All in all, it has actually been a pretty quiet offseason for the Boston Red Sox. They acknowledged two targets very early on, successfully got them, and then continued the process of evaluating in-house talent. Last season was rather tumultuous for the Red Sox. Manager John Farrell underwent treatment for cancer. General manager Ben Cherington was replaced by Dave Dombrowski. As incredible as this stat is, the Red Sox finished dead last in the American League East for the third time in four seasons. The only time they didn’t finish last, they won the World Series.

Boston wrapped up a 78-84 campaign last season with four losses and finished 35-41 against the AL East. It is worth pointing out that the Red Sox, who struggled mightily in high-leverage offensive situations early in the season, were 32-22 in August and September with a +76 run differential before mailing in those final four games of the season.

An exciting young crop of position players and a top free agent starter have created quite a buzz in Beantown about this team. It’s easy to see why people are excited about the Red Sox. Youngsters Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts combined for 9.1 wins above replacement player per Fangraphs and the emergence of Jackie Bradley Jr.’s bat will complement his fielding very nicely. Clay Buchholz racked up 3.2 fWAR in only 18 starts and high-upside arms like Eduardo Rodriguez and Henry Owens got significant big league experience. Add a dependable five-win pitcher in Price and a dominant two-win reliever in Craig Kimbrel and the ceiling is high.

On the other hand, the floor isn’t as high as you might think. At some point, age will catch up with David Ortiz, who mashed 37 dingers and posted a .273/.360/.553 slash last season. Dustin Pedroia’s offense bounced back, but he was limited to just 93 games and has now been hampered by injuries for two straight seasons. The starting pitching depth is a bit iffy and Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval could continue to be albatross contracts.

With a new direction under Dombrowski, the return of Farrell, and a bona fide ace at the front of the rotation, lofty expectations have returned for the Red Sox. Can they live up to them?

Season win total odds:

BetOnline: 87.5 (-115/-115)

5Dimes: 86.5 (-120/-110)

Bovada: 86.5 (-115/-115)

 

Key additions: David Price, Craig Kimbrel, Roenis Elias, Carson Smith, Chris Young

Key losses: Rich Hill, Craig Breslow, Wade Miley

There were more gains than losses this winter for the Red Sox. David Price cost a pretty penny at $217 million, but the Red Sox had a very clear need and they found a way to fill it with arguably the best free agent pitcher on the market. It is a signing that completely changes the dynamic, as I will write about later in this piece.

Adding Craig Kimbrel in what projects to be a bounce back season is a savvy move and it came at the expense of four prospects and Boston has money and a relatively young core, so they traded from a position of strength. Kimbrel’s ERA and FIP were the highest marks of his career, but there’s more than meets the eye to those marks. Carson Smith is a tricky little upside grab from Seattle in the Wade Miley trade. Smith has a wipeout slider and a live 26-year-old arm.

Chris Young is the type of signing that doesn’t move the needle, but really improves things at the margins. Young murders left-handed pitching and can be a very good platoon bat to help Bradley Jr. out on the side of the split that he struggles against.

Roenis Elias has Miley-like upside and Rich Hill was a dime-store find that worked out well in a small sample size. Breslow is replaceable as a LOOGY, so Boston gained some significant surplus value this winter through some shrewd transactions and a deep bank account.

 

Why bet the over?

Did we see the best of Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts? The answer is quite simple. No. With more experience comes better strike zone knowledge and with better strike zone knowledge comes more solid contact and more opportunities to get on base. Betts regularly posted double-digit BB% rates in the minors and the 23-year-old is just 867 plate appearances into what should be an excellent big league career. Betts has the upside of a 20/20 guy with an above average walk rate and above average defense. That’s a five-win player all day and the ceiling is there for more. The nice thing about Betts is that the floor is pretty high as well, since he puts to bat to ball, can field, and can run.

The volatility of Bogaerts is a little bit higher, but he’s got a line drive swing to all fields and can regularly be a high BABIP guy. Remember that BABIP, batting average on balls in play, generally sits in the .290 to .310 range, but Bogaerts has above average speed and a line drive swing that will allow him to sit above that range. A .372 BABIP like last year seems very unlikely, but some power gains seem very likely. Defensive metrics are a little bit uncertain, and the floor is lower compared to Betts, but the ceiling is still pretty high and, again, he’s 23 years old.

Among players with at least 400 plate appearances, Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez were two of the three worst players in baseball. The other was Victor Martinez of the Detroit Tigers. Sandoval posted a 75 wRC+, which means that he was 25 percent below league average offensively. Power saved Hanley Ramirez from being totally useless on offense, posting a .426 SLG and an 89 wRC+, but he was quite possibly the worst defensive player in baseball.

