Saturday, February 27, 2016

Red Sox Rotation Preview

We will continue our pre Grapefruit League look at the 2016 Red Sox by examining the starting rotation.

There is no question the starting pitching should be better than 2015, perhaps much better.  But there are still questions.  In this camp there are nine pitchers who could start for the Red Sox at some point during the year.  If you want to make it an even ten candidates, you can include 28 year old journeyman, Sean O'Sullivan who is in camp as a non roster invitee and likely Paw Sox starter. Sean has started 52 MLB games from 2009 through last year with four different teams. However if Sean O'Sullivan is starting games for Boston in 2016 something has gone terribly wrong.

Every one of the other nine started for Boston last year except for numbers one and nine.  Let's start at the top.

1. David Price.  Can a team win without an ace?  That is a debatable topic, but one thing is clear: the 2015 Red Sox could not.  The " He's an ace" tee shirts are gone as are two of the five 2015 starters: Wade Miley and Justin Masterson. New Sox boss, Dave Dombrowski went out this winter and signed the best free agent ace available( with apologies to Zack Greinke).

There is not one thing negative to the David Price resume (OK, maybe those nagging post season stumbles, but let's hope he has a chance to address that in 2016).  Price's career numbers include a 104-56 won-loss record with an ERA of 3.09 with a WHIP of around 1.10.  In 2015 splitting the season between the Tigers and Jays, Price was 18-5 (9-4 in Motown and 9-1 leading the Jays to the AL East title) with an ERA of 2.45 with a WHIP just over 1.00.

Beyond the raw numbers, Price has thrived during his career in the American League, almost entirely as a starter in the AL East.  So he will not be a stranger to the division.  And everywhere he has played, managers and teammates swear by the high level of teammate Price is.  And he is willing and able to take the reins as the leader of the rotation.  This will take the pressure off all the other starters to a degree.  And maybe most importantly provides a mentor to Eduardo Rodriguez, who at age 23, has all the ability to become a Price-like hurler himself.

2. Clay Buchholz.  Yeah, we all know Buchholz cannot stay healthy and give a staff 200 innings a year.  But here is a novel idea, does this team really need 30 starts from Clay Buchholz?  Hey, if he gives you those 30 starts with 180-200 innings, great.  He will be your number two (or even 1A) behind Price.  But with Buchholz if the Sox can get the quality he usually provides when healthy, so what if he makes 18-20 starts and then cedes his rotation spot to one of the young lefties we will discuss down the page. There is a chance even if Clay pitches well, he could be the fourth or fifth stater on this team.  This Sox team has enough depth to survive not getting 180 innings from a back of the rotation starter.

3. Rick Porcello.  Rick (whose given first is Frederick, by the way) did not have a successful maiden voyage on the USS Red Sox. His ERA of 4.92 lead to only a 9-13 record. It was the first time in his seven seasons he had not reached ten wins. But after a brief DL stint and changing his pitching style back to the Detroit version, Porcello finished 2015 on an up note.  With these changes and any pressure Porcello may have felt trying to be the ace gone with Price's arrival, look for a return to the 13-15 wins he usually produced with Detroit.

4. Eduardo Rodriguez. Rodriguez, who will not turn 23 until the opening week of the new season, burst onto the big league scene in 2015. His record was 10-6, an ERA of 3.85, with 98 strikeouts in 121 innings.  The ERA could have been significantly lower, but for two or three games in which E-Rod was found to be tipping pitches and he was lit up.  However, the work has been put in to eliminate the tipping flaw, and the youngster is poised to continue on the road to stardom.

In Alex Speier's always informative blog called 108 Stitches (if you are not signed up for this you should do so now) he recently looked at 25 other young left handers of the past who had similar debut seasons. Two of them, Andy Pettitte and Cole Hamels burst into stardom as sophs and 10 of the 25(40%) increased their WAR by more than 50% in year two (Rodriguez has a WAR of 2.5 in '15).  Especially with David Price as a sounding board, do not be surprised if E-Rod is the number two starter on this staff.

5. Joe Kelly.  As with Porcello, Kelly was compiling a disappointing 2015, so poor that he was optioned to AAA.  But then in August into September Kelly rattled off wins in eight straight starts, and looked like the light had finally come on for the hard throwing righty.  Kelly used his other pitches along with the 98 mph heater, and got startling results.  Kelly enters the season as the number five starter, but if his late '15 campaign was not a fluke, he could pitch as effectively as any other starter.  If he cannot replicate the results and the pitch mix of that eight game streak, Kelly may join the Sox bullpen.

