Today is the last weekday without Red Sox baseball, and it feels so good. No longer do we have to worry about who the fifth pitcher of some meaningless game will be. No longer do we have to worry about a player getting injured in a game that no one really cares about. No longer do we need to look at the sunshine in Florida while we live in a winter hellscape. With the season right around the corner, I asked everyone on staff to provide their predictions for the season ahead. I left it as vague as possible, simply requesting a couple of paragraphs about how the season would go. Here’s what I got back, with my response coming on the bottom.
I think the pitching is going to be a problem. As much as I like David Price and flat-out adore Chris Sale, there are clear warning signs that the first half will be rough on the rotation and the bullpen. Rick Porcello will regress, Drew Pomeranz is still rounding into form and Eduardo Rodriguez might still be working out some kinks. As a result, I think the narrative early in the season is likely to be about an underperforming Red Sox team, albeit one that's in or near first place. For what it's worth, I think this will happen despite a rebound year from Pablo Sandoval, which might be offset early by regression from Hanley Ramirez.
I ultimately think the Sox will separate themselves from the pack in August, simply by rounding into form and maybe making a move for another starter if Price or Pomeranz can't hack it. I think E-Rod will have a great second half as he grows into his body and his role, and, on offense, I think Andrew Benintendi and Mookie Betts could legitimately battle for the MVP award. Even if I'm too high on Bennie, there's so much pop in the offense it's hard to see the Sox coming up short of the playoffs as long as Sale stays healthy. Once they're there, they'll have as good a shot as anyone of winning it all, which is all you can ask for these days.
When it comes to my predictions for the 2017 season, I had to take a bit of a pause, while it is just an opinion, I want my opinion to be well-constructed, and not lacking in thought. But I also didn't want to take the easy road, and simply copy common projections about the 2017 Red Sox. My team MVP? Hanley Ramirez. Not because I think he's going to be the best player in baseball, nor even the best overall player on the team, but I felt with the loss of David Ortiz, Hanley's power bat means more than it did before. His bat is the bat now. I think Hanley is the single most important piece on this team, offensively, in a post-David Ortiz world, simply because he's the closest any of the current players can get to being David Ortiz. Rather than being protection for Papi, players are going to be protection for Hanley. He's the central lynch pin in the offense, even if he isn't the direct catalyst, or the best hitter on the team. Teams aren't going to plan for Mookie, because let's be real, can you really plan for Mookie? Hanley is going to be the key to whether the team sinks or swims in more than a few games, and he could be the difference between a first place team, and a team barely winning the wild card.
Most of the rest of what I projected seems pretty straightforward, of course I'm going to choose a pitcher who has consistently been top 5 in the AL in just about every stat the past 4 or 5 years, as our top overall pitcher. No knock on Rick Porcello, but he's only been an "ace" level pitcher for one season, and I'm not ready to say that's who he will be every day going forward. With Sale, I feel more certainty, and a higher overall ceiling to boot. Of course JBJ is the best defensive player on the team. I briefly considered saying Mitch Moreland, but his defense is going to be more unsung than wizard-like. When defense is wizard-like, it seems to just pop and amaze. Moreland doesn't seem like he'll be that way, so JBJ it is. On Mitch Moreland, he's a great defensive player, and his bat profiles well at Fenway, and it is for this reason that I believe he's going to be a key part of the team, despite being overlooked throughout the year by casual fans. As such, he's going to become our unsung hero. Maybe he will gather an Aceves-like following, or maybe he'll just fade into nothingness. But for now, he's ours, and I can rest easy knowing first base will be handled by one of the best defensive players in the business. Mookie being clutch felt like the only possible answer, and ditto for Benintendi getting best hair. I mean, is it even a competition? Look who he has to compete with. Half the players are either bald, or have buzzcuts. Benintendi has flavor, and his hair game is a straight 80.
This is where I feel the obvious stuff sort of ends (watch me be wrong on all counts). I labeled Pablo Sandoval as my biggest surprise, not because I think he's due for a bounceback, but because I think he's due to be a really good player in 2017. I'm not predicting him to get back to being even a 2 WAR player, I'm thinking he could make it all the way back to what he did in San Francisco. I think that while many people expect him to improve, not many think he'll go beyond being an "ok" player. And in some respects, if he's just "ok", the Red Sox will still be in a good position. I just have some high hopes for him, and think he's ready to shock Red Sox Nation.