The return to some shred of normalcy for these two players will dictate just how high the ceiling is for Boston. Ramirez moves over to first base, where the Red Sox will attempt to hide years of injury and defensive horror. Ramirez was -19 defensive runs saved in left field. As a reminder, Fenway Park has a big green wall about 300 feet away from home plate that negates an outfielder’s need for range. Sandoval’s wOBA (weighted on-base average) dropped 35 points in a vastly superior hitting environment and his contact quality bottomed out. Is the hefty 29-year-old experiencing a very early decline or was this season simply one of those anomalies? He kept chasing and swinging a ton and pitchers actually challenged him more in the AL and he failed miserably. It’s fair to assume that his offensive gong show followed him to the hot corner, where he was -11 defensive runs saved. At a minimum, you would expect these two to return to league average. Considering Sandoval and Ramirez were -3.8 fWAR last season, that’s a really big gain for Boston.

Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz are “lite” versions of Ramirez and Sandoval, in that there could be a lot of range in their levels of performance. Pedroia will reportedly have his workload managed by John Farrell, which could prolong his production this season. He’ll still be an above average Major League player, but the ceiling isn’t what it once was. Ortiz is 40 and he’s still toying with pitchers as if he’s 30. Papi got #500 out of the way last season and has a vesting option for 2017, so there won’t be a David Ortiz Retirement Tour. He has been stunningly consistent throughout his career and there are no major signs of decline in any of his metrics. His zone-contact rate went down, which could suggest some declining bat speed, but 37 home runs and a line drive spike suggest otherwise. If the age monster stays away another year, Ortiz will flirt with 2.5 fWAR as an offense-only player.

There are a lot of “x-factor” types of players for the Red Sox. Jackie Bradley Jr. is an elite defensive outfielder with some offensive question marks. Brock Holt is a really versatile player that is basically a lighter version of Ben Zobrist minus the power. Travis Shaw showed good pop with 13 dongs in just 65 games. Blake Swihart is a terrific defensive catcher with a limited offensive profile. Rusney Castillo was a big investment that had trouble adjusting to life in the Majors, but played an excellent right field. Chris Young is an excellent platoon bat against southpaws. There aren’t many weaknesses in this Boston lineup.

And that’s exactly why ponying up for David Price was the right play. The Red Sox got a reliable five-win workhorse that has worked over 200 innings in five of the last six seasons. Price has actually been a six-win player in each of the last two seasons, so that five-win label might be a little bit pessimistic. The later years of his seven-year pact could be a bit of a disappointment, but he should have gained plenty of surplus value by then. Price misses a lot of bats, doesn’t walk many hitters, and has shown no ill effects of being asked to pitch in the AL East for most of his career. He’s elite. In the new age of baseball benchmarks, Price may have a plaque in Cooperstown awaiting him one day.

Clay Buchholz’s health isn’t much to bet on, but the upside remains. Even if Buchholz can only make 20 starts, he’ll net value at his $13 million price tag. Buchholz has one of the game’s top changeups and made some nice adjustments from 2014 to 2015 to post a 3.26/2.68/3.30 (ERA/FIP/xFIP) pitcher slash last season. That probably won’t be repeated, but Buchholz is a great middle of the rotation arm with #2 upside when his body allows him to work every fifth day.

This applies to fantasy baseball as well, so if you’re looking for bounce back candidates, Rick Porcello is on your list. Porcello made some nice strides in the strikeout department, but he made some awful strides in the command department. Porcello’s 4.92 ERA was accompanied by a 3.72 xFIP, which, in and of itself, suggests positive regression. A .332 BABIP, inflated by bad command and some mediocre defense, will come down, as will the 14.5 percent HR/FB%, and the 67.5 percent strand rate should rise. Porcello has the potential to improve by a full win.

Eduardo Rodriguez and Roenis Elias have potential to be all kinds of fun. Rodriguez endured some growing pains in his first 21 starts at just 22 years of age, but the potential was also on display. He flashed some swing-and-miss stuff with plus command and average control. He didn’t have a lot of faith in his secondary pitches, but he spent the offseason working on slider refinement and a cutter. He’ll never be a dominant ace, but as a really reliable #3 with a frame to grow into, he’ll be plenty valuable. Elias could be the third lefty in this rotation, though he does have minor league options. Elias has varying release points that lead to command and control issues, but he could benefit from a change of scenery, where he isn’t dueling with guys like Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, or Danny Hultzen for attention.