6. Steven Wright.  If the Red Sox truly want Wright to be the first weapon in their rotation's depth, he will need to make the team out of Florida.  Wright, who is now 31, has no more options left, so the Sox cannot stash him at Pawtucket without putting him through waivers first.  It is very doubtful Wright would clear waivers, so he either needs to win the fifth starter role in camp or be the last man in the bullpen. Wright, who has a career 3.95 ERA in 26 games, is likely to begin the campaign in the pen, barring an injury to another starter.

7. Henry Owens.  The heralded former first round pick made his MLB debut in 2015.  Henry made eleven late season starts going 4-4 with an ERA of 4.57.  At times the change up that Owens is renowned for made big league hitters look as bad as the minor leaguers.  But as the numbers showed, Owens had a mixed debut.  But he did show promise and as Henry continues to mature and fill out his 6'6" frame, his fastball still could move up a tick or two or the radar guns. Owens, who will not turn 24 until July 21, is likely to begin 2016 back in Pawtucket gaining more experience.  But if he should dominate AAA, like he has some other levels, Henry could be pounding on the door back to Boston by mid-season.

8. Brian Johnson.  Johnson also made his MLB debut in 2015 and had the same opportunity  as Owens right in his hands.  Johnson pitched 4.1 innings and gave up four runs versus the Astros and then was surprisingly sent back to Pawtucket.  It turns out Johnson was having some arm problems, eventually diagnosed as ulnar nerve irritation, and he missed the rest of the season.  Fortunately Johnson was deemed not to need surgery just rest. So he enters 2016 expecting a return to the Paw Sox rotation. His reputation as a pitcher is someone who consistently performs and repeats his delivery pitch after pitch, start after start.  Scouts do not see Johnson as a front line hurler, but they do see someone who could be in the middle to back of a rotation for a decade or more in the big leagues.  Expect Brian Johnson to get more than just one start for the Red Sox this year.

9. Roenis Elias.  The 27 year old lefty was signed by Seattle out of Cuba in 2011.  Elias has pitched the last two seasons for the Mariners, going10-12 in '14 and 5-8 last year. His career ERA is 3.97 and he has started 49 games (out of 52 appearances).  If you are looking for a sleeper candidate to break out and really help the 2016 Red Sox this could be your man.

Elias, the second piece acquired in the Wade Miley to Seattle trade (reliever Carson Smith was the top target), may be placed in the bullpen as the Sox look for another lefty out there.  But as noted above Roenis has only come out of the pen three times in 52 MLB games.  The conventional wisdom has Elias beginning the year starting at Pawtucket, along with fellow left handers Owens and Johnson.

Elias may well be one of the intriguing stories to watch for from Fort Myers.

I am upbeat about this rotation.  But as a last note, if this Red Sox team is contending come trade deadline time(which this year by the way is August 1, rather than July 31) you can fully expect Dave Dombrowski to use the Red Sox resources to acquire another starter if this group is not providing enough firepower to fuel a championship drive.

In our next post, we will examine the rebuilt Boston bullpen.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

More Pre-Season Musings

Let's continue looking around the Red Sox lineup as spring training is about to dawn.

SHORTSTOP

Since Nomar Garciaparra was traded in 2004, shortstop has been a revolving door for Boston.  No more.  Xander Bogaerts after arriving in late 2013 in time to help the Sox win the World Series blossomed as a big league shortstop in 2015.  Xander not only hit .320 with 196 hits, but transformed into a Gold Glove finalist in the field at shortstop.

If anyone else is playing the majority of games at shortstop for Boston, the chances of this team contending is nearly nil.  If another shortstop is needed the candidates are  Brock Holt and Deven Marrero.

OUTFIELD

This could be, along with the status of Ramirez and Sandoval, the key to a winning season.  Dave Dombrowski and the Red Sox have completely committed to the youthful trio of Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Rusney Castillo.

Betts, along with Xander Bogaerts, are poised to become the faces and leaders of this franchise. Betts in 145 games, hit .291 with 18 home runs and stole 21 bases. Betts also cemented his spot as the leadoff hitter for this club.

