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2016 Red Sox Season Preview: Will Boston's fortunes change under Dave Dombrowski?

While Dave Dombrowski did his best to add sure things to the mix, these 2016 Red Sox are still a team filled with uncertainty. The hope is that this time around they have more answers than questions.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Offseason

Key Arrivals: David Price, Craig Kimbrel, Carson Smith, Roenis Elias, Chris Young

Key Departures: Wade Miley

Red Sox hire Dave Dombrowski as President of Baseball Operations

For the Red Sox, the offseason began in August rather than November.

This is in part because the team was, for the third time in four years, limping to a sub-.500 finish, with their chances already extinguished by the time September rolled around. In larger part, though, it's because that's when ownership decided to make the move that will likely have the most impact on the team for years to come. The regime change from Ben Cherington to Dave Dombrowski was sudden and swift. And while Dombrowski ended up keeping plenty of Cherington's staff in-house, it was a big move from Cherington's creative, even experimental style to the straightforward nature of Dombrowski.

Red Sox sign David Price to 7-year, $217 million deal

Now in control, Dombrowkski wasted no time in meeting some expectations, but thankfully subverted some others. First and foremost, the Red Sox needed pitching, and with their rotation already overfull with bodies if not results, the best way to fit a bunch of talent into a small space was to go out and get an ace. There just so happened to be an ace on the market in David Price, so Dave Dombrowski went out and got him. Obvious problem, obvious answer. An expensive one at seven years and $217 million, but obvious none-the-less, and one that should absolutely get the job done.

Photo Credit: Leon Halip

Red Sox trade four prospects for Craig Kimbrel

But that was seen generally as what the Red Sox wanted from Dombrowski. What fans were slightly less enthusiastic about was his penchant for trading prospects, especially given that the best parts of the 2015 Red Sox--Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Eduardo Rodriguez stand out--were all products of the team's youth movement. And Dombrowski did tap into Boston's wealth of high-level talent, sending Manuel Margot, Javier Guerra, Logan Allen, and Carlos Asuaje to San Diego for Craig Kimbrel.

But if the trade was not a slam dunk from a value perspective, it gave the Red Sox one of baseball's best relievers when the bullpen needed help, and didn't touch the quartet that currently define Boston's farm system in Yoan Moncada, Andrew Benintendi, Rafael Devers, and Anderson Espinoza. The departures column is a little heavier than it might appear on the major league surface, but it's also not nearly so drastic as many feared.

Red Sox trade Wade Miley to Mariners for Carson Smith and Roenis Elias

Dombrowski's third big move was not so straightforward as the rest, but in hindsight seems like it should have been obvious from the get-go. Given that the Red Sox still had luxury levels of depth in the rotation (because we must never say "too much pitching"), Dombrowski found a channel to offload one of the arguably redundant arms in Wade Miley, getting back one of baseball's most impressive young relievers in Carson Smith in return, and picking up a decent depth swingman (or perhaps even more than that) in Roenis Elias to boot.

Red Sox, Chris Young agree to multi-year deal

Finally, Dombrowski made the low-impact but much-needed addition of a solid fourth outfielder in Chris Young. With Jackie Bradley Jr. an uncertain quantity at the plate and Rusney Castillo an injury risk, having a strong backup who can provide a platoon option and wouldn't be terrible in a starting role is a pretty big plus.

The Rotation

Projected rotation to start the season:

  1. David Price
  2. Clay Buchholz
  3. Rick Porcello
  4. Joe Kelly
  5. Steven Wright

First, it of course must be noted that Steven Wright's spot is temporary, and belongs to Eduardo Rodriguez in the long term. He's expected to make his way back from the disabled list without missing too much time, but it'll very likely be Wright who gets that fifth spot to start.

Now, any serious conversation about the 2016 rotation has to start with what the unit did in 2015. Obviously the impact of David Price is significant--it's why they're paying him so much money, after all--but beyond him it's a largely unchanged unit, and so understanding the implications that has for 2016 is important.