Don’t trail late in a game with Boston. Craig Kimbrel’s track record speaks for itself. Koji Uehara, now 40, has one of the game’s best splitters and it actually turns an 87 mph fastball into a weapon. It’s fair to be somewhat skeptical of Carson Smith, who went from a career high of 49 appearances to 70 last season, but the hard-throwing right-hander with a wicked slidah should excite Red Sox fans in a big way. Smith was among prestigious company in terms of reliever fWAR. Better rotation depth pushes ex-starters Joe Kelly and Robbie Ross into relief roles. Kelly can run his heavy sinker into the upper 90s and Ross can hide his lack of a third pitch as a LOOGY (Lefty One Out GuY).

 

Why bet the under?

As promising as everything looks on paper, it has looked similarly promising in the past and has not worked out. As mentioned, Boston has finished last in three of the last four seasons, two of those with Jon Lester, so the lack of an ace last season is not the only culprit. I have to wonder how good of a manager John Farrell actually is. Can he maximize the talent of this team? Will he allocate playing time properly? There are a lot of ways that this thing can go wrong, especially because contracts necessitate playing time for Hanley and Panda.

Speaking of those two, what if this wasn’t a one-year slump? Hanley is on the downside of his career and hiding him at first base could backfire in a big way. At other positions, he’s only in on balls hit in his direction. The majority of ground balls now come his way, whether by air or by bounce. Sandoval’s husky frame has always been a concern and it was allowed to be one last season after being swept under the rug during his productive seasons. They will be better. It’s hard to be worse. But, will their respective gains be enough to push Boston over a lofty season win total?

Dustin Pedroia is damaged goods right now and the power may not fully return. He hit some home runs last season, but he set a new career high in HR/FB% and hit fewer line drives than at any other point in his career. He also hit more pop ups than ever before, so he seems to be actively trying to lift and separate. That’s not his game. A .291 batting average and a .356 on-base percentage don’t look like replicable numbers.

David Ortiz is old. Regression should come at some point. As mentioned, there aren’t any regression flags that really stand out, but the human body has a breaking point.

From a starting standpoint, Price should be fine, but the others may not be. Porcello wants to return to a pitch mix that induces early-count contact, which will take away his strikeout rate increase and put additional pressure on the defense. Also, inducing early-count contact means throwing quality strikes. That was not his strong suit last season, as evidenced by the highest HR/9 and HR/FB% of his career. He’ll be better, but “#2 starter” better is a stretch.

Of course, Clay Buchholz should be the #2 starter, but Derrick Rose might have a healthier track record. When Buchholz made 28+ starts in a season, he posted xFIPs of 4.07, 4.43, and 4.04. There may be an element of fool’s gold here from a fantasy and a betting standpoint since his 2015 gains were so significant. Maybe they’re sustainable. Maybe they’re not and Buchholz is a one-win pitcher that spends most of the season in the trainer’s room. There isn’t a lot of starting pitching depth here, so his health is essential.

Getting out of the Baltimore organization was great for Eduardo Rodriguez, considering their history of developing arm problems and not pitchers. Rodriguez worked a career-high 170 innings last season. Some of them were high-stress at the big league level. He’s right around league average in strikeout and walk rates, so there’s something to buy into, but there’s also a reasonable projection of mediocrity. Buying into 23-year-old pitchers without excellent minor league track records is scary.

Kimbrel and Smith are fine, but Farrell may need to find some other options in the pen. Uehara will turn 41 the day before Opening Day and has lost a full mile per hour in average fastball velocity in each of the last three seasons. For the second straight season, Junichi Tazawa’s strikeout rate fell and he allowed a .349 BABIP. Perhaps that improves, but perhaps we’re also looking at a command issue.

 

Pick: Boston Red Sox Under 87.5 (-110 – 5Dimes)

This is a lofty win total for a team that has some significant question marks. Behind David Price, there aren’t many certainties in the rotation. The lineup is very talented, especially with guys like Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts ready to take the next step forward, but there are some bad-bodied guys in David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez, and Pablo Sandoval that really need to perform for this offense to click on all cylinders. High season win total lines like this leave very little margin for error.

This is not a strong play by any means, since the upside for this Boston team is very high. But, with an older roster outside of Betts and Bogaerts, expecting this Red Sox team to win 88+ games in an American League full of parity is a tough thing to do.

 

-END OF 2016 PREVIEW-

 

The Boston Red Sox did something in 2014 that has not been done in a long time, if it has ever been done before. The Red Sox finished last in the AL East in 2012, won the AL East and the World Series in 2013, and then finished last in the AL East again in 2014. It’s hard to imagine a team going from worst to first and a World Series title and then back to worst again, but that’s exactly what the Red Sox did. As you might expect, the roster looks dramatically different entering the 2015 season.

