|Sportsbook||Win AL East||Win AL Pennant||World Series|
|Over/Under Season Win Total: 84.5 (BetOnline)|
Depending on who you talk to, the most disappointing team of the 2019 season is likely to be either the Chicago Cubs or the Boston Red Sox. The 2016 World Series Champs and the 2018 World Series Champs both missed the playoffs and finished 84-78. All things considered, my personal answer would be the Red Sox as the biggest disappointment.
Alex Cora’s team may have had something of a postseason hangover on both a team and individual level. Chris Sale only made 25 starts and they weren’t as good as usual. David Price made 22. The inability to replace Craig Kimbrel left the bullpen in a state of flux for the majority of the season.
There are a lot of factors that we could point to as to why the Red Sox fell short of expectations. They were 35-41 in the 76 games against division foes, including a combined record of 12-26 against the Yankees and Rays. With that playing a big role, the Red Sox were just 28-45 against teams .500 or better. They beat up on bad teams to the tune of a 56-33 record, which is the sole reason why they finished over .500.
Some bad luck played a role. Injuries are hard to use as a crutch because they happen to everybody, but missing out on six or seven starts from Sale put an already-suspect pitching staff in a tough spot and the absence of Price didn’t help either, especially with Rick Porcello and the rest of the depth not where it needed to be.
The Red Sox were also uncharacteristically bad at home. A 38-41 record at Fenway Park and two “home” losses in London marked the first time the Red Sox finished under .500 at home since 2014. They lost 91 games that year. By comparison, the Red Sox won over 70% of their home games in 2018. Combine that shortcoming with a sub-.500 record in the second half and some misfortune relative to Pythagorean Win-Loss, BaseRuns, and 3rd Order Win% and you get a team that fell short of where it should have been.
Normally, the Red Sox would be an obvious bounce back candidate, but ownership cried poor over the winter. The escalating cost of superstar Mookie Betts seemed to be a financial sticking point for the team and he was ultimately traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. While the New York Yankees were busy signing Gerrit Cole, the Red Sox were busy trying to find a trade partner to send away their best player. They eventually found one.
Along with the additions of Alex Verdugo, Connor Wong, and Jeter Downs from the Betts trade, the Red Sox made smaller pickups like Jose Peraza, Jonathan Arauz, and Kevin Plawecki. They signed Martin Perez. Those aren’t moves of a storied franchise with deep pockets. Those are the moves of a small-market team trying to improve at the margins.
I guess we’ll see how strong the core of the Red Sox is. The offense should be great, though “elite” is not really an option now without Betts. The rotation and bullpen have some upside. But the AL East is strong again and it is impossible to say that the Red Sox are better or better prepared than they were last season. With the firing of Alex Cora due to his involvement in the Astros sign-stealing scandal, the optics of the offseason look pretty bad as we take a glance at the 2020 season.
|BaseRuns Run Differential||+82 (5.51/5.01)|
|3rd Order Win% Record||88.2-73.8|
|Record in One-Run Games||23-22|
|Additions: Jonathan Lucroy, Kevin Pillar, Cesar Puello, Trevor Hildenberger, Kevin Plawecki, Jett Bandy, Nick Longhi, John Andreoli, Mike Kickham, RJ Alvarez, Jose Peraza, Martin Perez, Alex Verdugo, Connor Wong, Jeter Downs Matt Hall, Jeffrey Springs, Austin Brice, Adenys Bautista, Chris Mazza, Jonathan Arauz|
|Losses: Juan Centeno, Andrew Cashner, Brock Holt, Jhoulys Chacin, Rick Porcello, Steve Pearce, Chris Owings, Gorkys Hernandez, Josh A. Smith, Steven Wright, Mookie Betts, David Price, Travis Lakins, Jhon Nunez, Sam Travis, Angeudis Santos, Sandy Leon, Trevor Kelley|
As mentioned in the intro, these are not the moves that you would expect from a contending team in a big market. The Red Sox lost a lot of MLB-caliber talent and returned very little of it. I do think Jose Peraza is a fun, low-risk upside play, but the team doesn’t seem to have really improved in any area.
The Mookie Betts trade is a tough pill to swallow, but I do like the return depending on the health of Alex Verdugo. Verdugo missed time with a stress fracture in his back, but was a 2.2-win player in 106 games. He hit at every level in the minors and has been an above average MLB hitter in his 488 PA. Connor Wong and Jeter Downs are nice pieces, as Wong has good power to overcome the big holes in his swing and Downs is a top-100 prospect with pop, speed, and a good eye. Downs enters the year with 69 professional stolen bases, which is, well, nice. For this season, though, Verdugo is the only player that will have an impact.