For most, the idea that the 2015 rotation has any impact on the 2016 team is reason for concern. But there's reason to believe the 2015 rotation wasn't as bad as so many of us would think. At the end of the day, they did end up as one of the least effective units in baseball. Their 4.39 ERA is outside of the bottom-5, but not by much, and only the Tigers and Orioles trailed them in the American League.

When it comes to peripherals, though--the things that do the best job of showing what a pitcher is actually capable of controlling--the Red Sox look much more reasonable. In fact, believe it or not, by many measurements (and I'm not talking cherry-picked metrics, but the all-encompassing variety) they ended up in the top half of baseball. In all of baseball, only the Phillies matched the Red Sox in underperforming their peripherals, and they pitched to a 5.23 ERA--far off of Boston's 4.39 mark.

Not all of this can be ascribed to sheer chance, of course. The Red Sox had some very questionable defenders in the field last year, and those problems are not completely gone (more on that later). But there's reason to hope they will be better in 2016, and if they're not, reason to believe they'll be replaced rather than allowed to drag the team down month after month. That should be a big help to the likes of Rick Porcello and Joe Kelly, who seem to have been bit particularly hard by this last year.

Still, the reality is that they'll also have to just be better. You can say Rick Porcello was bit by the defense, but he also allowed a bunch of home runs as he got away from the pitch that's made him tick in the past. Joe Kelly needs to show that he's capable of commanding the zone to retire batters without running his pitch count up, and doing more than just opening the game with a few good innings before crashing and burning. Clay Buchholz needs to come back from injury strong for once--even if it's just for 100 innings--rather than following his usual cycle that would have him on pace for a disaster season, followed by a strong first half in 2017. And Eduardo Rodriguez needs to get healthy and hopefully avoid tipping his pitches like he did at times in 2015.

Will all of this happen? Probably not, but it doesn't need to. Just some of it. If the Red Sox can get two or three solid rotation options out of that bunch, they can make it work. David Price locks in one spot up top, which is something the 2015 team very much did not have, and if the Red Sox are just looking for a number four and five, they have depth in the minors and the trade deadline to make it happen. Another everything-goes-wrong disaster like 2015 will still sink them, but what can any team do to prevent that?

The Bullpen

Honestly, I don't know how deep I really need to go on this aspect. The rotation and lineup are more complicated beasts, while the bench is atypical in its own right. The bullpen, on the other hand, is a little boring as a discussion piece, because it's just...very, very good, and there's only so much to be said about that.

Craig Kimbrel? He's one of the best closers in baseball, and looking to be at full strength in spring just in case that 2.58 ERA with 87 strikeouts in 59 innings was far enough off his career norms to send anyone running in abject terror (it was not).

Photo Credit: Jonathan Dyer

Koji Uehara may be old for a baseball player, and he may not ever quite be his 2013 self again, but so long as he's got that splitter, he will loom large in the eighth inning, particularly if the deeper unit can keep him fresh.

Carson Smith is out to start the year, but should be back before long, and has done about as much in one year to establish himself as one of baseball's preeminent young relievers as any player can in that much time. It still hasn't fully sunk in that the Red Sox get to have this guy around for the next five years.

Junichi Tazawa is perhaps the most interesting of the bunch, as the once-reliable reliever saw his ERA balloon from 3.12 on August 20th to 4.14 by the time he was shut down for the year. It's his worst mark since establishing himself in Boston's bullpen, but much of that is likely due in part to how much of the workload Tazawa has had to carry in relatively thin Red Sox pens of years past (and in part to blips on the radar being common for relievers). With Smith and Kimbrel now in the mix, there's plenty of reason to expect Tazawa will bounce back, so long as John Farrell doesn't ever let him face the Blue Jays.

Filling out the pen are guys like Robbie Ross, Tommy Layne, and eventually Steven Wright. With so many strong options for the seventh, eighth, and ninth, the Red Sox get to use these last few spots for more surgical tools. Lefties to bring in against specific batters, and a swingman to keep from wasting the back-end of the bullpen just to get through a lost cause. This part isn't anything special, but it doesn't need to be given the four guys up top.

