2015 Red Sox, Final Roster Analysis

The Red Sox have set their final roster for Opening Day, so it’s time to take a look at what’s what.

Infield: There are no surprises in the infield. Pablo Sandoval will play third, Xander Bogaerts short, Dustin Pedroia second, and Mike Napoli first with Brock Holt taking the utility role.

Mike Napoli has been a beast all spring, and I rather suspect that is going to continue. He’s had a sleep apnea problem his entire career and he finally had surgery to correct it in the off season. Sleep apnea is one of those things that just robs you of everything from the will to get out of bed to the ability to do anything. That he has had an excellent career to this point without having a decent night’s sleep is astonishing.

Outfield: it’s a little bit surprising that Rusney Castillo is not on the team, considering that he easily looks like he’s a starter, but management feels that Shane Victorino has to play himself out of the job before Castillo can take it.

I confess I am not a fan of that decision. I would much rather have the better player playing the most. That said, it’s probably not going to be long. Castillo is one of those dynamic players that does a little bit of everything and Shane Victorino is old and broken down.

Also, should Shane Victorino prove me wrong, that would be awesome. He has, however, not played a full season in what feels like forever.

Of course, Castillo hasn’t played a full season in what actually is forever. The Serie Nacional plays a 90 game season. For that matter, Hanley Ramirez has been injured a lot as of late. Mookie Betts is the only outfielder who has actually played more than about 130 games recently.

I rather suspect that ultimately the decision will be to cut Daniel Nava and go with an outfield of Ramirez, Betts, and Castillo, backed up by Victorino and Craig.

Catchers: The injury to Christian Vazquez is a massive bummer as he was one of the things that I was really looking forward to watching this season. That said, Ryan Hanigan’s defense is also good, if not as spectacular, and Sandy Leon’s reputation suggests he’s also good.

The Sox are unlikely to get a lot of offense from the position, which means we’re all going to be watching Pawtucket to see if Blake Swihart is ready to make the jump. I rather suspect that it’s only a matter of time before Swihart is up. It might not be until September, but were I a betting man, I’d bet on him being up in July so management can’t get a good look at him in the bigs before the trade deadline.

The Rotation: Joe Kelly is on the DL, but might not miss a start. According to NESN.com he’s scheduled to pitch in a minor league game on Monday and if it’s determined he’s ready for regular season action, he’ll be activated for the April 11 game at NY.

Until then, it’s Clay Buchholz April 6 to open the season against the Phillies, Rick Porcello on the 8th, Justin Masterson on the 9th. Then it’s Wade Miley to start the series against the Yankees on the 10th, Kelly or his replacement Steven Wright on the 11th.

I rather suspect we’ll see Wright used in a relief role before the 11th which would indicate Kelly will be just fine for the 11th.

The more important thing to note is that it looks like Wright is the first guy to get the call when a sixth starter is needed. Wright is, of course, a knuckleballer, and we haven’t had one of those around here since Tim Wakefield retired.

What’s interesting is that he seems to have been battling Brian Johnson for the role, which indicates Brandon Workman has seen his last start. It makes some sense, since Henry Owens and Eduardo Rodriguez are both at AAA now, and they both have higher ceilings than Workman.

The Bullpen: Koji Uehara starts the season on the DL which is disconcerting considering his age and how bad he was at the end of 2014. He could be back as soon as the home opener on the 13th, but hamstring problems have a habit of hanging around.

Until Koji’s back, the closer is Edward Mujica, which gives me qualms, but he actually performed pretty well after the first couple months of last season.

The rest of the bullpen is Junichi Tazawa, Alexi Ogando, Anthony Varvaro, Craig Breslow, Tommy Layne, and Robbie Ross Jr.

Breslow, Ross, and Layne are all lefties and Varvaro has a reverse platoon differential. I rather suspect that when Uehara comes back, one of the lefties is going to go. I rather suspect it’s Breslow as he was rather underwhelming last year.

And look at that, I’ve blathered on for over 800 words already. Enough of this crap, time to get the season started.