Andrew Cashner and Rick Porcello are probably replaceable with much cheaper innings at league average or better, but the loss of David Price means another starting spot that has to be filled. The third-biggest loss could be Brock Holt and his extremely versatile skill set. There was some thought that the freed-up Betts funds would go to him, but he signed with Milwaukee.
The Red Sox weren’t as dependent on the home run surge as a lot of other offenses. In fact, they may be the best equipped of the great ones to sustain last season’s production if the ball does in fact play differently. The Red Sox finished 10th in home runs with 245, but still finished top-five in slugging percentage. They led all of baseball in doubles, with 23 more than the Astros. They were fifth in walks.
We are all speculating how the baseball may play and the fact of the matter is that we won’t know until games start. The Red Sox led all of baseball in hits and only the Astros had more hits + walks. If home runs do in fact go down, run-scoring opportunities will be limited even more in the age of the strikeout. At least the Red Sox look about as home run recession-proof as a team can look.
Mookie Betts is a huge loss. Even though Betts was out-WARed by Xander Bogaerts last season, he slashed .295/.391/.524 with a .380 wOBA in a “down” year. He didn’t replicate the success of his 2018 campaign, but he’s been worth over 37 wins above replacement per FanGraphs in just 794 games. Bogaerts did have a career offensive year in his age-27 season, and mix in some Rafael Devers and JD Martinez and you have a fearsome middle of the order. Both Devers and JDMart cranked over 30 homers and posted wOBA marks of .377 and .386, respectively. Devers started a little slow and hit all 32 of his homers from May 1 on with a .385 wOBA and a 138 wRC+.
The ceiling for the Red Sox, though, will be defined by guys like Andrew Benintendi and Michael Chavis. Benintendi was perfectly average last season at the plate with a .266/.343/.431 slash and a 100 wRC+. That was a big drop from 2018’s 122 wRC+, but there are some signs that 2019 was the exception and not the new normal. Benintendi’s SwStr% spiked to 11.6% and his Swing% jumped to 51.2%. It seemed like there was a call for him to be more aggressive, but it backfired. He chased more often, swung and missed more often inside the zone and outside of it, and just never really seemed to get going. He wasn’t pitched all that differently, as he saw a slight increase in sliders and curveballs, but nothing out of the ordinary relative to league-wide pitch-selection trends. I would expect a bounce back.
The hope would be that Chavis, who turned 24 in August, can cut down the swings and misses. His 18.6% SwStr% was the fifth-highest mark in baseball among players with at least 300 plate appearances. The power production is there, but Chavis needs to supplement the long ball with some free passes to offset the low batting average. It wouldn’t hurt if Jackie Bradley Jr. and Jose Peraza could wreak some havoc at the bottom of the lineup with some knocks and some stolen bases.
There are some depth concerns for the Red Sox. They are pretty top-heavy on offense and have been fortunate to stay healthy. Some of the projected bench bats are backup catcher Kevin Plawecki, Rule 5 Draft Pick Jonathan Arauz, homegrown prospect CJ Chatham, and utility man Tzu-Wei Lin, who only had 22 plate appearances last season. Rusney Castillo looks like a sunken cost. Marcus Wilson and Bobby Dalbec could provide help from below, but it will be imperative that the Red Sox stay healthy on offense.
There is extra incentive for the offense to stay healthy because the Red Sox are going to need to outscore teams. The burning question for Red Sox Nation is what will Chris Sale do in 2020? Sale had a 4.40 ERA, but a 3.39 FIP and a 2.93 xFIP. He got torched by last season’s home run barrage with an HR/FB% of 19.5%. Sale’s career HR/FB%, even with last year’s numbers, is just 11.9%. He had never been higher than 12.5%.
Sale also struggled in key spots with men on base. His career LOB% is 77.4% and he finished with a 66.7% mark last season. The K% numbers were fine and the walk rate was a tad elevated, but it looks like it was just an outlier season of bad luck for Sale. We can also point to a lack of health, as he was limited to 147.1 innings and saw a very noticeable drop in fastball velocity, particularly early in the season. He still generated swings and misses at an elite rate. It was just the long ball and some sequencing that did him in. The Red Sox need Sale to return to form and I fully expect that he will.
Eduardo Rodriguez was a saving grace with another fine season over 203.1 innings of work so it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Rodriguez’s performance, particularly in the second half, was a really big boost for Boston. Durability had been a question for Rodriguez with an on-again, off-again knee issue, but he made 34 starts and worked over 200 innings for the first time in his career.
