by Joey Crandall
Pitchers and catchers report to jetBlue Park on Thursday. At some point between now and the first week of April, I assume we’ll lose the big ski ramp and Mt. Fenway will return to its originally intended state as a baseball field.
And, just maybe, the Red Sox will be looking like a championship contender. Maybe.
As much as this past offseason feels a little too much like the last offseason – only on the pitching side instead of hitting – it’s hard to come to any other conclusion than there has been a definite upgrade to the roster over the past three months.
The bullpen is stronger, we have arrived on the cusp of spring training with the entirety of the young core of talent intact and there is an increased depth in the outfield.
On those facts alone, there is reason for hope.
Here’s the rundown of the offseason as a whole.
Chris Young, OF: David Price doesn’t make the Red Sox worse by any means, but spending $217 million over seven years on a pitcher over the age of 30 doesn’t qualify as a good move (the opt-out after three years makes things more palatable – but even at 15 wins per season, the club will still be paying him nearly $2 million per win … or around $150,000 per inning).
Young, though, at $6.5 million per season over the next two years, is a bargain – providing what should be much-needed depth in the outfield.
Mookie Betts had a breakout first full season in the majors, Jackie Bradley Jr.’s brilliant August was among the best stretches of any player in the majors and Rusney Castillo closed the year in strong fashion. What seems to have been forgotten in the equation, though, is all three had stretches where they struggled mightily.
Young is being billed as the go-to starter against lefties – able to fill in at any of the three outfield positions. It stands to reason, though, that at least one of the big three might not pan out. Or at least might not live up to expectations.
Young sort of is what he is. He has a career-long track record of getting on base with decent regularity (.314 OBP over his 10-year career), and he has some pop. As of this moment, it’s the most proven track record the club has in the outfield. These are the types of signings — helpful in a pinch, strong depth off the bench — that make the difference in a pennant race.
Carson Smith, RHP & Roenis Elias LHP: This was quietly the move I was most excited about this offseason. I’d finally come to terms with my feelings about losing Rubby De La Rosa for Wade Miley. Miley came as advertised – he ate up a bunch of innings and won about as much as he lost.
Swinging him to Seattle for a potentially elite reliever in Smith (92 strikeouts in 70 innings, 2.31 ERA in his rookie campaign) and added lefthanded depth in the bullpen in Elias was a stroke of near brilliance (on par with getting an established, regular contributor like Ryan Hanigan in return for Wade Middlebrooks last season).
More importantly, it rounded out the rebuilding of what has become the most crucial piece of championship teams. I wasn’t thrilled about the yield of prospects given up for Craig Kimbrel. Even though there’s no questioning his place currently among the league’s closers, I don’t like moves for high-leverage players as a rule because of the inevitable volatility attached to the role. Closer trades just so rarely work out. Joel Hanrahan or Andrew Bailey, anyone?
Perhaps this becomes a new West of Fenway Working Theory: Closers are best either home grown or traded for from setup or middle relief roles. Uehara, Papelbon. You may point to Keith Foulke, sealing the 2004 World Series after a dominant season in his first year in Boston. I’d point to his 2005 implosion which extended into 2006 and had him out of baseball in 2007.
What I’m saying is, the Kimbrel move will prove to utterly unnecessary by the time Smith is closing games for Boston at the end of the year.
Which brings me to …
Craig Kimbrel RHP: There’s no questioning the track record.
Decline, though, is the word.
Kimbrel has been the best closer in the game over the past five years, But his ERA is up, if only slightly, and his strikeouts are down. And that’s coming off a year in pitcher-friendly PETCO Park. He’s theoretically in the prime of his career, but throwing that hard takes its toll. Fire eventually burns out.
And then there is …
Price, conversely, is coming off a phenomenal year. He keeps the ball in Fenway (only four career homers surrendered there) and consistently churns out basically the same stat line. My bet for 2016 is that he continues to do the same. Decline sets in next year.
The rest of the rotation, each remaining member, had their stretches last year. Clay Buchholz, Joe Kelly and Eduardo Rodriguez each had spots where they were nearly unhittable – brief as that may have been.
Rick Porcello was abysmal throughout. My best guess is that he’ll have some pressure relieved by Price’s arrival and will be able to just pitch, as opposed to trying to carry the staff in proportion to his contract.
My gut feeling is that the eventual everyday lineup will be Vasquez/Hanigan behind the plate, Swihart at first, Pedroia and Bogaerts up the middle, Shaw at third and Young, Bradley Jr., and Betts in the outfield. Holt will fill the gaps and step into second if Pedroia gets hurt.
The next six weeks should be as revealing as they are interesting.