We’re under two weeks before pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training.
I purposefully haven’t written on anything pertaining to the Red Sox since the day after the Indians ended Boston’s 2016 campaign and, consequently, David Ortiz’s career.
There have been several starts and subsequent stops, but no complete posts, or even ideas or thoughts I’ve been willing to stand behind in the time since.
A few past posts of mine (“The Cubs are historically great and that’s why they won’t win the World Series”, and “Porcello and everything Boston lost to get him” come immediately to mind …), have left me gun-shy — or at least more reticent, having come to a concrete conclusion that my analysis skills are severely lacking and in need of some work. Or at least a little more patience and optimism.
I have resolved to be more patient my reactions and observations, swallowing my first, and maybe second blushes, from hereon.
That being said, my offseason evaluation requires musical accompaniment, which will be provided from the original motion picture soundtrack from “Edward Scissorhands,” composed by Danny Elfman
The move of the offseason was Boston unloading a pair of big-time prospects in Michael Kopech and Yoan Moncada (as well as two more prospects) for one of baseball’s most dominant pitchers, Chris Sale, from the Chicago White Sox.
As I’ve written many times before, big-time deals — especially for elite-level starting pitching — give me the nightsweats.
Sale, following in the line of Rick Porcello two seasons ago, and David Price last year, could run into some bumps his first year in Boston.
However, he’s coming off a career-best season in wins (let’s just ignore the signs of overexposure with career highs in innings pitched, home runs allowed, runs allowed and hit batsmen in 2016 to go with an ERA that has been steadily trending upward over the past seven years).
Let’s also set aside the mechanical issues of his delivery (which, with every pitch, leave the fan hoping against an immediate trip to the disabled list), and the idea that he is reaching the age of traditional breakdown — note Tim Lincecum, also freakish in delivery and overall awesomeness, who at age 28 went from dominant to never again turning in a season ERA below 4.13 … in a pitcher’s ballpark!
We’re being optimistic.
Sale is one of the top three pitchers in baseball, a five-time All-Star, and a perennial Cy Young candidate. And, he has been mostly stellar at Fenway (though the sample size is extremely small — to the tune of roughly 20 innings pitched — and there was a 7-earned-run, 12-hit blip during a start in 2015 which accounted for a quarter of those total innings).
Sure, just 19 weeks prior to the blockbuster deal, he hoisted one of the ultimate red flags of all time, shredding an entire team set of jerseys with a pair of scissors while his teammates were out taking batting practice.
But, it couldn’t have been malicious, or even regrettable, because he was never really apologetic about it. Right?
The uniforms were reportedly uncomfortable, which shouldn’t be an issue with the Red Sox, because players are never subjected to intense scrutiny or discomfort.
Insubordination and blame-shifting (It was Robin Ventura’s fault for not standing up for his players) generally tend to play well to the Fenway crowd.
The cut and fit of the uniforms — not to mentioned the untucked throwback jersey — affected his mechanics and thus amounted to a workplace safety issue (Though he has not previously given the same regard for questions about the crooked letters his arms form while winding up or the resulting wince-inducing violent, elbow-bulging release of his pitches).
In short, if not for his actions with the scissors, he surely would have been under the knife. Maybe.
A moment’s hesitation can certainly be understood. The last time we had documented chemistry issues within the pitching staff, after all, the season ended with a whimper of a final month amidst clubhouse watch parties awash with buckets of fried chicken and bottles of suds.
No such issue with Sale though.
Sure to be a clubhouse hit with teammates and staff alike, he can entertain teammates with paper snowflake arts & crafts, rousing bouts of Rock, Paper, Scissors, or even by hosting a prime rib and roasted turkey carving station and stocking the clubhouse fridge with Orange Slice soda.
And, proven track record aside, Sale represents an upgrade from Kopech’s potential high ceiling in that Sale takes out his aggression on the apparel, while Kopech took his out on a teammate’s face …
Rumor has it Sale also spent the offseason working on developing a sharp cutter to add to his fastball/slider/sinker/change repertoire. (Unconfirmed, and utterly unverified, of course).