We’ll see if the Nathan Eovaldi gamble works out better this season. He only worked 67.2 innings and posted an ERA and FIP of almost 6.00. Martin Perez used a newfound cutter to have a quality first half last season with a .296 wOBA against over his first 95 innings, but his second half was awful with a .382 wOBA and a 6.27 ERA and 5.94 FIP over 70.1 innings.
The loss of David Price hurts because the Red Sox don’t have a lot of great starting pitchers. Even though Price was limited to 107.1 innings, his fewest since 2009, he still had some upside that most of the in-house options don’t have.
Say what you will about Price, Rick Porcello, and Andrew Cashner, but the Red Sox have to replace 335.1 innings from last season. The hope is that Chris Sale can account for about 70 or so more of those, but there is no guarantee that Eovaldi, Perez, Matt Hall, Darwinzon Hernandez, Hector Velazquez or any of the other options are any better. In fact, they could be worse and that would be really hurtful for the Sox.
Maybe Boston finds a way to figure this out. Maybe interim manager Ron Roenicke can milk some extra production out of Sale and Rodriguez, but the other options are just not inspiring a lot of confidence. Major League Baseball may need to put parental controls on the games that Perez starts against the Yankees and other talented offenses just to keep the children from seeing something so horrifying.
The Red Sox bullpen was better than I expected last season, but there were some worrisome trends. Brandon Workman appeared in 73 games with a 1.88 ERA, but he lived on a .209 BABIP and a 2.6% HR/FB%. He, like Matt Barnes, had major walk issues that didn’t hurt as much as they could have. Barnes had a 3.78 ERA, but a 2.93 xFIP as his 19.5% HR/FB% was well above the league average. On the plus side, I don’t know how many leads the group will have to protect, particularly on days that don’t begin with Sale or E-Rod.
Positives & Negatives
The positive this year for the Red Sox is that what we see is what we get. Last season I spent ample time discussing how the Red Sox overachieved offensively and defensively in high-leverage situations. That did lead to some regression, though a large part of Boston’s fall last season came because of pitching injuries. Fifteen different pitchers made starts and the only pitchers with an ERA under 4.00 to make more than one start were Rodriguez and Travis Lakins.
The fallout from the Astros scandal brought about an investigation into the Red Sox and it was found that manager emeritus Alex Cora brought over some of those same cheating tactics to the Red Sox for their 2018 run. As such, he lost his job and also received supplemental discipline from Major League Baseball. The Red Sox have a new manager and it remains to be seen how that will go. Cora pushed all the right buttons in the 2018 playoffs and seemed to have learned from a good teacher in AJ Hinch, but those opinions are very much in doubt now.
The new skipper is Ron Roenicke, who has tons of coaching experience, but this is a bad situation for any manager to walk into. The Red Sox are good, but likely not good enough. Ownership is crying poor in advance of the likely labor stoppage. This has to be a demoralized team to a degree and Roenicke is left to try and pick up the pieces because the World Series-winning manager was (correctly) forced out.
Pick: Under 84.5
Doesn’t 86 or 87 wins feel like the ceiling for this Red Sox team? The rotation is bad beyond Sale and Rodriguez and Sale, who had a platelet-rich plasma injection last season, is a major injury risk. Rodriguez just turned in his first 200-inning season because he has a chronic knee issue that bothers him. I’m sure he was also bothered by the Red Sox taking him to arbitration over a $600,000 difference in salary proposals. I’m not saying that Rodriguez would take that personally, though it wouldn’t surprise me if a little bit of body maintenance comes into play to get that pay day down the line. It is a consideration all players dealing with something.
If the Red Sox don’t get 60 starts from those two guys, they’ll be up the Charles River without a paddle. And by that I mean out floating away in the Atlantic Ocean.
The offense is still really good and has some upside. I just can’t get past the worst-case scenario for this pitching staff because it is not that far from becoming a reality. Outscoring the opposition is always the goal, but it is the method of victory for the Red Sox, so the offense will have to stay healthy, too. I just don’t see any margin for error with this squad. They are clearly the third-best team in the division, they know it, and it wouldn’t be terribly shocking to see a guy like JD Martinez or E-Rod shopped as the cost-cutting measures continue in July.
All of that being said, the floor is probably pretty high for this team, too, with an above average offense and a top-five pitcher in baseball in Sale. Rodriguez is very good, too, if he stays healthy.
The Red Sox likely land somewhere between 82 and 87 much more often than not and I want a wider range of outcomes to make a bet. This is just a pick because I make one on every team and the pick is on the under.