunity to take the third base job in the spring. He is speedy – 49 and 45 stolen bases in his first two minor league seasons – and he gets on base (.395 career minor league onbase average). He showed some power last summer, hitting 15 homers to go with 31 doubles and 6 triples in 405 atbats. He’ll be 21 when the 2017 season begins.
Righthander Michael Kopech has an electric fastball that sits 95-99 (he was timed at 105 in a game on July 13) and has one of the highest spin rates in the minors. The 33rd overall pick in 2014, he still needs work on his control and command, but he’ll begin 2017 in AA. Scouts think he was the best pitching prospect in the Arizona Fall League, where he struck out 18 and walked just 1 in 14 innings. He missed the first half of 2016 after breaking his hand in a fight with his roommate. He turns 21 at the end of April. Fenway has never been kind to pitching prospects, so temper expectations, but the big Texan is likely to at least get his feet wet this year, and he has the kind of stuff that plays anywhere.
Rafael Devers is a sturdy, thick-legged third base prospect with a loopy lefty swing. He held his own in high A in 2016, despite being one of the youngest players in the league. He will likely be the regular 3b in AA in 2017. He’s more of a grade B prospect than a blue-chipper, and it’s doubtful he’ll see the major leagues in 2017, but at just 20 years old he is well ahead of schedule.
It’s too early to talk about the Basabe twins, but keep the name in mind. At the moment they are 19 and trying to work their way through A ball. One of them was traded to Arizona, but I’ll be dammed if I’m going to sort ‘em out. We’ll hear a lot about ‘em next year if they are any good, and we can sort ‘em out then.
AAA first baseman Sam Travis is only 22, but he’s a mid-sized sedan playing a Cadillac position. He will hit for enough of an average to be useful in a pinch, but he won’t be interesting unless he develops more power.
Lefty Jason Groome was the Sox’ top draft pick in 2015. He’s a tall lefty, 18 and skinny as hell. He hits the mid-90s with his fastball and he has a good hook, but he doesn’t have a consistent release point yet.
Utilityman Marco Hernandez got into 40 games with the Sox in 2016, hitting well enough (.294) to give himself a chance to stick on the Sox bench in 2017. He isn’t likely to be a major league regular, but he could be in the league for a dozen years as a supersub. His skillset – a left handed gap-power bat who can play all over the infield – will keep him in Little Friskies as long as his defense is good.
Josh Okimey hit .226 in low A, but he has some positive markers. He has legit plus power and he drew 88 walks, and he doesn’t strike out that much. He’s going to have to make his living with the bat, so .226 ain’t going to cut it. He’s a grade C prospect who could go either way. If he steps forward he’s a major leaguer. If he steps backward he’ll be out of the game in a couple of years.
Bobby Dalbec was too good for low A at 21, slashing .386-.427-.674. The former college closer (Arizona) led the Cape Cod league in homeruns in 2015 and was considered a 1st round talent, but struggles with the bat in his final college season lowered his draft stock. Boston was able to snag him in the 4th round. He’s a third baseman at the moment, but his size – he’s huge, 6-4 and thick-bodied – and the presence of Moncada means he’ll most likely move to first base eventually. He’s a grade B prospect now, but if he can maintain his progress he could be the Sox’ regular first baseman as soon as 2018.
Hitting .339 in AA will attract attention, but Mauricio Dubon has some work left to do. He is blocked behind Bogaerts at short, and he doesn’t have enough power for anyone to be happy with him at third. His best path might be as Dustin Pedroia’s caddy, but he isn’t known for his defense and his secondary offensive skills are below average. If he can hit .300 he’ll have a career, but the .339 was out of line with his history. He’s only 21, so he has time. On balance, he’s a grade C prospect.
Kyle Martin isn’t a top prospect, but he will probably be in the Sox bullpen in 2017. He’s huge and he can hit the mid-90s with his fastball, and he has decent control. He used to throw sidearm; he gained several miles an hour on his fastball when he raised his arm angle.
He’ll turn 23 in May and he didn’t dominate A ball. You can’t teach 100 mph fastball velocity, though, so Victor Diaz is worth keeping an eye on. Teammate Jake Cosart is still wild as hell, but he can get it up near a hundred and he dominated hitters in high A late in the season. Chandler Shepherd is a couple of years older and doesn’t throw as hard, but he is more refined and he took a step forward in AA last summer. He has an outside chance to make the Sox bullpen in 2017, and he’ll likely be up sometime in the summer if he’s healthy and maintains his 2016 level of effectiveness.