The Lineup

Projected lineup to start the season:

  1. Mookie Betts
  2. Dustin Pedroia
  3. Xander Bogaerts
  4. David Ortiz
  5. Hanley Ramirez
  6. Pablo Sandoval
  7. Rusney Castillo
  8. Blake Swihart
  9. Jackie Bradley Jr.

The order isn't completely certain here, and it's easy enough to find places to make swaps. John Farrell has been experimenting with Xander Bogaerts in both the third and fourth spots, seemingly having faith that the big power that's long been expected of him will come through now that he's healthy. Jackie Bradley Jr. at the bottom is a bit of a concession to the idea of turning the lineup over with a leadoff-type hitter, but it's not hard to imagine him bouncing up above the likes of Swihart and Castillo based on last year's production alone. If he's hot out of the gates, he might even make it all the way up to the top, making for some serious changes.

And really, that's characteristic of this entire lineup. Going down the list, there's not a single player who lacks the ability to be an above-average-to-good offensive player for their position. One of the biggest arguments against would probably be for Rusney Castillo, but he's still more of a mystery than anything given his injury-marred 2015 season. His terrible spring line is largely meaningless because spring training stats are bad, but the fact that he's been one of the most active players in camp is actually important, because it means that it's officially sink-or-swim time, and the Red Sox can make a real decision on whether they've got something in him or not.

That will be true for Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval as well, and the Red Sox' ability to say enough is enough this season is actually pretty huge in its own right. They may or may not help the team win games. For Hanley especially, with first base presenting a much more familiar challenge and a healthy shoulder, it actually seems entirely plausible that he will be a real positive. But that they two will not be allowed to drag the team down the way they did last year is no small thing.

Those are the three players who make Red Sox fans tug at the old collar, but they're matched by more sure things on the other side of the spectrum. To start with, there's Mookie Betts, who no longer needs to be talked about conditionally. He's not a player who needs to prove himself. He's simply one of the best all-around players in baseball, with the only real uncertainty being how high he'll go as he enters his prime. He's still not even 24!

Photo Credit: Evan Habeeb

For Xander Bogaerts, there's still some question of just how much of 2015's batting average he can carry into 2016--there's some luck involved there, after all. But he's a transformed player defensively, and we still haven't really seen him go off power-wise the way he's still expected to, particularly given that he was dealing with a thumb injury for much of 2015. Here the baseline is a solid player, with the sky the absolute limit.

And then there are the old faces of the Red Sox in Dustin Pedroia and, of course, David Ortiz. No, their value is not so sure a thing as we would like. David Ortiz seems timeless, but no 40-year-old gets a completely free pass on avoiding the tug of time, even in their last season. And while Dustin Pedroia looked like his old self for much of last year, he only managed 93 games--his lowest mark since 2010. While it hasn't showed up in his playing time so much until this season, the fact is Pedroia has gotten himself hurt one way or another year-in and year-out. Still, even for just 93 games, Pedroia was an easy positive at second, and it'd be silly to expect less than that from him in any given year.

Oddly, the two players who find themselves in the middle here would seem to be two of the most uncertain commodities in Jackie Bradley Jr. and Blake Swihart. Bradley has flipped back and forth between an absolute monster at the plate, and a complete black hole. 2016 is sort of the rubber match for his career, which still carries a miserable 75 OPS+.

Blake Swihart, on the other hand, just lacks the body of evidence. The fact that he got his OPS+ up to a 90 mark after being called up far too early due to Boston's catching emergency is a testament to just how quickly he evolved. If Swihart's response to being thrown suddenly into the fire was not miraculous, it was certainly impressive, and after a brief mid-season absence, he managed to hit .303/.353/.452 in his last 168 plate appearances. He looks like the real deal, even if he still needs to prove it.