What started with a trade deadline trade of Jon Lester to Oakland has turned into a complete overhaul of the Red Sox roster. Nobody will accuse GM Ben Cherington of sitting on his hands and hoping for a different outcome in 2015. A lot of big names were brought in and a lot of big names were shipped out. The Red Sox have a tremendous blend of homegrown talent and free agent acquisitions in the everyday lineup and the starting rotation has a particular set of skills that Cherington hopes will be the separator for the team.

Boston was 13-13 in the month of April and it was their only non-losing month of the season in 2014. The home field advantage they enjoyed at Fenway Park completely evaporated, leaving a 34-47 record in its wake. The hated Yankees took 12 of 19 from the Red Sox and every team in the AL East had a winning record against Boston. Boston spent all of three days with a record above .500 and they were never above .500 after Game #39 when they were 20-19. In a market like this, those results are unacceptable and that was the catalyst for one of the busiest offseasons in baseball.

Oddsmakers seem to think that the new acquisitions will be worth their weight in gold with a win total set at 86 at BetOnline. Both Atlantis Sportsbook in Reno and Westgate Superbook in Las Vegas opened the Red Sox line at 86, though the line quickly moved to 84.5 after a sharp bet on the under.

Key additions: Rick Porcello, Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, Justin Masterson, Wade Miley, Ryan Hanigan, Anthony Varvaro, Robbie Ross, Jr., Alexi Ogando

Key losses: Yoenis Cespedes, David Ross, Will Middlebrooks, Allen Webster, Rubby de la Rosa, Anthony Ranaudo, Burke Badenhop

That’s a lot of names. The names coming in mean more than the names going out for oddsmakers and bettors, which will be the focus leading up to the season. Names like Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval register with a lot more effect than David Ross and Allen Webster. There was a lot of discussion about how the Red Sox decided not to keep and re-sign Jon Lester, opting instead to get Yoenis Cespedes and a draft pick. Cespedes became Rick Porcello.

There’s a trend to what the Red Sox did this offseason and it will be discussed further down in this article. The focus in the transactions section here is that the Red Sox added a lot of pitching depth. People probably aren’t overly excited about guys like Justin Masterson and Robbie Ross, but they lengthen a starting rotation. Teams generally go through around nine starting pitchers per season due to injury, trade, suspension, bereavement and paternity lists, and whatever else keeps players out of action. Because the Red Sox used depth pitchers like Allen Webster, Anthony Ranaudo, and Rubby de la Rosa to acquire the pieces they wanted, they needed to bring pitchers back into the fold. All in all, this has to be considered a really successful offseason for Cherington.

Why bet the over?

The first thing that you have to realize about the Red Sox is that this team has the potential to be incredibly good. Their “boom” potential is through the roof. The youngsters like Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Rusney Castillo have a ridiculous amount of upside. We’ll start with Bogaerts, who was widely regarded as one of the top prospects in baseball before he graduated from prospect lists after a full season with the Red Sox. The results weren’t there, but the process was. Bogaerts’s minor league success has not translated to the Show just yet. Bogaerts posted a wOBA of .366 or better at each stop in the minors, but just a .295 wOBA in the Majors.

But, this is where patience is a virtue. Bogaerts turned 22 last October. It’s important to realize a few things about the 2014 season that Bogaerts had. The Red Sox were trying to maximize his value by moving him from shortstop to third base, where Boston had a huge hole. Bogaerts experienced failure at baseball for the first time in his career. As a result, he struck out over 3.5 times more than he walked and his lack of selectivity put him in too many bad hitter’s counts. The flashes are there. Forty-one of his 88 hits went for extra bases. The defense is a work in progress, but nobody has ever questioned the hit tool. There’s a very real chance that Bogaerts puts it together and adds two wins of value to Boston’s lineup in his second full season.

Mookie Betts is a player that rose quickly up the prospect rankings because of his outstanding bat-to-ball ability. That flashed in a big way at the Major League level last season during his 213 plate appearances. Betts posted a .291/.368/.444 slash line and got the experience needed to take away some of the jitters entering the 2015 season. He was worth 1.9 fWAR in just 52 games. That type of sustained production could be hard to come by, but Betts is still an above average player in so many facets of the game that he is going to be valuable.

Rusney Castillo played just 10 games with Boston at the end of the season, but the Cuban import projects as a tremendous defensive center fielder. The bat is still a question and whether or not he can hit Major League pitching will define his overall value, but the Red Sox are going to pitch to a lot of contact and that’s where Castillo comes into play. Fenway Park is tricky to play as a center fielder with the cavernous triangle in center field and some of the other oddities of the park. Castillo was fast-tracked to the big leagues with just eight games and 39 appearances in rookie ball, but he has impact tools that have high upside.

Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval are known commodities and public bettors look for things like that with win totals. Sandoval cashed in handsomely for his free agent year following a World Series ring and Ramirez agreed to play left field, which will save his injury prone body and likely prolong his career. Sandoval gets away from the suffocating conditions of AT&T Park, where he was a well above average hitter. It feels like the Panda has been around forever, but he’ll turn 29 in August and there’s a lot of mileage left on that big body. He’s a free swinger, but he makes contact, and contact at Fenway Park can mean a whole lot of positive outcomes.

How much is Hanley Ramirez buying in? He showed up at Spring Training two weeks early. Like Sandoval, Ramirez should benefit from a better hitting environment. In his age-31 season, Ramirez may have some trouble in road parks when he has to play the outfield, but there’s good depth here and John Farrell should be able to manage his assets well because of the team that Cherington has given him. That depth includes Daniel Nava, Betts, and Shane Victorino, whose playing time will have to be monitored.

Dustin Pedroia, Mike Napoli, and David Ortiz are consistent and bettors know what they will get from that trio. This is a lineup that has a ton of potential to be one of the most prolific in the American League. The Red Sox also project to get a lot of defensive value from catcher Christian Vazquez and Castillo in center. It’s hard to find a weakness with the position players. There is some good depth, including a guy like Nava, who has a platoon advantage 70 percent of the time. There’s bat-to-ball ability, plate discipline, power, and speed, though more of the first-to-third speed as opposed to stealing bases.

The starting rotation constructed by Cherington is very interesting and, personally, I’m a fan. I’m a big fan of ground ball pitchers and the Red Sox certainly have those. The current projected rotation, with ground ball percentage in parentheses, is Rick Porcello (49%), Clay Buchholz (46.6%), Wade Miley (51.1%), Justin Masterson (58.2%) and Joe Kelly (54.9%). Robbie Ross, a late addition to the Red Sox, checked in at 53.5 percent. League average for GB% was 44.8 percent. So the Red Sox are hoping that their infield defense will be the difference.

Going with a pitch-to-contact rotation is always a concern, but a collection of ground ball pitchers at Fenway Park makes a lot of sense. One of the advantages that teams have is to tailor their team to their home ballpark. Teams like Oakland can fill the rotation with fly ball pitchers. When the Twins played in the Metrodome, they had a lot of slap hitting speed guys that could make things happen on the bouncy carpet. The Red Sox have opted to corner the market on guys that aren’t going to get burned by the short porches in left field or right field, at least not as much as other pitchers.

There’s some upside potential here as well. Rick Porcello posted one of his lower ground ball rates last season, but that was out of necessity because the Tigers infield defense was awful, so he developed his secondary stuff and struck more guys out. Clay Buchholz hasn’t been healthy, but he has proven to be a well above average starter when he can go every five days. Justin Masterson is coming off of a down year, but he has had Major League success. Wade Miley has thrown at least 198 innings in each of the last three seasons and he just turned 28, so there should be a lot more bullets in that left arm. Joe Kelly has shown a dramatic ground ball split and should be more than serviceable as a fifth starter.

The Red Sox bullpen was strong last season, anchored by Koji Uehara, whose command is impeccable. Brandon Workman is an interesting arm in this mix. The Red Sox may opt to send Workman to the minors to stretch him out as a starting depth option, but Workman has good upside in short bursts. Junichi Tazawa is as reliable as they come.

All in all, this is a Red Sox team with enormous upside. The rotation has plenty of intrigue as a group that can benefit from a good defense, like we’ve seen with Tampa Bay, Kansas City, and Baltimore in recent years. The lineup has a chance to be extremely potent with the new additions and a good mix of skills.

Why bet the under?

As exciting as Xander Bogaerts is, he could throw a wrench into the entire thing. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a 22-year-old, but Bogaerts has a league average ceiling defensively and he’s going to get a ton of work with this pitching staff. If Bogaerts struggles with the stick, that’s probably something that the team can overcome. If he’s bad with the glove, that’s going to present some difficulty. In 880 innings at shortstop, Bogaerts effectively cost the Red Sox one win defensively. Now, that’s not a lot, but it will be a difference maker if he struggles again. The starting rotation’s success is contingent on good defense, which the Red Sox have in Pedroia, Napoli, and Sandoval. But those guys need to stay healthy and Bogaerts has to hold up his end.

Perception will be another reason to bet the under. The oddsmakers are asking Boston to improve in a big way this season to go over the number. While the Red Sox are better, so is the rest of the AL East. Baltimore will come back to the pack, but the Yankees and Blue Jays have made some good improvements. Tampa Bay’s future remains to be seen with some of their changes, but the AL East is competitive.

Can Hanley Ramirez stay healthy? What does 2015 hold for Dustin Pedroia? Pedroia’s power is effectively gone at this stage of his career with 16 home runs in over 1,300 plate appearances over the last two seasons. He was a below average offensive player for the first time in his career last season. He plays through a lot of ailments, but he’ll turn 32 during the season.

