Welcome 2015, hopefully it brings health, happiness, and a championship contending baseball team in Boston. As the New Year commences, I thought I would throw out a few ideas about the 2015 Boston Red Sox that at this early juncture I feel strongly about. These are not actual predictions for the upcoming season (although some of these same topics may appear in the 2015 predictions), we here at Red Sox Maineiacs have a tradition of making those official prognostications right before Opening Day. So as the calendar has turned to 2015, here are a handful of items that I feel will happen based on my own opinions and from reading the works of many Red Sox pundits this winter.
1. Mookie Betts and Rusney Castillo will form the starting outfield with Hanley Ramirez.
More on Hanley later on, let us start with Betts and Castillo. A number of Sox Nation (including some of the other Maineiacs, I believe) feel that either Betts or Castillo (maybe both) could start '15 at AAA due to the need for more seasoning and/or to alleviate the outfield numbers crunch. I strongly believe that Betts and Castillo will make up 2/3 of the starting outfield on Opening Day, for the great majority of 2015, and for many years to come. The positions are up in the air, with center and right open to them. Most observers who agree with me they will both start seem to pencil Rusney in center and Mookie in right. Castillo is considered to have the stronger throwing arm, which to me should lead to Castillo playing right field. Either way, the Red Sox would fulfill their long stated desire of having a centerfield caliber outfielder in right field to cover the difficult Fenway pasture there.
Castillo is not a green kid, he is 27 years old and the Sox have invested over $70 million in him. They will want him in the big leagues if at all possible. It is true he missed about 1 1/2 seasons from his Cuban league team while defecting. But he received some playing time late in 2014 for the Sox minor league playoff teams( including the Sea Dogs) and for Boston. This off season Castillo played briefly in the Arizona Fall League, before a minor injury shortened his season there. After recovering, Rusney reported to the Puerto Rico Winter League. His manager there, former Sox Alex Cora was absolutely effusive in his praise of Castillo's performance and flat out stated he felt Castillo was ready for Boston.
Betts' readiness is often questioned by comparing him to Xander Bogaerts. Bogaerts appeared on the scene late in 2013 and was anointed a star for 2014. Bogaerts in fact had a somewhat disappointing 2014. But in 2013 Xander had 44 at bats in Boston ( with 27 more in the ALCS and World Series) with a BA/OBP/OPS of .250/.320/.364. Betts on the other hand had 189 AB's (more than 2.5 times Bogaerts, even including the post season), and had a line of .291/.368/.444. So not only is Betts more experienced entering '15 than Bogaerts was a year ago, but he also fills one of the holes on this team. Leadoff hitter. His speed, on base ability, and power would set the table for some combination of Pedroia, Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, and Mike Napoli (with Bogaerts and Castillo to follow).
The only possible roadblock to Betts and Castillo beginning the year as starters is the presence of veterans Allen Craig and especially, Shane Victorino. Craig would need to completely dominate in Florida this spring to gain and hold a starting job, so let's focus on Victorino. Victorino, one of the key members of the 2013 World Championship team, was unable to stay healthy in 2014 ( he struggled with his health in '13 for that matter) and had back surgery late in the season. Victorino has made it perfectly clear this winter in several interviews that he feels he is and intends to be the starting right fielder for the 2015 Boston Red Sox. If Vic performs well enough (and stays healthy enough) to push Betts or Castillo aside, so be it, the team would benefit from his presence. But to me I think the optimal role for Victorino would be fourth outfielder, gaining playing time backing up all three of the starters. This would also limit Victorino's appearances rendering him healthier as well, hopefully. But a number of the Sox beat writers and others have opined that Victorino would not warm to a backup role, and could be a clubhouse problem. This could lead to a showcasing of Victorino during spring training, and if he proves his health, a trade to one of the several teams still looking for outfield help. I feel that one of theses two scenarios will occur for Shane ( fourth outfielder or trade) which continues to point to Betts and Castillo joining Hanley Ramirez as the starting outfield in '15.
2. The current Red Sox rotation is sufficient to win the AL East and beyond.
The hue and cry throughout Red Sox Nation and the baseball world in general is the Red Sox need an "ace" to front their existing rotation of mid-level guys. I am in the minority who feels this team could go a long ways ( maybe all the way) with the starting pitching they have. Would I like to have Cole Hamels, Jordan Zimmerman, James Shields, or Johnny Cueto in the front of the Sox rotation?? Maybe, yes, not really, and absolutely, come see me in July are the answers by the way. The Red Sox are not trading Betts, Bogaerts, or Blake Swihart for Hamels or any other pitcher who might be available.