But if these two are uncertain commodities at the plate, the fact is they bring enough to the table defensively that there's no need to worry they'll be drains on the team as with the more concerning players mentioned at the beginning. In that way, they're pure upside.

There's two ways to view this lineup. If you're the glass-half-empty sort, it's a squad with some big defensive question marks on the corner infield with a good deal of uncertainty at the plate. But the glass-half-full sorts would tell you that on the whole this is a great defensive team without a single spot in the lineup that doesn't have a real chance at being an offensive threat. The glass-half-full view is a lot more good than the glass-half-empty view is bad, to be honest, and when it comes down to it, the problems of the glass-half-empty view can potentially be addressed mid-season. Which brings us to...

The Bench

A team's bench players are often an afterthought, but for the Red Sox this is actually an extremely impressive group of players. Travis Shaw, Brock Holt, Ryan Hanigan, and Chris Young are four players who could easily be talked about more as "semi-starters." Hell, no small portion of the fanbase would really like to see Shaw start the season at third base and forget that Pablo Sandoval exists. Hell, he might well be out there on Opening Day given Sandoval's back!

If these four players were part of the starting lineup, there would be some reason for concern. The reality is that Travis Shaw dipped into obscurity as his minor league career progressed, putting a pretty big red flag on his 2015 explosion, no matter how memetic he was around these parts even before making the jump. Brock Holt still can't seem to put together a complete season (be it due to randomly having his good streaks come at the beginning or because of a Youkilis-like endurance issue that can be worked out). Chris Young was once a star, but has fallen to the point where neither his offense nor defense is quite exceptional enough to escape the "fourth outfielder" tag, and Ryan Hanigan...well, honestly, he does enough in total to be a starter, but only because the position he plays at is generally starved for offense.

Photo Credit: Kim Klement

But they're not the starting options. They're the backups. This is where you'd often see your replacement level players, or worse. When a team loses a starter to injury, the hope is often that the backup will manage to not be a complete disaster, but for the Red Sox, there's a legitimate reason to expect more. If the Red Sox have uncertain elements in their lineup, they also have an unusually good chance of replacing any given player that does burn out with someone of real worth. It's not as big as having David Price or Mookie Betts at the top of the rotation or lineup respectively, but it's a pretty reasonable X-factor.

It also bears mentioning that beyond these bench players, the Red Sox find themselves with some atypically strong rotation depth this season. Excepting one swingman at a time, most of them likely won't appear on the 25-man roster very much until their needed, but Steven Wright, Roenis Elias, Henry Owens, and Brian Johnson give the Red Sox a remarkable number of shots at finding a replacement in the rotation if necessary. Similarly, while Christian Vazquez will be starting the season in Triple-A, he's no longer truly a prospect, and is just waiting for a spot to open up to make his return from a lost 2015.

Prospects to Watch

There's a few ways to approach this, and one at this point feels like it needs no reinforcement. Still, no prospect section would be entirely complete without at least mentioning the names Yoan Moncada, Andrew Benintendi, Rafael Devers, and Anderson Espinoza. They are among the best prospects in baseball, and if you're not paying attention to them already, you've probably been under a rock somewhere. Which, if it's been since 2013, don't worry, you didn't miss much.

There's also the approach Marc took the other day, focusing on somewhat lesser-known prospects facing pivotal moments in their career. We'll avoid retreading that ground today.

Instead, since this is about the Red Sox' 2016 season, let's look at the guys who might actually end up having an impact on the major league club before the year is out. We've already mentioned a few of them above. Technically speaking the likes of Christian Vazquez, Henry Owens, and Roenis Elias, may not qualify as prospects anymore, but they and Brian Johnson exist in this limbo for largely finished prospects who just need a space to open up in the majors.

Deven Marrero hasn't been mentioned yet, but finds himself in much the same spot. Given his glove, there are those in the league who would say he could already be starting in the majors for some teams. Heath Hembree and Roman Mendez face similar circumstances out of the bullpen.

