FORT MYERS, FLORIDA - MARCH 09: Mookie Betts #50 of the Boston Red Sox at bat against the New York Mets during the Grapefruit League spring training game at JetBlue Park at Fenway South on March 09, 2019 in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
There’s an old baseball adage, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. For all of the talk about front offices being smarter and more analytically driven (and they certainly are), the 2018 Boston Red Sox broke the bank with an MLB-high payroll of more than $230 million and won the World Series. Barring any last minute spring training signings, the Bosox, save for former closer Craig Kimbrel, will essentially return the same squad from last season.
Boston couldn’t have found a more perfect fit than Alex Cora. Cora had the pulse of his players, shielded them from the Boston press corps and didn’t mince words when defending his guys on and off the field. How the rookie AL Manager of the Year follows up a campaign of 108-54 and a World Series title is beyond me.
They frame well, have a solid rapport with their pitchers and serve as the weak link in the lineup. Sandy Leon and Christian Vazquez will hold down backstop duties again with their below .260 OBP. Blake Swihart is nominally better with the bat but hasn’t broken through as a consistent regular.
Mitch Moreland was a doubles machine in 2017 with 34 and continued that into early 2018. Steve Pearce, who earned World Series MVP and has played well with every AL East team not named the Yankees, cracked seven homers in 50 games and posted a .394 OPB with the Red Sox after they acquired him from the Toronto Blue Jays. Those two will likely make for a nice right/left compliment this season.
Not yet 23, Rafael Devers picked up his game down the stretch and socked 21 home runs on the campaign. Devers also posted solid postseason numbers again, especially with his 1.082 OPS clip against Houston in the ALCS.
I expect to see Dustin Pedroia on the field about as much as I anticipate seeing Jacoby Ellsbury — not much. At shortstop, the aforementioned Bogaerts will be playing for big bucks after bopping 23 home runs last season. It was certainly a bounce back from Bogaerts’ 2017 drop off and Boston will be hoping he enters his prime with another solid campaign.
Young, athletic, toolsy. Perhaps the strength of the team, Betts, Bradley Jr., and Benintendi cover a lot of ground and serve as the strength of the lineup. Betts was a 30/30 guy (32 home runs and 30 stolen bases), posted a 1.078 OPS, scored 129 runs and beat out Mike Trout for AL MVP. Bradley Jr. found himself again and earned ALCS MVP honors.
In a way the argument for team MVP could’ve been made for Martinez, who changed the culture and mentality of the lineup, earning silver slugger awards in the outfield and at DH. Martinez smacked 43 bombs and posted a 1.031 OPS. Martinez also boasted an OBP of .403 during the postseason.
One wonders how much the added innings of a postseason will carry over to a pitching staff the following year but there’s no question the starting rotation was the strength of the Red Sox last season. Sale posted his customary solid first half and was good in spurts down the stretch and in the playoffs. David Price earned his redemption song and easily could’ve been named World Series MVP. Rick Porcello bounced back by cutting back on hits and home runs allowed while upping his K’s to 190. Eovaldi and his bionic arm became a cult hero in the postseason. Eduardo Rodriguez gave the Red Sox representative outings at the fifth slot.
Some caveats remain, such as Sale’s health and durability down the stretch, but Boston is betting on him considering the 5-year extension they just gave him. Other questions are Price’s ability for an encore, Porcello keeping the ball down, and if Eovaldi can get through a full season without breaking down.
Is it possible this team is built better for the postseason than the regular season? One can certainly get away with swinging guys from starting to relief in October but when they tried bullpen by committee in the past, i.e. 2003, it wasn’t pretty. Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier appear to be the leaders in the clubhouse for some combination of the eighth and ninth innings. Brandon Workman, Heath Hembree, and Hector Velazquez will eat up their fair share of frames. They’ll hope Tyler Thornburg will be a reclamation project. Brian Johnson will be a swingman. Steven Wright is suspended for the first 80 games after being popped for PED’s.
Barring a rash of injuries testing their depth, there’s no reason the Red Sox shouldn’t return to the postseason in a top-heavy American League. Yet it’s very difficult to repeat, the last team to do so was the 2000 New York Yankees. Even the Astros ramped-up their starting pitching and won more regular season games than they did in 2017 and still couldn’t pull off the repeat. The Red Sox may have to outslug their opponents even more so this season.
An eleven-game West Coast swing might mean a stumble out of the gate. The division might hinge on a four-game series against the Yankees in September at Fenway Park — as the August series seemed to be a turning point last season. Boston also closes out the season with 12 of its final 18 contests on the road.
The Yankees and Astros may well have better pitching and depth, and the Cleveland Indians will be in desperation mode with their deep staff and window closing. Boston remains a World Series contender but they may have a rockier road returing to the mountain top.