Sunday, November 6, 2016

It's On To 2017

Now that the 2016 World Series has concluded, and what a great series it was (congratulations to the Cubs and also to the Indians) it is time to look forward for our Boston Red Sox.  Despite the quick exit from the ALDS this fall, the future is very bright for the defending AL East Champs.  Almost all of the betting lines and publications early (very early!) projections for 2017 have Boston as the AL Champs right behind the Cubs as favorites to win it all next year.

Let's go around the roster, by position, with some random thoughts about the hot stove season that we are now in, and for 2017.

CATCHER

This position is one of only one or two around the diamond for Boston that is a question mark. But is almost a certainty the answer comes internally. Here are the candidates:

Sandy Leon
Christian Vazquez
Blake Swihart
Bryan Holaday

First let's say there is almost zero chance Holaday even is on the 40 man roster much longer. He is likely a non tender. Any of the other three could be the starting catcher on Opening Day 2017.  Each have question marks.  Is Sandy Leon the strong defensive catcher who cannot hit at all or is he the catcher Boston saw from June through early September this year?  His career average before 2016 was .187, and then when Boston called him up in mid season due to injury Sandy hit between .350 and .450 with power for two months or better.  Leon has to enter at least spring training as the number one.  Another somewhat little known fact about Sandy Leon is he is not that old.  He looks like and until 2016 played like a 36 year old third string catcher. Leon will not turn 28 until the middle of spring training 2017.  He is only about 1 1/2 years older than Vazquez.

Vazquez has the same basic question as Leon: can he hit enough to get his rocket arm into the daily lineup?  In Christian's favor he will be another year removed from Tommy John surgery and there is definitely a faction of Red Sox Nation who feel that Vazquez is the catcher of the future.

The first question about Blake Swihart: Does Dave Dombrowski even consider Swihart a full time catcher?  Early into 2016 the Sox moved Blake to left field.  Was this move because the Sox didn't feel Swihart was a good enough defensive catcher or was it just to get another strong bat into the line up at a time when left field was a hole?  Swihart also needs to come to Fort Myers and show his leg injury sustained while playing left field is healed.

One possible but I think highly unlikely hot stove move at catcher is the signing of free agent Wilson Ramos.  The Nationals catcher was heading to a big free agent pay day when he tore up his knee in September.  Ramos likely cannot catch until at least mid 2017.  But there is a school of thought out there that Boston could sign Ramos for shorter money due to the injury and DH him until he can catch again.

Neither Leon or Vazquez have options left, Swihart does.  Because of this I expect Leon and Vazquez to start 2017 as the two catchers and Swihart returns to AAA to further his experience as a catcher. This allows Boston to continue contractual control over all three.  Also, even if Boston does not feel Swihart can catch, other clubs will, and Swihart catching at AAA will increase his trade value.  Speaking of trade value if the Sox swing any kind of big trade this winter for pitching, Swihart could be a trade chip. But I would be very cautious of this, as I still feel Swihart has the best future of these three catchers.

CORNER INFIELD/DH

I listed this as one position because several of the candidates factor in at multiple spots here:

Hanley Ramirez
Pablo Sandoval
Travis Shaw
Brock Holt
Yoan Moncada
Sam Travis
Addition at DH

Hanley Ramirez was likely the most pleasant surprise of 2016.  First and most importantly Hanley proved he could play a very acceptable brand of first base, while hitting 30-111-.286-.361.  In most cases you would say here is our first baseman for 2017 and move on. But with the subtraction of our DH David Ortiz from the lineup due to his retirement (you may have heard about that by now), there is a hole at DH. Throughout his career, and especially in 2016 when giving Big Papi some days off, Ramirez' numbers at DH are better than when he is also playing in the field.  Late in the year when being interviewed by Peter Abraham of the Globe Ramirez was asked if he would like to be full time DH, he responded " hell, yes".  Ramirez them caught himself and added, " but I'll do whatever the team wants. In addition there has been some concern that the reason Ramirez has been a good teammate and citizen while in Boston, despite his checkered NL past, was the presence of Ortiz.  Without Ortiz around everyday, how will Hanley behave is the worry.  I suggest that if Ramirez was handed the mantel of Big Papi's successor this might mitigate any issues the absence of Ortiz may present.

For all of you who would just like Fat Pablo Sandoval to go away, even if the Red Sox release him and eat (no pun intended) the tens of millions remaining on his long term contract, I remind you of Hanley Ramirez from last winter. No Sandoval is not going to, nor ever has, hit 30 home runs with over 100 RBI. But Pablo is only 30 years old and has a career BA of .288.  Recent photos have shown an apparently slimmed down Panda, and if Pablo is in just a little better shape than 2015-16 he could still be an asset.  With multi millions still owed to him through 2019, he will at least be given a chance to win back a job...likely at third, but first base and DH also in the mix.