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Roster Roundup: Outfield

As we continue our reassessment of the Red Sox roster, we turn from the infield to the outfield. Unlike the infield, we don’t know who is going to play where. We don’t really even know who the starters are.

Let’s start with what we do know.

Hanley Ramirez is going to start in left field. It’s where he was signed to play. He can’t really be expected to play any of the other outfield positions. And oh yeah, he can hit the snot out of the ball. Aside from an injury that affected his 2011 and 2012, he has always been a much better than average hitter.

And sure, he’s thirty and he’s getting paid a ton of money, but he’s also one of those elite guys who got to the bigs at a very young age and is likely to be effective relatively longer than most.

In short, we don’t have to worry about left field for a while.

We can be pretty sure that Rusney Castillo is going to be starting somewhere. They didn’t pay him 7/70 to sit on the bench. It’s going to be right or center and I rather suspect it’s going to be center, but that depends a bit on who is playing right.

Which brings us to Shane Victorino and Mookie Betts.

My sense is that Shane Victorino is going to have a hard time staying healthy enough to play every day. Maybe that’s wrong. Victorino sure thinks it’s wrong and is coming to camp planning on being the starting right fielder. Good. I want him to think and act like he is going to go out and kick the shit out of everything.

But…he played 30 games in 2014, 53 in 2012, and 101 in 2011. Even in 2013 he only played 122. That looks like a guy whose body is starting to break down and since, when healthy, he still has the skills to be a tremendous asset, I want to take steps to make sure he’s healthy.

That means he’s the bench guy, Betts starts in right, Castillo in center, and Vic gives them each more time off than normal. Betts is still adjusting to the majors. It looks like he played about 150 games in 2014, but that was the first time he played more than 127.

Mostly, I think young guys are going to benefit from more time off, not just because they don’t play 162 in the minors, but because they need to slow the game down a little bit and time off to think should help that.

Also, Castillo hasn’t played a full season since I don’t even know when, and it stands to reason he could use a bit more time off than a normal guy.

I think we could plan on having Castillo and Betts each playing five days a week and Victorino playing four.

If the starters are Betts and Castillo, there’s some notion that Betts should play center and Castillo right because Castillo has the better arm. I think most of this sentiment is coming from the fact that Betts was moved off short because of his arm and I’m not sure it translates that well.

Regardless, if they decide Victorino is going to be the starter, he’ll go in right and Castillo in center with Betts going back to Pawtucket so he can play ever damn day.

And there are the bench options. Allen Craig is likely to be backing up left as well as first. At least, he is unless there is some way he can be slipped through waivers to Pawtucket.

But basically, the backup options other than Victorino are Allen Craig and Daniel Nava. They don’t need all three, and if Brock Holt is on the roster, the chances are decent that they’ll go with just Vic and one of Craig/Nava.

My guess is that the Sox would be best off going with Castillo and Betts with Vic and Craig. Going with Castillo and Vic with Craig and Nava would allow the team to keep more talent in the organization and that’s something they try to do.

Regardless, the team should be getting better than average offensive production from all outfield positions while having some decent depth.

It’s a good thing.

Roster Roundup: Infield, Catcher, DH

This has been one of the craziest off seasons in my lifetime of watching baseball. Somewhere in those last couple days of the Winter Meetings, I completely gave up on knowing who was going where, when, and why.

I figure that with the off season winding down a little bit, there’s some value in taking a look at what the heck the Sox have done and where it leaves them.

Infield

We’ll start with the infield, just because it’s the easiest. The Sox had a black hole at third base in 2014, and it hasn’t been a strength for a long time. It should be no surprise, then, that one of the first major acquisitions of the off season was Pablo Sandoval who has been significantly better than average offensively every year since 2010. Defensive metrics are a tad ambivalent about him, but overall, he has a reputation as a solid fielder.

He’s getting a lot of money and he’s older than you’d want in a player you’re paying that much, but at least for the short term, he’s got to be better than what the Sox have had.

