Meet the 2018 Boston Red Sox, same as the 2017 Boston Red Sox.
Well, not if they can help it.
Most teams would happily replicate almost everything about a 93-win season highlighted by a second consecutive division title. But the Red Sox didn’t have much fun last year, in part because they believed they were capable of more, both individually and collectively. And based on the things they accomplished in 2016, they were right to feel that way.
Up and down the roster — from Xander Bogaerts to Hanley Ramirez to Steven Wright — the Red Sox experienced steep drop-offs in performance from 2016 to 2017. In some cases, such as Dustin Pedroia and David Price, the decline could be attributed to health. In others, particularly Mookie Betts, it was due to a lack of lineup protection in the wake of David Ortiz’s retirement. And then there were the likes of Jackie Bradley Jr. and Rick Porcello, who had breakthrough seasons in 2016 only to regress last year.
Regardless of the reasons, it follows that 2018 will serve as a referendum on many members of the Red Sox’s core, especially after the club went an entire offseason without adding a player who wasn’t on the roster last year. Are Bogaerts and Bradley perennial All-Stars or merely supporting actors? Does Price have the head and the stomach for Boston? Is Betts really among the handful of top players in the game? What will the second act of Pedroia’s career look like? Does Porcello’s ability translate to a top-of-the-rotation pitcher or strictly back-end material? Is Ramirez an offensive force or a cleanup-hitting farce?
The answers might just determine if the Red Sox are a legitimate World Series contender or stuck in neutral after winning exactly one playoff game in the past two years.
“We won 93 games here [last season] with basically the same team we have coming back and some guys coming back healthy,” Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said. “I think some guys will have stronger years. I’ve learned that the predictive nature of the game is not something I partake in very much.”
But Dombrowski essentially predicted last year that the offense could withstand not finding a replacement for Ortiz. After all, Betts looked like a lineup centerpiece after finishing 2016 as runner-up to Mike Trout in the AL MVP race. Ramirez was healthy and coming off a 30-homer season, his biggest power surge in eight years. Even without Big Papi, the Sox had five players (Betts, Ramirez, Bradley, Bogaerts and newcomer Mitch Moreland) who hit at least 20 homers in 2016.
Power wasn’t supposed to be a problem until, of course, it was. Of the record 74 players who hit at least 25 home runs last season, none were part of the Red Sox’s lineup. Giancarlo Stanton, J.D. Martinez, Aaron Judge, Josh Donaldson and Nelson Cruz hit more homers after July 1 than any Red Sox player did all season.
In a given season, it’s typical for a few players in any lineup to underachieve. But six Red Sox regulars saw their adjusted OPS nosedive last year, with three falling below the league average mark of 100. Pedroia (117 to 101), who played through a debilitating knee injury that required offseason surgery, and Bogaerts (111 to 95) dropped 16 points; Betts (133 to 108) had a 25-point plunge; Bradley (118 to 89) lost 29 points. Ramirez (126 to 95), who dealt with shoulder problems and also had surgery after the season, fell 31 points, while catcher Sandy Leon (122 to 68) plummeted 54 points.
Likewise, the drop-off could be seen in wins above replacement. With new ace Chris Sale (7.7 FanGraphs’ WAR) and dominant closer Craig Kimbrel (3.3) anchoring the pitching staff, the Red Sox won the same number of games as they did in 2016. But check out the precipitously declining fWAR of most of their other key players:
Pedroia: 5.4 to 1.9
Wright: 2.7 to minus-0.5
Ramirez: 2.7 to minus-0.4
Porcello: 5.1 to 2.0
Price: 4.4 to 1.5
Bradley: 5.0 to 2.3
Betts: 7.9 to 5.3
Leon: 2.5 to 0.3
Bogaerts: 4.9 to 3.2
So, which version of this group will show up in 2018? Dombrowski, for one, is confident that 2016 is more representative of its abilities.
“I’m surprised with the players that we had that we didn’t score more runs [last year],” Dombrowski said. “I knew we didn’t have David, but if you said he was basically replaced by Mitch Moreland — and we didn’t look to replace him one-on-one with Mitch Moreland — Mitch Moreland did fine for us; hit over 20 home runs, knocked in basically 80 runs, which is what we would have hoped he would do. Some guys didn’t have as good a season from an offensive perspective. Some of those guys need to do better again.”
It would help if Dombrowski could reach an agreement with Martinez, the biggest bat on the free-agent market. But negotiations have stalled over a five-year, $125 million offer, with Martinez holding out for six or seven years and the Red Sox unwilling to bid against themselves in a market that is less robust than Martinez and agent Scott Boras expected.
That doesn’t change the fact that the Sox really need Martinez. Aside from his obvious power, the 30-year-old slugger would take pressure off everyone else in the lineup in the same way that Ortiz did in 2016. With Martinez batting in the No. 3 or 4 spot, opponents would no longer be able to pitch around Betts, Andrew Benintendi and possibly Pedroia or Bogaerts at the top of the order. Likewise, it would lengthen the lineup in front of young third baseman Rafael Devers, Bradley and Ramirez, who says his shoulders are strong and he won’t be restricted in spring training.
But while Martinez’s situation remains unresolved, the Red Sox have taken another step to help their underachievers by bringing in Tim Hyers as the new hitting coach.
Hyers is replacing Chili Davis, an accomplished former big league hitter who received credit for the Red Sox’s breakout performances in 2016. But Hyers is well acquainted with Bradley, Bogaerts and Betts after working with them in the minor leagues. And the Los Angeles Dodgers scored 725 and 770 runs in the past two seasons with Hyers as their assistant hitting coach, an increase from 667 runs in 2015 before he and hitting coach Turner Ward arrived.
The Dodgers have been at the forefront of baseball’s fly ball revolution, with third baseman Justin Turner and center fielder Chris Taylor emerging as poster boys for hitters who are keenly aware of their “launch angle,” the measurement of a ball’s vertical trajectory off a bat. Several Red Sox hitters, including Bogaerts, would benefit from Hyers bringing that mentality to Boston.
“We believe in what we’ve got,” Ramirez said. “We’ve got a pretty good team. We’re stronger mentally, and we know we have to finish something and we’re ready to go. We should be healthier. Last year, we had a couple of guys playing hurt — Pedey, Mitch, myself. That’s something that’s going to be better this year.”
Based on 2016, there’s room for improvement. Unless, of course, that was as good as it gets for these Red Sox.