Projecting a baseball team’s success is not a difficult exercise. Sure, there’s enough dumb luck in the game that one can’t expect to guess a team’s win total with perfect precision, but there’s a basic algorithm that usually gets us within five or six wins. In projecting the records of all 30 baseball teams in 2016, no team makes a prognosticator feel like a monkey throwing darts more than the Boston Red Sox.
That basic algorithm I alluded to goes something like this: Project which players get the majority of the plate appearances, innings pitched and innings fielded, look at their prior results (I use Wins Above Replacement), weighing more recent performance more heavily, and assume players 26 or younger will get a little better and players 29 or older will get a little worse. Add it up, throw in 45 wins or so to adjust for replacement level, and you have a reasonable estimate of how many games the team will win if similar numbers of variables break for and against them. Barring a rash of injuries, the Pittsburgh Pirates will win close to 90 games this year. The Colorado Rockies should win about 70. The Red Sox? Your guess is as good as mine.
Two young Red Sox look like something of a sure thing. If Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts are healthy, they’re something like four-win players, steady contributors and possible all-stars. Betts might have even more upside, particularly if his power continues to develop. That’s where the easy part ends.
Dustin Pedroia is still perhaps the most talented player on the team- a rare combination of power, patience, speed and sensational defense at an up-the-middle position. Last year, though, at 31, Pedroia’s hard-nosed style of play finally caught up to him, as he missed almost 70 games to injury, hit just 12 home runs, stole just two bases. He still has five-win potential, but he’s on a two-win trajectory.
David Ortiz will give it one last run this year. While he’s appeared to be left for dead more than once (2008 and 2009 come to mind), he’s now topped 30 homers in three straight years. Will this be a 40-year-old limping around on his last leg, or one last thrill ride from one of the most iconic players in Boston history?
Jackie Bradley, Jr. will chase down balls hit to gaps and drop jaws all year in center- if he’s not platooned with Chris Young, that is. How many times Bradley comes to the plate will likely hinge on his early success against righties, against whom he hit just .221/.308/.483 last year.
Rusney Castillo seems to have great tools, but at 28, he’s never really hit in the big leagues. Does he break out to the tune of three wins, or is he the replacement-level player he’s been so far?
Does anyone know who we’ll see behind the plate in Boston in 2016? Blake Swihart is probably the best offensive option. Christian Vazquez is certainly the best defensive option. Ryan Hanigan is the veteran and the least likely to be optioned to Pawtucket. Vazquez should start the season in AAA, but if Swihart goes into a sophomore slump, Vazquez could be the one taking the majority of the innings in Boston. While both Swihart and Vazquez have shown real promise, there’s always uncertainty with young catchers.
For all the variability above, it’s the corner infield spots that are the biggest wild cards on the field. Hanley Ramirez was a disaster in leftfield last year, and after crushing the ball in spring, his bat wasn’t much better than his glove later in the season. Now he’s at first base, where he’s unlikely to be as exposed defensively as he was in the outfield, but there’s no guarantee he hits like Hanley.
Projection systems are most flummoxed by Pablo Sandoval. He’s only 29, and was a five-win player five years ago. In his last seasons with the Giants, he was a well-above-average hitter with a competent glove. In his first season in Boston, he was probably the worst everyday player in the game. It’s easy to say there’s enough excellence in his resume to project better things, but given his weight issues, it seems like his ability to play third base in the big leagues is history. If Sandoval can’t recover from a back injury, Travis Shaw may get the opening day start for the Red Sox and while anyone would seem to be a better option than Sandoval at this point, Shaw is an unproven middling prospect who’s played all of six games at the hot corner in the big leagues.
In 2015, the Red Sox hit enough to contend for the playoffs, but pitching and defense made them a last-place team. This year, they added David Price, who’s as close to a sure thing as there is in the American League. The only reason to suspect Price might not be the ace he’s always been is the way other recent free agents have struggled upon their arrival in Boston.
Clay Buchholz is the very definition of unpredictability. In 2013 and 2015, he was among the league’s best pitchers before going down with injuries midseason. In 2012 and 2014, he was healthy and largely ineffective all year. Buchholz’s ceiling is nearly Price’s equal- a strikeout artist with good enough control to turn in quality starts all year. His floor is either an entire season on the shelf or the waste of a rotation spot he was through much of 2014.
Eduardo Rodriguez made 21 stars in 2015. In 12 of them, he gave up one earned run or fewer. In others, he gave up, six, seven, eight, and nine earned runs. Will he take a step toward consistency in his sophomore season, or is he susceptible to fits of ineffectiveness?
Rick Porcello looked like an emerging ace in Detroit, reducing his ERA every year from his 2010 debut (4.92) to his last year there (3.43). Then he came to Boston and lost the groundball-inducing ability that had driven that success, turning in career worsts in groundball rate and ERA. That said, he pitched well in the second half of the year, turning in a 3.53 ERA and 70 strikeouts to just 15 walks. At 27, there’s reason to believe Porcello could bounce back… or not.
Speaking of 27-year-olds with schizophrenic results in 2015, Joe Kelly had a 5.67 ERA in the first half and a 3.77 ERA in the second. He was a minor leaguer in July and Boston’s ace in August. Like practically everyone in this rotation, he could be Boston’s number two playoff starter or a guy hoping to be called up from Pawtucket this summer.
Boston’s bullpen should be a strength this year. Craig Kimbrel has been one of the most unhittable pitchers in baseball every year of his career- except last year, when he developed a bit of a home run problem. Koji Uehara has been through home run problems of his own, when he’s not mowing hitters down with a filthy splitter. Carson Smith and Junichi Tazawa should save some headaches in the middle innings- assuming the starters can turn leads over to them.
Over the last four seasons, the Red Sox have won one World Series and finished last three times. Those both seem like reasonable expectations for this year’s team.
Seven months from now, Big Papi could ride into the sunset with a final World Series home run, driving in MVP Mookie Betts and supporting one of Boston’s five star pitchers.
Or six months from now, General Manager Dave Dombrowski could be forced back to the drawing board, desperately seeking starting pitchers and position players who can get through a full year without injury.
Such is life in Boston these days.