The move to Sandoval at third means Xander Bogaerts gets to settle in at short and make the position his for as long as he can hold on to it. It might be a bit generous to say that Xander Bogaerts had an up and down year in 2014—his .595 OPS in July wasn’t even his second worst month (June .426, August .360)—his ups were pretty damn high. He had an .897 OPS in May and looked like he was going to storm into the league and make it his bitch. Of course, that was his best month of the season by far. Encouragingly, though, his second best month came at the end of the season with an OPS of .806 for September and October.

This is the thing to remember about Xander Bogaerts. He’s still 22 and is only a year away from being the second best prospect in baseball. He struggled mightily, and might well struggle more, but chances are, he’s going to be a lot better in 2015 overall.

Dustin Pedroia had his worst season since he became a regular in 2007 and chances are that his peak is behind him, but while he’s not young, he’s not quite old, either. He’s got more above average seasons in him and hopefully he’s manage to play 2015 without having a significant hand or wrist injury early in the season.

Mike Napoli hasn’t really had a bad season in his career. I’m sure he will, at some point, but there’s no particular reason to think it will be 2015. Sure, his hip could explode at any moment, but it hasn’t exploded yet.

Bottom Line: The Red Sox should be getting league average or better seasons from all the infielders.

The infield bench is probably going to include Brock Holt, who is likely to be the primary backup at three positions, and Allen Craig, who is likely to back up first.

Craig is actually a bit of a thing. When he was good, he was very good. Easily starting material. When he was bad, holy crap was he bad. 2015 should represent a chance for him to put all questions of his injury behind him and demonstrate once again that he is an offensive threat.

The problem for him is going to be playing time. The Sox can’t afford to run someone out there every day who is hitting like Craig hit in 2014, and perhaps more to the point, they don’t have to, having better options pretty much everywhere.

Clearly the Sox want him to be what he was before, but the only way to demonstrate that he’s back—not to mention the only way to get back—is for him to play and I don’t see where those ABs are going to come from.

DH

Nothing really to say here. David Ortiz get old and fall off at some point, but he hasn’t yet and it’s a gamble I’m willing to continue to take until it bites me in the ass.

Catcher

Christian Vazquez is the starter. His offense was well, pretty bad in 2014, but that’s not terribly surprising for any rookie breaking in, and especially so with one who has a history of taking a while to adjust to each higher level. He does adjust, though, and that bodes well for his chances of being not terrible. There are a lot of things that impact a team throughout a season that you can’t foresee. One of the things we can foresee is Vazquez. How well and how quickly he makes those adjustments is going to have a pretty big impact on what the Sox do in 2015.

Should Vazquez struggle at the plate, Ryan Hanigan can help, but only so much. He hasn’t had an OPS+ above 95 since 2010 and his last two years he was at 59 and 86. It’s the 59 that looks like the outlier, however, as most of his career has been spent as a slightly less than average hitter.

No, if Vazquez crashes and burns, the real help is going to have to come in the form of Blake Swihart who has had all of 18 games of AAA experience. I don’t think there is anyone who thinks he is going to be ready before mid season at the earliest so, well, I think we all need to hope that Vazquez gets the job done.

Next week I’ll take a look at the outfield, then the rotation, and finally the bullpen, and at that point, truck day won’t be far away.

2013 Red Sox Preview: DH/Catchers

The Red Sox are pretty much the last team that uses an everyday DH. That’s simply because they have an excellent one. David Ortiz is central to the team in 2013 to the point that if he loses any significant amount of time to injury, the Sox’ chances of making the playoffs plummets to almost nothing. There simply isn’t a hitter of his caliber in the system at the moment. Ryan Lavarnway is highly regarded as a hitting prospect, but mostly because he plays catcher.

The catcher thing is a bit of a mess. When David Ross was acquired, a lot of folks, myself included, thought it mean that a trade of Jarrod Saltalamacchia was imminent. It hasn’t happened yet, and may not.

If it doesn’t happen before the end of spring, it suggests that Lavarnway will open the season in AAA despite having nothing left to prove at the level.

One complicating factor might be Christian Vazquez. He has established himself as a strong defensive catcher with an inconsistent bat. If he achieves some consistency, it might be Lavarnway who ends up on the trading block.