Travis Shaw hit 16 home runs with 71 RBI in his first full big league campaign, while playing a solid third base.  But Shaw tailed off as the year wound down, and he finished hitting only.242 with an OBP of .306.  For the second spring training in a row, the Red Sox will let Sandoval and Shaw compete for a job.  As with Sandoval, Shaw could be in the mix at third, first, of DH.  Shaw could also be a trade chip this winter.

If both, Sandoval and Shaw fall flat, or play as the first baseman or DH more than third, Brock Holt could become the "regular" third baseman.  But this would be a sub optimal Red Sox lineup, Holt is more of an asset to Boston when he can fulfill the super utility role.

Both prospects Yoan Moncada and Sam Travis are almost certainly ticketed to begin 2017 at Pawtucket. And both seemingly could use the AAA experience of at least a half a year.  Moncada the top rated prospect for Boston was promoted from Portland late in the season, and after getting a couple of big league hits, he struck for his last nine at bats.  Moncada had a propensity of the K in the minor leagues, too. At the very end of the 2016 season at Portland Moncada was shifted from second base to third.  So adjusting to his new position, and trying to cut down at least some on striking out, are his goals to work on at AAA.  For those you overly worried about Moncada's K rate in the minors, go check out the K rates for the Cubs Javier Baez.  I can tell you they are very similar to Moncada's, and like Baez there is no reason to think in a year or two Moncada will not be a similarly impressive young big leaguer as Baez.

Sam Travis began last year at AAA, but will need more time there because a torn ACL kept him out from Memorial Day on. Travis was very impressive in the big camp spring training last year, and was off to a good AAA start.  Sam Travis with another good April and May could push his way into the picture in Boston.  Both or either of Travis and Moncada could be ready to contribute in Boston by late June or so.  Depending on how confident the Red Sox are in this pair,  they may influence the route the Sox go to replace David Ortiz externally.

It is almost a cinch the Red Sox will bring in one veteran bat to help replace Papi's production.  I will not go into detail now on the candidates, later this off season we will delve more into free agent and trade rumors.  But let me just say for all of the free agent signing rumors of the Jays' Edwin Encarnarcion, he would cost the Sox $80-120M and perhaps more importantly their first round draft pick ( unless the soon to be handed down new CBA changes the free agent compensation). I see the Red Sox first target being Carlos Beltran, who they tried hard to acquire from the Yankees at the last trade deadline.  As opposed to the barren starting pitching free agent market, there are many bats available if the Sox want to add to their current DH options.

MIDDLE INFIELD

Dustin Pedroia, 2B
Xander Bogaerts, SS
Brock Holt
Marco Hernandez
Mauricio Dubon

No much to say here, the middle infield combo for Boston in 2017 and beyond will be Dustin Pedroia at second and Xander Bogarts at shortstop.  The only questions for Bogaerts are was his weak hitting for the end of 2016 a fluke, and will his power continue to develop after jumping to 21 long balls in 2016.  Expect the X man to continue to rise in home runs to maybe the 25 range and his BA to be closer to 2015's .320 rather than 2016's perfectly acceptable .294.

The only question for Pedroia is when does his age and injury history catch up with him? 2016 was a banner season of 15-74-.318-.376. Now he is the elder statesman on this team and will turn 34 next August, how many more seasons like 2016, does Dustin have left?

Both Holt and Marco Hernandez are utility types who would only see extensive playing time in the middle infield if there was an injury to the incumbents.

The 22 year old Dubon pushed his way onto the fringe of the Boston 2017 picture with a sterling 2016 season.  Mauricio began the '16 season as Salem, and was promoted to Portland ahead of heralded teammates Andrew Benintendi and Yoan Moncada.  Dubon hit .306 for Salem  and drove in 29 despite having no home runs.  Dubon who has played both second and short in the Sox system, hit even better for the Sea Dogs: .339 with with 40 RBI, with the added power of 6 home runs, 6 triples, and 20 doubles. The Red Sox rewarded Dubon by assigning him to the Arizona Fall League, where he played well enough to make the AFL All Star team.  Like Moncada and Travis, Dubon should open 2017 at Pawtucket making his AAA debut.  Dubon could make himself the first option behind Pedey and Xander with a strong AAA showing.  His strong 2016 right through the AFL also makes Dubon a very attractive trade piece for this winter.

In upcoming posts RSM will examine the Red Sox in the outfield, utility roles, and on the mound.

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