Speaking of injuries and aging, how long can David Ortiz keep this up? Batted ball luck and an increase in shifts hurt his batting average, but the power and plate discipline numbers showed no signs of falling off. Regardless, Ortiz is 39 and there’s always an element of risk involved in a player that old.

The ground ball, pitch-to-contact experiment could blow up in Boston’s face because of risk factors attached to the pitchers. Clay Buchholz hasn’t been healthy in two years and he was battered when he did pitch last season. Justin Masterson is a mechanical nightmare and has some ugly platoon splits over the course of his career. Joe Kelly’s walk rate jumped and he doesn’t get out of many jams with strikeouts, which increases his blow-up potential. How will Wade Miley react to pitching with pressure? Pitching in Boston is a lot different than pitching in Arizona and the Red Sox already bought out his arbitration years. There’s a lot of bust potential with this rotation.

Pick: Over 86

The Boston Red Sox weren’t as bad as their final record suggested last season. After winning the World Series in 2013, 2014 was a demoralizing year and it only got worse after the Jon Lester trade. The Red Sox enter this season with some big expectations, including the highest win total in the AL East. The starting rotation is a question mark, but I have an affinity for teams that use ground ball guys. In today’s run environment, stringing hits together is not a skill that most offenses possess. While ground balls do tend to find holes, hitters are more focused on drawing walks and hitting bombs. The Red Sox have a good infield defense around the horn and that’s going to allow their rotation to play up.

After a bit of a down year offensively, the Red Sox added some big bats and have some excellent depth. John Farrell has a lot of options on his bench and he will be able to keep key players fresh throughout the season. Betting the over for teams that are offseason champions is not the best approach to take more often than not, but I’m a believer in what the Sox have done this winter.

Injuries are really the only concern because this team has very few flaws. The middle relief could use some help, but a guy like Workman can fill that void and help to bridge the gap to Uehara and Tazawa. Of course, there are a lot of bullpen arms still available and money is never an option for the Red Sox.

This team is my favorite to win the AL East, though there is another team that I think has a lot of upside. It’s going to take over 86 wins to win the AL East and the Red Sox have as good a shot as anybody to be that team and I’ll buy into what they did this offseason to upgrade the offense and build a pitching staff tailored perfectly to Fenway Park and the composition of the roster.

 

-END OF 2015 PREDICTION-

 

In one of the most dramatic turnarounds in recent memory, the Boston Red Sox went from losing 93 games in 2012 to winning the World Series in 2013. The 93 losses that the Red Sox accumulated in 2012 was the most games they had lost in a season since 1965 and prior to that in 1932. The Red Sox were 28 games better this past season en route to their seventh World Series title as the Red Sox and eighth as a franchise.

The reason for the improvement is simple – the pitching staff. The Red Sox allowed 150 fewer runs in 2013 than they had the previous season, leading to a league-best run differential of plus-197. It didn’t hurt that the offense scored 129 more runs as well. As a result, the Red Sox spent 164 days in first place. Consistency was also a theme, as the Red Sox were .500 or better in each month of the season, had a nearly identical winning percentage before and after the All-Star Break, and rolled right on through to the World Series.

Looking ahead to 2014, the Red Sox are projected to be one of the top teams in baseball. LVH Superbook and Atlantis Casino in Reno, NV both opened the Red Sox win total at 87.5, while William Hill opened one win higher at 88.5.

Key additions: A.J. Pierzynski, Edward Mujica, Grady Sizemore, Jose Mijares, Chris Capuano

Key losses: Jacoby Ellsbury, Stephen Drew, Andrew Bailey, Matt Thornton, Ryan Dempster, Jarrod Saltalamacchia

Talent in, talent out for the Red Sox this offseason. Jacoby Ellsbury took an enormous free agent contract to play for the hated rival Yankees, Stephen Drew and Andrew Bailey remain free agents due to questionable medical reports, and Matt Thornton also signed with the Yankees. Ryan Dempster walked away from over $13M because of family and health concerns, as well as the concern that he would be the odd man out in the Red Sox rotation.

The Red Sox will miss Ellsbury, a player who was worth 23.7 fWAR (Fangraphs WAR) in his seven seasons with the Red Sox, including a ridiculous 9.1 fWAR in 2011 to lead the league. But the big question regarding Ellsbury was his ability to stay healthy, missing nearly all of 2010 and more than half of 2012. The Red Sox, one of the most sabermetrically-inclined front offices in baseball weighed the risks and rewards of an Ellsbury extension and allowed him to go to free agency.