My personal preference would be to use Lavarnway at first at times. It may be unfair to ask him to learn a new position–one where his value would be significantly less–after all the work he has put in to make himself a decent receiver, but the fact is the team has very few options at the corners should the major league incumbent go down.

As with everything else Red Sox, the catching position looks to be a lot different a year from now.

2013 Red Sox Preview: Rotation

Like almost everything else with the Red Sox, the projections for the rotation have a rather high degree of variance. The upside is a very solid rotation. Not the best in baseball by any stretch, but one that can throw a decent pitcher out there every day. The downside is, well, ugly.

Jon Lester: If there is to be an ace on this team, it is almost certainly going to be Jon Lester. Prior to 2013 he’d had four consecutive seasons of an ERA lower than 3.50 with about a strikeout per inning. Thing is, the strikeouts have been going down and 2013 saw a rise in hit rates and homer rates. It stands to reason that his 2013 is likely to be more like 2010-2011 than it is 2013 but that’s only true if there’s nothing we don’t know about. The drop in velocity and overall performance could be a simple mechanical flaw that will be corrected with judicious application of video review and work with the guy who was his pitching coach during his best seasons.

Clay Buchholz: He had a miserable April and May, then an outstanding June and July before a good August and a poor September. It’s precisely the kind of thing one would expect from someone coming back from a major injury then pitching more innings than ever, and a hundred more than the year before. Of course, that’s precisely what Clay Buchholz did, and while that suggests that his 2013 will more closely resemble the healthy Buchholz, the fact remains that he is entering his age 28 season and has never pitched 200 innings.

Felix Doubront: He pitched like a rookie. Very well at times, a lot less well at times. If he makes the adjustments one expects of a second year pitcher, he can be a better than average pitcher.

John Lackey: He’s the enigma. He was once an excellent pitcher, came to the Boston and turned in a mediocre season followed by an execrable one and Tommy John surgery that cost him his third. One would imagine the injury woes contributed mightily to his poor seasons and that should have been corrected by the surgery. That said, he is entering his age 34 season. I get the sense that Red Sox fans are expecting very little from Lackey. My gut tells me he’ll be quite a bit better than that. Sometimes my gut is an idiot.

Ryan Dempster: He’s thoroughly mediocre. His job is to make it possible for the Sox to bring Rubby de la Rosa along a bit more slowly without being terrible. He’ll probably do that.

The depth comes from Rubby de la Rosa and Allen Webster. De la Rosa has been a highly regarded prospect and one of the teams organizational goals for the season has to be to work him into the rotation. While the Dempster acquisition means they don’t have to rush him, it shouldn’t be allowed to stand in his way.

2013 Red Sox Preview: Outfield

The Red Sox are a team in transition and I don’t think there is any portion of the team that is more emblematic of that fact than the outfield.

The Red Sox have six outfielders on the 40-man roster, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jonny Gomes, Alex Hassan, Ryan Kalish, Daniel Nava, and Shane Victorino.

It’s not even hard to imagine a scenario where none of them are on the 40-man this time next year. It’s unlikely, just because it requires both Gomes and Victorino to be traded in the middle of contracts, but they’re the kind of guys who come and go. Hassan and Nava are just guys. They have their strengths and weaknesses but their strengths include the fact that they’re cheap, so you don’t have to worry about getting too much from them. Kalish has one option left, and he’s going to miss much of the season, so he’s going to enter next offseason as a guy with no option, and, seemingly, no ability to stay healthy.

And Ellsbury, of course, is expected to leave as a free agent.

That said, I think the Sox have done a decent job at maximizing their options for the 2013 season.

It starts with Jacoby Ellsbury. Two of his last three seasons have been absolute disasters and in the third, he finished second in the MVP voting. I have no idea what the Sox are going to get from him in 2013. If he’s healthy, he will likely be a player who has a lot of value at the trade deadline. Of course, that also means he’ll have a lot of value on the field at the trade deadline and the team will have to make a decision.

The Sox can make that decision on the merits of the season and whatever trade offers there might be, because Shane Victorino can play center just fine, especially when you consider that if the Sox are playing him there, Ellsbury is playing elsewhere, and the Sox chances of being competitive are significantly lower.