One of the phony or wrong headed arguments out there is if the Red Sx go into the season with their current five man rotation: Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, Joe Kelly, and Justin Masterson, who would start Games one or two or a playoff series? This question is silly because if the Red Sox are going into a playoff series and need to choose starters for game one and two, it means at least two, if not more of these guys had outstanding years! So choose the guys with the best years. Are you telling me it is beyond comprehension that a AL East winning Red Sox team couldn't start Clay Buchholz (who has had two years since 2010 with ERAs of 2.33 and 1.74) and Rick Porcello and win a playoff series?
Here is a description of the Red Sox rotation by Braden Campbell of Boston.com recently ( I would include the link if I was not technically inept).
" A 29 year old workhorse coming off his worse season, a second year starter with a high 4 ERA, a would be ace with world class stuff and often abysmal control, a mediocre NL transplant, and a disgruntled declining vet."
The Red Sox rotation he is describing is the 2013 Red Sox rotation of Lester, Doubront, Buchholz, Dempster, and Lackey that went on to win the World Series.
The other reason the Sox may indeed have enough pitching all ready is the potential Paw Sox '15 Opening day rotation of Anthony Ranaudo, Matt Barnes, Henry Owens, Brian Johnson, and Eduardo Rodriguez, plus knuckler Stephen Wright. Any of these hurlers could easily step into the Red Sox rotation by June or so if one of the vets falters.
3. Xander Bogaerts takes a big step towards stardom.
I am not necessarily predicting Bogaerts wins the AL MVP, but he will smooth out all of the bumps of 2014. He will be the unquestioned shortstop, which seem to boost his offensive production in 2014. He will have an entire year under his belt versus big league pitching. Bogaerts is still a baby at age 22, with plenty of time to meet his sky high expectations. 2015 will lead down that path.
4. Hanley Ramirez will thrive in Boston and in left field.
First the issue of playing left filed for the first time. Anyone who has played shortstop, at the top of the defensive spectrum, can play left field, especially the tiny left field at Fenway. Boston thrived for nearly a decade (and captured two world titles) with a Ramirez in left field, even though Manny Ramirez was no Gold Glover. Hanley will be fine in left.
Hanley has had a reputation of character issues in his career, but these should be mitigated in Boston for at least two reasons. First the presence of David Ortiz, who has had a relationship with Hanley, since the Red Sox minor league days of a younger Ramirez. Papi will help keep Hanley in line, if needed. Secondly, this is where Hanley wanted to play. Early in this free agent season a report came out that Ramirez was willing to move from his long time shortstop position and play third, first, or the outfield. What that report did not say or know is the team Hanley specifically said this to was Boston. Ramirez picked up the phone and called Ben Cherington to tell him he wanted to come home to Boston.
Because Ramirez has spent his entire career (except for two at bats with Boston in 2005) in the National League, Red Sox fans do not really grasp what an elite or at least near-elite hitter Hanley is. He has 191 career home runs in nine seasons, despite not being a pure home run hitter. His career BA/OBP/OPS is .300/.373/.873, and these numbers were complied with home parks in Miami and LA, both notorious pitchers parks. Hanley, who turned only 31 on December 23, should pepper the wall at Fenway.
5. Mike Napoli will have an outstanding walk season.
Napoli can be a free agent after the 2015 campaign, and many a player has put up career years in their free agent walk seasons. But there are two additional reasons I would look for a big 2015 from Mike. First, Nap had the successful off season jaw surgery for sleep apnea. Even though his famous beard came off for the surgery, the long term effect should make him healthier and more productive (and the beard is coming back). The other positive attribute for a big '15 for Nap is the added thump around him in the lineup. The additions of Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez. The full seasons of Betts and Castillo, and better years from Bogaerts and Dustin Pedroia will lengthen the lineup and create may RBI chances for Napoli. Even with a big year, it very well could be the final Boston campaign for Napoli, I bet he goes out with a bang.
As pitchers and catchers get closer to reporting day by day, we will continue to touch on some Red Sox subjects for you.