Drew, once a top prospect in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization, is still looking for work. Drew hasn’t played a full season since 2010 and there are a lot of concerns about his ability to hit left-handed pitching and his ugly splits away from hitter-friendly Fenway Park. While he was productive when healthy, adding some defensive value to his above average offense from the shortstop position, the Red Sox appear to have moved on. Recent reports suggest that the Red Sox could use the Dempster money to sign Drew, but that seems unlikely.

As most good teams with high payrolls do, the Red Sox filled a hole when it opened. The loss of Jarrod Saltalamacchia opened the door to sign A.J. Pierzynski. Pierzynski, now a 15-year veteran of the big leagues, will fit in nicely with the Red Sox as a benefactor of the short right field fence and a veteran catcher for a veteran pitching staff. Chris Capuano was brought in to provide starting pitching depth and injury insurance.

The wild card is Grady Sizemore. Once one of the game’s best, several surgeries, including a couple of microfracture surgeries on his knees,  have completely derailed Sizemore’s career. It’s a gamble that the Red Sox can easily afford to take and a spot where Sizemore won’t be forced to do too much with plenty of help and depth around him.

Why bet the over?

One could argue that the Red Sox are even better this season despite the loss of Ellsbury. The offense remains largely in tact and Mike Napoli returns to man first base and possibly do some catching. Pierzynski should be enough to offset the loss of Saltalamacchia, especially with both Napoli and designated hitter David Ortiz in the lineup.

Daniel Nava may have slightly overachieved, but he proved to be a formidable offensive threat with a .366 wOBA. Shane Victorino silenced critics last season with the 5.6 WAR season he put together, playing well both offensively and defensively. Center field is really the only offensive question mark in the outfield. Jackie Bradley Jr. struggled his way to a .617 OPS in his first 37 Major League games and Sizemore is no guarantee. The Red Sox do have depth in Jonny Gomes and Mike Carp to give them some additional options.

Around the infield, the left side will be patrolled by Will Middlebrooks and Xander Bogaerts. Middlebrooks was unable to repeat the success that he experienced during his 75-game audition in 2012, but the starting job should be his with the Red Sox hoping to keep Bogaerts at shortstop, his natural position. Middlebrooks has something to prove, making him a bounce back candidate. He’s just 25, with good power and little pressure hitting at the bottom of this loaded lineup. As for Bogaerts, one of the game’s best prospects, he was very impressive down the stretch playing third base for the Red Sox en route to their title run and he is poised to do great things. Even if he doesn’t live up to his Major League numbers, shortstop is a historically weak position offensively, so he should provide good offensive value for that position.

Of course the always-steady Dustin Pedroia will man second base as one of the game’s most underrated talents. Given the lucrative contract Robinson Cano recently got, the future will be on Pedroia’s mind, with two years left on his current Red Sox contract. Expect more of the same from Pedroia. The Red Sox decided to take a chance on keeping Mike Napoli, as the Fenway Park dimensions really help his offensive ability play up.

On the pitching side, the bounce back season from Jon Lester was one of the big reasons why the Red Sox were able to have such a drastic turnaround from 2012 to 2013. After his 9-14 season with a 4.82 ERA, Lester rebounded to win 15 games with a 3.75 ERA. It wasn’t quite the numbers he put up from 2008-11, but advanced metrics suggested this type of season from Lester, as his FIP was 0.71 runs lower than his ERA in 2013. His SIERA was right around his career average, indicating that the pitcher hadn’t really changed, but the luck had. As it turned out, the numbers were correct and Lester delivered.

Clay Buchholz went 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA and a 2.78 FIP last season in just 16 starts. As has been the case for Buchholz, his health prevented him from really having a breakout season. Buchholz hasn’t made more than 30 starts in a season since 2009, but his Major League results to date indicate that he’d be an above average starter over the course of a full season.

John Lackey turned a corner last season, reverting back to the pitcher he was in the 2000s with the Angels. Lackey’s win-loss record was not indicative of how he pitched, posting a 3.52 ERA and a 3.86 FIP in 189 innings. It was a huge surprise for the Red Sox because Lackey missed all of 2012 and didn’t miss a beat in 2013. Like Lackey, fellow veteran Jake Peavy found some youthful exuberance in his time with the Red Sox. Acquired at the trade deadline, Peavy accumulated 1.3 WAR in just 10 starts with the Red Sox during their playoff push.

The fifth starter will likely be Felix Doubront, a southpaw with swing-and-miss stuff but some control concerns. For the second straight season, Doubront’s FIP was well below his ERA, indicating that improvement could be on the horizon. Most fifth starters league-wide are below average and Doubront has the potential to be better than league average. That gives the Red Sox rotation a lot of depth. Add in a crafty veteran like Chris Capuano at a very reasonable price and the Red Sox are in business.