And, the Sox can make the decision on the merits because Jackie Bradley, Jr. looks like he could handle the major leagues now on defense, and isn’t that far away at the plate. Everyone’s expectation is that Ellsbury leaves as a free agent and Bradley takes over in 2014. Again, the presence of Victorino means they wouldn’t have to rush Bradley if he’s not ready at the start of 2014.

I’m convinced that this flexibility was a huge factor in the Sox signing Victorino in the first place.

For now, at least, Shane Victorino is the right fielder and he’ll probably do just fine. The lowest his OPS+ has been in his career is 91 and it looks like a hand injury is the only reason it hasn’t been over 100 for five straight years. He says it isn’t a problem, and if he is correct, I would expect him to be a solid contributor. That said, hand injuries can sometimes linger.

As it stands now, left field will be patrolled by some combination of Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava. Neither of them is anything special, but in a straight platoon, they could be very effective, as Nava sported a .797 OPS (OBP heavy) against right handed pitchers in 2012, while Gomes has an .894 OPS and .382 OPB against lefties in his career. For a team that struggled so much to simply get on base last season, a high OBP platoon from left, while not ideal, is a pretty decent plan C.

The bench will presumably include the off side of the platoon plus Ryan Sweeney, who isn’t much offensively, but can play a decent center.

The prospects for the future are intriguing.

It starts, of course, with Jackie Bradley, Jr. about whom, I have yet to see a report that doesn’t leave me drooling to see him in CF as soon as possible. What I read suggests that he is going to be an excellent all around defender with a strong arm and a bat that profiles as a leadoff hitter.

I don’t know what to think about Ryan Kalish. He has talent, but he can’t seem to stay on the field long enough to let it show. He’s going to miss most of 2013 so there is simply no way the Sox can go into 2014 with any expectation that he’ll be more than a part time contributor. Since he’s out of options after 2013, he’ll have to either make the roster or be exposed to other teams. I rather suspect that if he doesn’t make the roster, exposing him to other teams won’t be a worry.

Bryce Brentz is a guy who never seems to rank all that high as a prospect, based on the fact that he has some work to do at the plate, especially in regards to discipline. And yet, no matter where he goes, he seems to perform pretty well. Not excellently, mind you, but pretty well. If he has another .800+ OPS season, this time at AAA, it’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t come to camp in 2014 with a decent chance to make the big league team.

In an ideal world, Brentz would make some improvement at the plate, Kalish would finish 2013 strong, Bradley would continue to impress, and the Sox would come into 2014 looking for a way to fit them all onto the roster with Shane Victorino.

2013 Red Sox Preview: Bullpen

The 2013 Red Sox look to be a fairly mediocre team overall. They’re likely to end up in the tail end of the Wild Card chase mostly because there are two wild cards and you have to be really terrible not to be within striking distance with a month or so left.

Over the next several weeks, I’m going to take a closer look at the various parts of the team and I’m starting with the bullpen because it’s the one part that really has the chance to be a difference maker.

I’m going to assume it’s a seven man ‘pen because that’s just the way things go these days.

  • Andrew Bailey is returning from a lost season. He only pitched fifteen and a third innings and didn’t pitch them particularly well, allowing twenty-nine baserunners and twelve runs. Still, the questions about him have always been about his durability and never about his ability. 2013 included, he has allowed just over one baserunner per inning and just under a strikeout an inning. If healthy, he is a quality arm for the end of the bullpen.
  • The acquisition of Joel Hanrahan was a bit puzzling. He’s been in short relief for years and generally done well. He averages over a strikeout per inning, and though he has a tendency to walk a few too many, he has generally been a good but not great short reliever.
  • Koji Uehara has been an excellent short reliever everywhere he’s been, and there’s no real reason to suspect that will change.
  • Junichi Tazawa was utterly brilliant in 2012, allowing less than a baserunner per inning, and striking out more than one per inning while allowing very few walks and homers.

 

The four of them figure to be the core of the bullpen. It has been suggested that Tazawa has options remaining and thus isn’t a lock to be in the bigs on Opening Day but that would be a travesty. He has the potential to be a dominant short reliever for the Red Sox for the better part of the next decade and his time should start now.

