October 9th, 2017 was the last time the Red Sox played, when they suffered a third defeat and playoff elimination at the hands of the eventual champion, Houston Astros. Since then, the roster has seen some additions, some departures and an overall reinvigoration in hopes of a better end to 2018 and a longer run into early November. Minor pieces have departed such as speedster Rajai Davis (Indians), fourth outfielder Chris Young (Angels), and depth starter Doug Fister (Rangers). The bullpen also saw exits from Fernando Abad (Phillies) and Blaine Boyer (Royals), and most importantly, trade deadline acquisition/heralded eighth inning man, Addison Reed (Twins). The bullpen departures were handled internally by Boston, through the projected health of relievers already on the roster in Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg. On his last option, Blake Swihart was also promoted in hopes of internally filling the need of a fourth outfielder, as the former first round catcher is attempting any position in hopes of cracking the 25-man. The re-signing of Eduardo Nunez and Mitch Moreland gave the Red Sox more reliable bench options, in reaction to Dustin Pedroia’s knee surgery and the lack of confidence in Hanley Ramirez. The big move of the winter (spring?) was confirmed Monday morning, when Julio Daniel Martinez officially committed to the Boston Red Sox for the next five seasons. Adding that power bat finally gives the Sox the clean-up hitter they have craved since the retirement of beloved slugger David Ortiz. They’ve also finally found a manager that fits the era of baseball we are in, one that is player friendly and extremely hands on. Alex Cora is a former player who is only a few seasons removed from the MLB and will look to create close relationships with his fellow players to develop a strong bond in their team. The Red Sox have made all the personnel moves necessary for a deep playoff run, but if the team plans to see its fourth ring in the last 14 seasons, five specific factors will have to play out in their favour.
Redemption from the back end of the rotation:
Chris Sale is a bonafide stud and obviously the ace. Drew Pomeranz emerged as one of the most underrated starters in the league last season. Beyond that, 2016 Cy Young recipient Rick Porcello struggled for the majority of 2017 and 217 million dollar man David Price split time between the disabled list and the bullpen. With good reason, we can expect a bounce back year from Price. He is going to be playing with a chip on his shoulder, finally healthy, while trying to justify his big contract. Porcello was slightly better in the second half, which leaves reason to believe he’ll be on track to returning to his 2016 form. With the consistency of Sale and Pomeranz up front, solid mid-rotation numbers will do for Price and Porcello. Best case scenario, this staff could end up with four different pitchers who could anchor a rotation if they were elsewhere. One key variable in this scenario, is the question mark of Eduardo Rodriguez. E-Rod was once seen as a top prospect and was the centerpiece in the Red Sox trade of Andrew Miller in 2014, but has struggled with various knee injuries during his time in Boston. The 24 year old won’t be ready for opening day, but a healthy Rodriguez possibly pitching the way he was before his June 1st injury (4 –1, 2.77 ERA, 1.12 WHIP) could lead to the Red Sox having the deepest and most lethal rotation in baseball.
Consistency from their prized shortstop:
Xander Bogaerts was once heralded in the same prospect group that included shortstops with names like Lindor, Correa and Seager. Lindor has already played in a World Series, and owns a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger. Correa was rookie of the year, followed by becoming an all-star and now a World Series champion. Seager has established himself in the league by winning the Rookie of the Year in 2016 and back to back Silver Sluggers, all the while being an all-star both years as well. Bogaerts has had a solid career so far; he won a ring while playing a minor role in 2013, and has seen an all-star nod and a Silver Slugger award in the four seasons since. Yet, Xander still struggles to even compare to these top three young shortstops. Obviously his defense is sub-par especially when comparing to his positional counterparts, but the main issue is his inconsistency with the bat. His 2017 line tells the story of his career, a blistering hot start that fizzles out around the all-star break. After hitting over .300 and producing an on-base percentage just shy of .360, Bogaerts followed it up by hitting just .235 after the break and only reaching base at a .324 rate. His career splits further prove him using all his energy in this first half, as his batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage are all over 20 points lower following the all-star break. If Bogaerts really wants to establish his name as a premier shortstop in the league, and wants to help his team take the next step, he needs to consistently hit from March to November.