Past them, Sam Travis has really forced his way to the front of this conversation with a strong 2015 campaign topped off with an even better stint in the Arizona Fall League and finished with an unreal spring training. Every year someone goes off in the odd little bubble world that is spring training prompting increasingly outrageous comps from scouts. But if calling Sam Travis the next Paul Goldschmidt at this point is as silly as calling Henry Owens the next Chris Sale, the fact is that he's grabbed the spotlight and, with a strong performance in Pawtucket, should be an obvious call-up if the Red Sox ever get past the depth they already have at the corner infield positions.

There's also a couple guys worth mentioning in the Pawtucket bullpen, particularly given how volatile any given relief corps tends to be. Noe Ramirez has been a consistent performer since switching to relief in 2013, and has even been in the mix for one of the last spots in the major league pen for much of the spring, albeit as a bit of a long shot. He doesn't exactly steal any spotlights, but he could be called on again in 2016 if there's enough attrition in the pen. The same is true of Pat Light, who's rather more flashy with a high-90s fastball to his name. He struggled after being promoted to Pawtucket last year, but played well in Pawtucket, and seems to be on a bit of a fast track on his way through the farm system for one reason or another.

And frankly...that's kind of it? In part that's because much of Boston's strength in the minors is concentrated around the middle levels, but it's also just because there's so much depth that's already been covered that players like Marco Hernandez, for instance, just don't have much of a chance to claw their way up to the majors until September at the earliest. Not a bad problem to have.

The Story

For the past two years, the story of the Red Sox has been one of disappointment. It's come from all corners: the heroes of 2013, the high-priced free agents, and even at times the much-hyped prospects. There have been bright spots, but the ending has been the same: high expectations leading straight to last place.

For all we hope that Dave Dombrowski's decisive offseason means 2016 will be different, we have no guarantees. The Red Sox of these past two seasons haven't exactly been a team that entered the season unprepared. These were not squads without a path to victory. The 2014 team was dragged down by the same players who had just the year before been key to a World Series, the 2015 team by players who had never before played close to replacement level suddenly coming in far, far below. It's like Ben Cherington made some deal with the devil to salvage the mess that was 2012. We got our World Series, and now we're paying off the balance.

We can hope everything is even now, but the truth is there's nothing special protecting this squad. They've tied their hopes to bounce-back seasons from key players because, frankly, there isn't much chance of success if all of them continue their sudden synchronized decline no matter what happened in the offseason. The best Dombrowski and co. could hope to do was bring in enough help that the Red Sox don't so much need a miracle as to simply avoid running quite so badly as they have since 2013. There are no guarantees that said help will avoid those same troubles, either, but by targeting the elite in the likes of David Price and Craig Kimbrel, the Sox have at least minimized that chance as best they could.

In another year, with a different backstory, an offseason like the one the Red Sox had should have everyone in town thinking World Series, particularly with the strong young core that the new additions have joined. Add to that the desire to send David Ortiz off as a champion once more, and the idea that the Sox could be aiming for less starts to feel almost viscerally wrong.

The fact is, however, that this team is coming from another last place season, with many questions to be answered. All that uncertainty mentioned earlier is awfully difficult to plan around, and while the Red Sox did what they could, the fact is their best chance to set themselves up for success might come a year from now once they know for certain how the Sandoval/Ramirez situations play out. Once they know how many starting pitchers they can actually rely on, and how many they need to bring in, and of what quality.

But if the 2016 Red Sox are not a team built under ideal circumstances, that doesn't make them a team without a chance for success. These Red Sox are not rebuilding, or if they are, they're doing a remarkably good imitation of a contender in the process. This is not the best Red Sox team you or I have seen, but it's a good one, and one that can win it all, miracle or no. They just need some of the players who crashed and burned last year to show some small signs of life.

If they get that, if not everything goes horribly awry, then this is a team that should be playing in October. How far into it is anyone's guess--the playoffs are a crapshoot, after all--but in an American League East that no longer features the goliath teams of decades past, the Red Sox' chances of becoming that sort of team in 2016 are as good as or better than any of their competitors'.