The very fact that there are four of them is encouraging. Whatever downside there is to injury and the simple volatility inherent in bullpen performance, there are four guys who can reasonably be relied upon to get outs in the eighth and ninth. If they’re all healthy and as effective as their track records indicate, the Sox are going to have an absolutely brilliant back of the bullpen with high performance and deep depth.

That suggests a question about the Hanrahan trade. With the Sox already having three good short relievers, why trade for another?

Some take it to mean that the team has soured on Andrew Bailey. He did, after all, only pitch fifteen innings last season. I think that’s silly. It was, after all, just fifteen innings and his reputation for being injury prone preceded him.

Could that reputation for injury have prompted the trade for Hanrahan purely for depth? Perhaps.

I suspect the reality is that the front office knows the overall team is fairly mediocre, and that if one looks at overachieving teams of recent vintage, it seems a surprising number of them had excellent bullpens. An excellent bullpen certainly doesn’t guarantee that a team will exceed their Pythagorean expectation or win an absurd number of close games but it is a trait common to teams that have exceeded the non mathematical projections of the collected punditry.

It should also be noted that there is always a market for short relievers at the trade deadline and if the Sox do fall flat, it is entirely likely that trading away Hanrahan, who will be a free agent at the end of the season, would bring back prospects the Sox value higher than Jerry Sands, Mark Melancon, Stolmy Pimentel, and Ivan DeJesus.

Daniel Bard is a bit of a mystery. A return to form would give the Sox a bullpen to drool over with five guys who can do it on any given night, virtually guaranteeing that at least two of them will be available for every single game. That said, I’m not sure we can really put any reasonable estimate on the likelihood of that return to form.

From a distance, it looked like Bard was simply unable to repeat his delivery a hundred times, leading to fatigue and less than stellar performance. At least, that’s what it looked like early in the season. Bard rather quickly morphed into someone who simply had no confidence in his ability to throw a pitch of any kind with anything resembling accuracy.

The Sox insist there was no injury as such, but Bard has given up thoughts of starting. He’s been reunited with the man who was the pitching coach during his first two, very successful, seasons in the majors. Can he get back there? I just don’t know.

The answer to that question may well be the biggest factor in the composition of the bullpen come opening day.

Without Bard, the rest of the bullpen would seem to be pretty well set:

  • Alfredo Aceves had a terrible season as a closer, which was predicted by, well, almost everyone. He’s never been the kind of shut down reliever a team wants in close and late situations. He has been, however, extremely effective as a long reliever/swing man, able to pitch two or three innings multiple times a week and make spot starts with a decent chance to go five decent innings. If there’s no roster crunch, it’s hard to see Aceves not get that role.
  • Franklin Morales can also perform in that role and has the added advantage of being lefthanded in a bullpen that so far doesn’t have anyone of that stripe.
  • Andrew Miller seems to have finally found a role in which he can be successful. In his seventh year in the majors he finally broke through and managed to be not terrible in 2012. He was death to lefthanded batters, holding them to a .248 on-base percentage, and a .429 OPS.
  • Craig Breslow allowed more walks and fewer hits (to lefties) than Miller, leading to a similar (.246) OBP and higher (.597) OPS.

 

One rather suspects that were Bard to flame out, the bullpen would consist of Bailey, Hanrahan, Uehara, Tazawa, Aceves, Morales, and Breslow. Breslow gets the nod over Miller for two reasons, control (Breslow walked 22 in 261 plate appearances while Miller walked 20 in 169) and effectiveness against right handers. Miller was dismal (.829 OPS in limited duty) while Breslow was quite effective (.683 OPS in 145 PA.)

Miller would no doubt surface somewhere as lefty specialists never die.

The question, then, is Bard. If he is back to his previous stature–and I would suspect that will be clear by the end of Spring Training–it’s impossible to imagine he doesn’t come north with the big club. That would likely send Aceves packing based almost entirely on the benefit of having a second lefty.

And, as always, it’s entirely possible, even probable, that someone will get injured before Opening Day making all speculation moot.