The Red Sox bullpen will rely on Koji Uehara and a collection of talented setup men with good control. Uehara was unhittable last season, posting a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 11.22 and opposing batters hit just .129 off of him. The Japanese import has been spectacular in his Major League career and it’s hard to expect anything other than that now that he’s in the closer’s role. Uehara was so good in his 74.1 innings of work that he finished seventh in the Cy Young voting and 17th in Most Valuable Player voting.

Behind Uehara will be fellow Japanese right hander Junichi Tazawa. Like Uehara, Tazawa exhibited elite control with a 6/1 K/BB ratio. For closer insurance, the Red Sox added former St. Louis Cardinals closer Edward Mujica in free agency. In 130 innings over the last two seasons, Mujica has issued 17 unintentional walks. He walked six of the 255 batters he faced last season, one intentionally. Burke Badenhop, another righty, also doesn’t walk hitters.

Craig Breslow, Jose Mijares, and Rich Hill will form the triumvirate called upon to get lefties out. This bullpen will be very tough to score off of. They’re not going to allow free baserunners and hitters will have to hit their way on base against guys who can spot their pitches on the corners with regularity.

The American League East seems a little bit weaker this season. The Rays could be the class of the division, but the Yankees seem to be about the same. The Orioles don’t appear to be an 85-win team again and the Blue Jays have made no impact moves this winter. Somebody will have to win games within the division and the Red Sox were 44-32 against the AL East last season.

Why bet the under?

As impressive as this group looks on paper, there are some serious concerns for the Red Sox. Shane Victorino, who was much better than anyone could have imagined last season, turned 33 this past November. Once players reach their mid-30s, the aging curve can hit very sharply, dropping production drastically. Victorino was bothered by a hand injury late last season that took a long time to heal this winter. With his style of play, evidenced by his “Flyin’ Hawaiian” nickname, the wear and tear of the season will start to affect him more.

More injury concerns exist in the starting rotation. Buchholz, as mentioned above, has great potential, but has never really been able to stay healthy and productive. From a performance standpoint, Buchholz’s FIP was still solid at 2.78, but was a full run higher than his ERA and opposing batters hit just .254 on balls in play. That’s a rather unsustainable number for a ground ball pitcher and a guy whose home park is tilted towards hitters. Even if healthy, expecting elite production from Buchholz is a fool’s errand. Peavy and Lackey aren’t getting any younger and both pitched into deep playoff runs. In Lackey’s case, he threw over 210 innings after not pitching at all in 2012. There’s sure to be some hangover there.

Center field is a huge hole for the Red Sox right now. There are no certainties with Bradley or Sizemore. Injuries or ineffectiveness from those two will hamper the Red Sox depth in the outfield and an injury to Victorino would really put them in a tough spot. Also, Middlebrooks has a lot of questions to answer at third base. His well below average walk rate is a concern, as is a back injury that plagued him. Those don’t seem to go away and have hurt many careers.

David Ortiz will play at the age of 38 this season. His numbers dropped off dramatically in the second half last season, with a drop of more than 100 points of OPS and a spike in strikeouts. His second half performance was still above average, but there are always concerns with guys in their upper 30s. Pierzynski is 37. Victorino and Napoli are in their mid-30s. Lackey and Peavy have thrown a lot of innings. Only the Yankees and Tigers had a higher average age among position players last season in the American League. Only the Yankees and Blue Jays had a higher average age among pitchers last season, which is a perfect segue into the next point.

Another concern for the Red Sox is simply that they had a long season. Pitchers were worked extremely hard and the offseason was a month shorter than some guys are used to. The last five World Series champions have had mixed results in the season following their magical runs. The Giants won just 76 games last season on the heels of their 2012 title. The Cardinals won 88 games in 2012. The Giants won 86 games in 2011. The 2010 Yankees dropped from 103 wins to 95 wins. The 2009 Phillies won 93 games. The Phillies were the only team to pass their previous season’s win total. That does appear factored into the number here for the Red Sox, but the Red Sox do have an older team.

Pick: Under 88.5

If you can get the William Hill number, take the under. The Red Sox are banking on a rotation that has plenty of health concerns and limited depth in the upper levels of the minor leagues. There are health concerns throughout the lineup as well. Last year’s Red Sox team overachieved a bit and was able to stay pretty healthy all things considered. Any variation of their luck on the injury front will make things very difficult for them.

A postseason hangover could impact the Red Sox early on and leave you chasing this number very late into September. The Red Sox are hoping for the moves they made to be lateral or better and that doesn’t appear to be the case with all of them. If the Red Sox do stay healthy, they have the talent to fly over this total, but aging curves and track records would indicate that the Red Sox struggle, in a relative sense, this season.