Return to MVP form, for Mookie Betts:
In 2016, the Boston right fielder known as ‘Mookie’, trailed only the great Mike Trout in first place votes on the AL MVP ballot. Trout provided a WAR of 10.5, while Betts produced a 9.5, which put them far and beyond the rest of the American League candidates. So how does Mookie Betts go from rivalling Mike Trout in an MVP race, to a .260 hitter with an OPS that dropped nearly a hundred points. Along with that, a player who struggled to find the power stroke which elevated his game just a year prior? Minor knee and wrist injuries plagued his 2017, denying him the ability to ever really achieve 100% health. The loss of David Ortiz also loomed large, as Betts was now viewed as the team’s primary source of power, which is not something the team had ever expected of him. The addition of J.D. alleviates some pressure for Betts, as now he can get back to focusing on his style of game. Which revolves around his insanely talented defense and the rare combo of power and speed from a lead-off spot. The idea of Mookie Betts hitting in front of J.D. Martinez is a marriage Sox fans should be able to happily get on board with.
The cohesion between Alex Cora and his team:
Of the six managers newly appointed to professional squads, I see Alex Cora as one of the more intriguing options. The former infielder turned bench coach has taken his first gig as an MLB manager, just months after being an assistant on A.J. Hinch’s staff for the World Series champion Astros. Outgoing Red Sox manager John Farrell, was a respected coach and an all around nice guy, but was never destined to mesh with the players and the Boston media. However, the slate is wiped clean as younger, more modern-styled Alex Cora takes the reigns of a very talented ball club. When he was a member of that same ball club as a player in 2005, then-manager Terry Francona told the young, charismatic Cora that he was “going to be a big league manager.” Just 13 years later, Alex has successfully fulfilled Tito’s prophecy by donning the Red Sox uniform once again, this time as their leader. Cora openly offers a new-age approach, a philosophy that revolves around a strong relationship between him and his players. The lack of communication and at times respect, from the players towards Farrell was a large downfall of this team in 2017. With that said, the relationships already being formed by Alex Cora should pay dividends for the Sox in the short term, and more importantly the long term. There will be more trust and openness between the players and staff, and the friendly and relaxed atmosphere will be welcomed by a team which plays in a city where every game is treated like it’s the playoffs. Cora is the best case scenario for these young Sox, a smart man who has knowledge of the expectations in the city and is prepared for them. Also, he’s man who constantly preaches awareness and cohesion amongst his team, which are non-baseball factors that can positively influence his team’s result. If Alex Cora and his players keep this ‘happy family’ feeling going all year, he could be coaching deep into October again.
Finally replacing the loss of David Ortiz a.k.a. 40 home runs:
If replacing a potential hall-of-famer, and 40 long balls was easy, every team would be prepared for the time when their star’s career comes to a close. However, the replacement process takes time (and money), and the Red Sox finally felt comfortable to spend that money, and make the time for winning right now. 110 million dollars were thrown the way of former Tigers and Diamondbacks slugger, J.D. Martinez. A .376 OBP and a slugging percentage higher than anyone in the game in 2017, by a long shot (.690), will get you the those types of dollars. And when you can help lead a franchise like Arizona back to the playoffs, people begin to notice. J.D. will now slide into the 3 or 4 hole in the Red Sox lineup, according to Alex Cora, which will give him a prime opportunity to contribute immediately in massive way. He will often have one, if not both, of Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi on base ahead of him. This can only lead to good things for Boston, as they now have the run collector they’ve desired since the retirement of Big Papi. A lineup that boasted many hitters on the plus side of .260 in 2017, now has the big bat to come through and bring those guys home. Having a player that can hit one into oblivion on any given at bat, is a key component, especially in the playoffs. When the Sox needed that one shot, to tie a game or take a lead with one swing, they were unable to find it. Now, with the addition of J.D. Martinez, the Red Sox look fully loaded to make a deep playoff run, and if all cylinders end up firing as they should, this team can make Alex Cora a back to back world champion. Plus, can you imagine how amazing it’s going to be when we get to watch J.D. take part in the glorious outfield dance post-win?
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