Can Devers and Bogaerts repeat their outstanding 2019 campaigns?
The saving grace of an otherwise disappointing 2019 Red Sox season was watching the breakouts of Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers. Each set career highs in both wRC+ and fWAR, culminating in 5th and 12th place finishes in AL MVP voting, respectively. For Bogaerts, this was him taking the next step from an all star caliber player to an MVP caliber player. With a similarly strong performance in 2020, he can establish himself as a perennial candidate for end-of-season hardware. For Devers, his 2019 season was his coming out party. After significant hype as a young prospect, Devers had shown flashes of greatness in his past two seasons, but had never put it all together for an entire season. Both players will seek to prove that 2019 was their true talent level, rather than a single peak within their careers.
Who’s going to pitch?
Pitching was clearly the downfall of the team in 2019, as the staff as a whole posted a 4.70 ERA, compared to the league average of 4.49. A few bullpen pieces put together strong seasons, such as Brandon Workman and Matt Barnes, but outside of them, there wasn’t much to look forward to on the mound. Chris Sale was actually pretty good when he was on the mound, but suffered from poor luck on the mound (His FIP was over a full run lower than his ERA), and off it as he was limited to just 25 starts as he battled injuries throughout the year. That, however, won’t change in 2020 as Sale will miss the entire season after undergoing Tommy John Surgery earlier this year.
Exactly who is going to pitch remains a question, especially after David Price was lumped into the Mookie Betts trade to get under the luxury tax. Eduardo Rodriguez will be back as the ace this year, after a strong performance in 2019 that earned him Cy Young votes. Nathan Eovaldi projects as the number 2 starter after Rodriguez. It’s hard to count on Eovaldi for an entire season, as his body has struggled to not break down over the course of a 162 game season, but he may benefit from a season of just 60 games. That said, even when he was not injured last season, he struggled: he posted a 5.99 ERA over 67.2 innings. Despite that, his contract, reputation, and lack of depth in this rotation all but guarantee that he will be in the rotation as long as he is healthy. Martin Perez figures to be the 3 man right now, whose 5.12 ERA in 2019 was the 4th worst in Major League Baseball among qualified starters. Behind Perez, interim manager Roenicke has said that Ryan Weber will start the season as the fourth starter. Weber appeared in 18 games last season, primarily out of the bullpen (3 starts), and posted an underwhelming 5.09 ERA. It is worth noting that Weber did have a strong spring training (no runs over 9 innings), but ultimately he’s only a 4th starter in Boston. On most other teams, he’d be competing for the 5th spot, if that.
After Weber, things become even more unclear. The best option, or at least the most recognizable, is Collin McHugh, who was signed at the beginning of March. McHugh spent the last six years with the Astros, where he experienced a series of ups and downs. Given the slew of high quality pitching Houston has had over this time period, McHugh bounced between starting and relieving roles, even when he did experience success. Ultimately, these ups and downs culminated in a 110 ERA+ over 6 years, 753.1 innings, and 110 starts. If he is able to be even 90% of his former self, expect McHugh to get consistent starts all season long.
How does Alex Verdugo play in Boston?
It’s no secret that playing in Boston can be different than playing in any other city. I think this difference may be overblown at times, but it is certainly there. Verdugo immediately got off on the wrong foot with the Boston media, through no fault of his own. Being the headliner of the return package for Mookie Betts is a difficult position to be in for a young man. Verdugo is a solid player. If he maintained his 2019 pace for a full 650 plate appearances, he’d have generated 5.6 bWAR, a phenomenal total. But, he isn’t Mookie Betts – nobody’s Mookie Betts. Expecting Verdugo to be Betts is unreasonable and unfair. Expecting that of anybody is unfair. However, if Verdugo struggles out of the gate, and the media piles up on him, his stay in Boston may not be as pleasant as hoped. However, if he comes out of the gate firing on all cylinders, he’ll likely win over the fans and media, as both are starved for some high level baseball.
Which, if any, prospects make an impact?
Much of baseball Twitter has been theorizing that teams may choose to bring prospects up to the big leagues, given the weird structure of the season, in hopes that they can realize their potential faster than otherwise expected and contribute to a pennate race in a meaningful way. While I do not expect the Red Sox to implement these ideas out of the gate, if they find themselves in a favorable position 20 or so games in, and a need arises, anything is on the table.
An initial pool of 47 players for the Red Sox player pool (maximum size of 60) was released last week. This still leaves room for 13 more players, but prospects were not very present. Neither Jeter Downs nor Triston Casas, the only players in the system in MLB’s top 100 prospects, were listed. Of the top 30 (per MLB.com) prospects in the system, only 4 players (Bobby Dalbec, CJ Chatham, Connor Wong, Jonathan Arauz) were listed. While I do expect some of the other 26 to be among the last 13, it’s unclear who or how many. It has been reported that the hold up for releasing the 60 man roster is exactly tied to this – depth or prospects? Prospects have the added value of providing a potential spark, that a typical depth piece might lack, as well as giving young, developing players a chance to gain experience facing Major League talent.
It’s unlikely that a prospect who has yet to crack AA will get the call, or be able to contribute if given the call. All four of the players already listed have played in at least AA. Using this logic, I would be frankly shocked if Bryan Mata doesn’t get a shot, and surprised to a lesser extent if Jeter Downs is not at least on the extended squad. A potential dark horse for this category would be Jarren Duran. The outfielder made some noise last year in the middle levels of the minors (A+, AA), as he demonstrated both a phenomenal hit tool (batting .387 in A+ before getting called up) and speed tool (46 steals total across both levels). Given that the Red Sox lack depth options in the outfield, Duran could get a shot and make some noise, given a shot, this year in Boston.
Is Michael Chavis able to build upon his 2019 rookie campaign?
Michael Chavis showed his potential in 2019. While his numbers as a whole left something to be desired, he still blasted 18 home runs in just 95 games (on pace for 30 over 162 games). In a shortened 2020 he’ll look to build on what he showed in 2019. His most glaring issue was simply putting the bat on the ball. His 33.2% K rate was 4th worst in all of baseball among players with at least 350 plate appearances (behind Chris Davis, Miguel Sano, and Wil Myers). If Chavis wishes to succeed at the major league level, he will have to cut back on these strikeouts. In doing so, Chavis would also stand to raise his batting average (.254), which will in turn raise his slugging percentage (.444). Even as a rookie he demonstrated his discipline at the plate with an 8.1% walk rate. That number is likely to increase as he becomes a bigger threat at the plate, as his .190 ISO is already above league average. The shortened season could serve as a platform for Michael Chavis to launch himself into stardom, as he is already a fan and media favorite, if his play can match. For that to happen however, he will need to make improvements on his admirable rookie campaign.
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