Seriously, though — putting the Sale deal completely aside, because we’re one Tommy John moment away from doing the same in the real world — I loved this offseason, which amounted to about 24 hours of fury followed by quieter contract wins and low-risk, high-ceiling additions.
I had one basic desire for the club heading in (as I’d last written about here), and it was simply that the club wouldn’t roll out the Brinks trucks for Edwin Encarnacion or Jose Bautista, or make some sort of impatient swap from Nolan Arrenado. Or, at the highest peak of reaching, Mike Trout.
We survived the offseason with the promising young trio of outfielders — which I continue to maintain is the very best in the game heading into the year, if not for sure heading out of the year.
And it appears we are going to get a healthy and happy Pablo Sandoval back in the lineup manning third base.
A lot to actually be optimistic about, no doubt.
And maybe, just maybe, Chris Sale comes as advertised.
One can always hope.
Tyler Thornburg for Travis Shaw adds a strong setup presence (though we all — or at least I — keep forgetting the Sox are losing a metric ton of late-inning bullpen experience in the departures of Junichi Tazawa, Koji Uehara, Brad Ziegler. Thornburg should be solid. I hope he’s solid. Carson Smith’s return later this summer should solidify (should being the operative word) what could (could being the operative word) be one of the better late-inning trios in the game. If Smith doesn’t return to form, Joe Kelly, who finished 2016 in quietly impressive fashion, could be a breakout star in the bullpen.
As far as the lineup, Dave Dombrowski didn’t need to reinvent the wheel this winter.
There was no need to rush to rebuild, or even reload with a returning lineup that includes an MVP finalist, baseball’s top prospect, one of the best second basemen of all time, one of the top shortstops in the game, Hanley and his magic flying helmet and a potentially powerful Panda.
It was already a better core lineup than Boston has arguably had since it headed into 2013.
The big question mark, of course, was how to fill the hole left by David Ortiz. To my delight, the answer appears to be, for now, to replace him in the aggregate, as opposed to attempting to replace him in the singular.
As I wrote heading into the offseason, your next Ortiz-like production (or anything within a mile of resembling it) will come from the same place you found it the last time — the currently unknown. And I’ve made no secret of my belief that role eventually falls to Sam Travis, though not likely this year.
No hired gun, or bat, was going to be able to fit the bill this season.
So how did the Sox retool the offense?
Subtly, it would appear.
Mitch Moreland becomes the de facto Papi replacement, as well as the only real substantive change to the regular lineup — sliding in a first base and pushing Hanley Ramirez to designated hitter. If Hanley continues to hit, this could pay off brilliantly. Moreland brings a Gold Glove to a position where Hanley lost the Sox a couple games last year, along with about 20 home runs per year and a career OPS of .754. It’s not the type of bat you necessarily want to see at first base, but again, with the defensive upgrade and a potentially smaller-ball type of lineup, maybe it’s exactly the type of bat you’re looking for this season. If the top of your lineup is some combination of Pedroia, Benintendi, Betts, Ramirez, Sandoval, and Bogaerts you’re left essentially with a strong seven, eight or nine hitter with postseason experience in Moreland. Maybe.
Josh Rutledge comes back via the Rule 5 draft. I love the move because it costs all of one roster spot and little more. He adds utility, depth, experience and potential to a thin infield. He’s not (unsurprisingly) hitting for the kind of power he showed flashes of in Colorado — barely any at all for that matter — but he can get on base with relative frequency and provide rest for three of your top infield starters. And if he doesn’t pan out, nothing will have been substantively lost.
Steve Selsky was quietly claimed off waivers a few weeks ago. He’s probably not a gamechanger and most likely won’t make the major league club, but there is potentially a high ceiling for a grinder of an outfielder that had a few nice flashes with the Reds to close out last season. If he steps up with a big spring, he could become the Steven Wright or Travis Shaw storyline of this season. And if not, as with Rutledge, nothing lost.
Spring Training is that one, joyful time of the year in a fan’s life when you get your team back from the icy grasp of winter and you can allow your imagination to soar with the possibilities before reality sets in in April.
And then months of speculation turn into a slow rollout of answers running into October.
Enjoy it, Sox fans.