The question for JBJ as always is his offense.  The out of this world defensive fly chaser, exploded at the plate last August, after putting up very strong numbers at AAA.  Despite cooling off in September, Bradley Jr.  showed enough promise at the dish to expect at least a .250 BA which when paired with his defense is good enough.  But I still think JBJK can hit around .275-.280 with an OBP of .340 or so.

The Cuban expatriate, Castillo, is heading into a pivotal year for his major league career. In limited games in '13-'14 Castillo has shown flashes of being worth the $70M+ Boston paid him as an international free agent.  But he has also been injury prone and inconsistent.  Castillo is penciled in a an everyday player and he could grab a job and run with it.  But of the three "young" outfielders, Castillo is young only in major league experience.  He is 28 years old and this also factors into his need to make a big step forward now.  If Rusney cannot grab ahold of his spot with a big year, then he may hear the foot steps of the 2015 first rounder, Andrew Benintendi.  Even if Castillo takes a big step forward do not be surprised if the 2017 outfield consists of the B-town Boys: Betts, Bradley, and Benintendi.

Another hot topic from late 2015 that may or may not be settled is the alignment of the outfield.  Castillo seemingly is being penciled into left, although he can play center or right.  Both Mookie and JBJ have shown they are top notch major league centerfielders.  But no one plays center like Jackie, and it seems the Sox are leaning to JBJ in CF and Mookie in RF.  That configuration from left to right of Rusney, JBJ, and Betts would be my first choice as well.

Especially if either Castillo or Bradley Jr. struggle, Brock Holt may get substantial playing time in the outer garden, as he did in '15.  But a newcomer who also be a key to the outfield is veteran Chris Young.  Young who last year played for the Yankees, is known to hit left handed pitching especially well, and has a swing which should be very conducive to the Green Monster.

DH

2016 is the announced swan song for one of the greatest Red Sox players and characters of all time David Ortiz, Big Papi.  In 2015 at age 39, Ortiz incredibly hit 37/108/.273/.360 while playing in 146 games with 528 at bats. The 37 homers put Papi over 500 for his career.

So in a stable roster, yet filled with questions, here is another key question: can David Ortiz put up offensive numbers, now at age 40, that remotely resemble 2015?

It may be foolhardy to expect any 40 year old to hit over 30 bombs and drive in over 100. But if Ortiz puts up a respectable 25/85/.260/.330 where do the Sox make up his offense?  And in a worse case scenario what if Ortiz ages overnight and hits only 12/60/.225/.295 or is injured and misses a majority of his last season?

If (and let's all hope neither of these things happen) Papi struggles badly or is injured, look for Dave Dombrowski to go acquire a veteran hitter.  But off Papi puts the respectable line with 25 home runs mentioned above, where do the Sox pick up the slight bit of slack?  Here are several possibilities:

1. Xander Bogaerts.  The X man despite his .320 and 196 hits had only 7 homers.  As Bogarts continues to mature, it is very easy to imagine 20 home runs from him, and this jump from 7 to 20 can make him for an Ortiz decline from 37 to 25 by himself.  Bogaert's also should spend the whole season(and many to come) hitting in the third hole with plenty of RBI chances.

2. Hanley Ramirez.  Lost in the darkness of Hanley's failed 2015 was the fact before injuring a shoulder while playing left field, Ramirez hit 10 home runs in April alone. If(IF) Hanley can play first and stay healthy he could provide much more offense than last year.  If.

3. The entire outfield.  Mookie Betts, of course, could add another 10 homers by himself (several national reporters are touting Betts as a sleeper candidate for '16 AL MVP), but Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Rusney Castillo, if both reach the upper levels of expected output offensively could add to closing any Papi Gap.  Chris Young, who also could get some DH time against tough lefties, also is capable of double digit home runs.

In two days pitchers and catchers officially report to Fort Myers(although more than 35 players are all ready there several days to weeks early), and in a few days we will look over the 2016 red Sox pitching staff.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Ten Days 'Til Pitchers and Catchers

On February 18 the Red Sox camp will begin when pitchers and catchers officially report.  Despite coming off back to back last place AL East finishes, this Red Sox team will come to camp with a nearly set roster.  Very unusual for a franchise coming off those poor finishes.

But if someone offered you a hundred bucks if you could name the Opening Day roster for Boston right now, you could have a really good shot at the cash by naming this 25 man roster:

Pitchers (12)

David Price
Clay Buchholz
Eduardo Rodriguez
Rick Porcello
Joe Kelly

Craig Kimbrel
Koji Uehara
Junichi Tazawa
Carson Smith
Robbie Ross
Tommy Layne
Steven Wright

Starting Nine

C Blake Swihart
1B Hanley Ramirez
2B Dustin Pedroia
SS Xander Bogaerts
3B Pablo Sandoval
LF Rusney Castillo
CF Jackie Bradley Jr.
RF Mookie Betts
DH David Ortiz

Bench

Brock Holt
Travis Shaw
Chris Young
Ryan Hanigan

Despite the entire roster seemingly being set (barring a spring training injury), that does not mean there are not questions. surrounding this squad.  Let's take a look around the diamond with some thoughts and opinions on those questions.

 Catcher

There are three candidates for two jobs.  The catcher, who at this point seems like the odd man out for Opening Day, was a year ago the expected starting catcher: Christian Vazquez.  Vazquez came up with an elbow injury which required Tommy John surgery.  So the pivotal question for the catching position may well be how soon can Vazquez recover from surgery and as importantly can he still throw like a Howitzer?

Red Sox management has repeatedly stated its intent to be cautious with Vazquez and the plan is to let him get back to form by playing at AAA to begin the season.  But if he shows up in Fort Myers and seems perfectly healthy can he regain the starting role.

Of course, now matter how the Vazquez situation plays out, Blake Swihart is certainly capable of grabbing the number one in his own right. His defense is not on par with Christian (most MLB catchers are not), but Swihart showed signs in late 2015 of how special he could be on offense.

Ryan Hanigan likely backs up one of the young catchers until the time comes, maybe by mid-season, when the Sox go with both of the youngsters.

FIRST BASE

Okay this question may be the biggest question of all for this team:

Can Hanley Ramirez play an acceptable level of first base?

If the answer is something resembling yes, the pieces of the 2016 puzzle fit together much better. But can Hanley do it? Hey look, I was sure he could handle Left Field, so maybe I will pass on this question.  If it works the Sox have another potential big bat in the lineup, and a natural fit to be the 2017 DH after the retirement of David Ortiz.  If Ramirez completely fails the Sox have some other options, but what in the hell do they do with Hanley?  Release him with 66 million or so still owed to him?

The next best option is Travis Shaw.  In his rookie season, Shaw in only 226 at bats hit 13/36/.274/.331/.822.  Shaw is likely to make the team with his ability to play first, third, and will try leftfield in camp.  Even if Ramirez plays first, Shaw should find playing time.

By July or so there could be another candidate to play first: Sam Travis.  The 2014 draftee from Indiana Univ., is expected to start the season at AAA after splitting '15 at Salem and Portland.  His numbers at each stop were incredibly consistent, at Salem he had 246 at bats in 66 games, and in AA he had 243 AB's in. 65 games. Here were his lines:

Salem. 5/40/.313/.378/.845 with 15 doubles and 4 triples

Port.     4/38/.300/.384/.821 with 10 doubles and a triple.




Travis is not considered a power prospect (maybe 15 per year) but is a hitter.  First base could be a Travis/Travis platoon before the year is out.

SECOND BASE

The only question here is can Dustin Pedroia stay healthy for a complete season?  If he does this is his job. The de facto captain is signed through 2021, and although I would be willing to bet his hold on this job does not last that long, a contending Sox team surely is easier to envision with Pedey in the lineup.

If another injury does occur, super sub Brock Holt likely is next man up for second base.


THIRD BASE

Another straight forward question: will Pablo Sandoval come to camp in shape and play like San Francisco's Pablo?  Or is his career in steep decline at only the age of 30?  I think of the Hanley/Pablo dual busts of 2015, Sandoval is more likely to bounce back.  But if he doesn't the only internal options are likely Holt and/or Shaw.  Another candidate could be Deven Marrero, but can he hit enough for a corner position?

One other Sandoval note. If Ramirez flops at first, would the Sox try to flip Pablo to first and try Hanley at third? Doubtful, but maybe in desperation.

In the next post I will examine the rest of the lineup and the pitchers.