In what I'm sure is my most disappointing selection, I had to choose David Price as the biggest disappointment on the roster. I debated between him and Drew Pomeranz, but I went with Price, because ultimately, I never had a ton of faith in Pomeranz to begin with, and any success would make him more likely to be a candidate for biggest surprise (spoiler - he was my 2nd contender). David Price entered with the most ridiculous expectations (ones we now have for Chris Sale), and he's presently the #3 starter on the Boston Red Sox. How can things get more disappointing? With the noted elbow issues (while no surgery is required, it is concerning to see that he'll miss the first month of the season) likely to linger throughout the rest of the season, and potentially career, I think I've come around to believe we'll never really see the Price we paid for (heh) outside of brief flashes of brilliance (when he's on, which can happen, he's incredible). I don't expect Price to do that much better than last season, to be honest, and I actually think he'll be less valuable. I don't see him breaking 200 IP, nor do I think he even breaks 190 (He pitched 29.2 innings before May last year, which would give him close to 200 IP if he was able to continue what he did last year). I also believe he's going to take a step back in all of his peripheral stats, except perhaps his homerun numbers. Not big steps back, but steps back. I believe David Price will still be an ok pitcher. But you don't want "ok" when he's being paid to be the top of the rotation.
As far as the 2017 season itself goes, I think the Red Sox are going to be fine. Between the fine play of players like Sandoval and Moreland to help shoulder the loss from David Ortiz, and the young core that has proven to have maturity beyond their combined years of playing, I think the Red Sox have a special team, offensively. The question, as it always is, even when you have three supposed "aces" in your staff, is the pitching. Will Chris Sale adjust in his first year? Will David Price bounce back from a relatively disappointing 2016? Will Porcello repeat his crazy year? What do we have in Eduardo Rodriguez and Drew Pomeranz? Do we need Steven Wright? These are questions that I don't think are 100% answered by anyone. No one knows everything, and I know even less. The pitching is always going to be a concern, although I feel way better about it now than I did this time last year. To me, the keys to success are the following three things: Hanley needs to continue to hit hard, Sale needs to be on fire, and the bullpen needs to get healthy. If those three things can happen, I think the rest will sort itself out, and the Sox will have a potential World Series winning team.
I believe the Sox will win close to 93 games in 2017 (same as last year), and win the division. I believe that they will go into the playoffs as either the top seed, or the #2 seed, and end up playing a wild card team (who I predict will be the Astros), or the Texas Rangers (the winners of the AL West). They will win this series, and go on to face the Indians in the ALCS, where I predict the Sox will lose in 7 games. I believe the Indians getting Encarnacion is going to be what pushes that team over the top, where they finally win the World Series, against the New York Mets (who upset the champion Chicago Cubs in the NLCS).
AL MVP - Mookie Betts (I know Mike Trout would be the conventional player here, but I think Mookie is going to top him this year, if only barely)
NL MVP - Bryce Harper (The return!)
AL CY - Jose Quintana (after a trade to the Astros)
NL CY - Noah Syndergaard (he had everything but a quantity of innings last year, and he's building himself up still. His time will come)
AL RoY - Andrew Benintendi (sorry Moncada)
NL RoY - Dansby Swanson (I'll be honest, the only person I think is real competition as of now is his teammate Ozzie Albies)
2. Red Sox
World Series - Indians beat Mets in 7
Before we talk about this upcoming season, I need to talk to you all about Demarcus Cousins. Stay with me. Cousins (who we will refer to as Boogie from here on out) had been on the trading block for more than a few years before he was packaged and sent to the New Orleans Pelicans at this past NBA trade deadline. Before that, I had held the official capacity as the president and CEO of Get Boogie to Boston Incorporated. It was a trade I tried to make happen by sheer force of mental will.
Last summer, Boogie got a counterpart in MLB and his name was (and still is) Chris Sale. However, when the Sox couldn’t make a deal work, I assumed that was that. Going into the offseason, I still held onto the pipe dream, but by the slimmest of threads. Then Dave Dombrowski went out and made the trade of my dreams. It made the fact that the Celtics didn’t make a deal for Boogie much easier to take.
All this is a long way of saying I am very excited to have Chris Sale in the rotation. And the Red Sox really couldn’t have picked a better time to add a pitcher of his caliber. Hurlers are dropping like flies, including David Price, who wasn’t amazing last year but looked poised for a bounce back. With so many injuries in the rotation, Sale and Rick Porcello will need to be at the top of their games. I am confident that Sale will be and I think Porcello will be good, just not Cy Young good. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m picturing a 3.50-3.75 ERA and somewhere in the 180-200 innings range. That will do just fine.
The bullpen has me more worried than any position group. Craig Kimbrel may have struck out a ton of batters last year but his home run issues were scary to watch, especially for a guy that’s supposed to lock up games. With Tyler Thornburg now injured and no definite return date for Carson Smith, the Sox are going to have to get some big years from the likes of Matt Barnes, Robbie Ross and Joe Kelly. I think Kelly has the potential to be the diamond in the rough they’ll need.
Then there’s the lineup, which I am much more bullish on. Mookie Betts is obviously legit and he’ll win an MVP at some point in his career. Xander Bogaerts slowed in the second half last year but that doesn’t scare me, I think his power is here to stay and I expect him to flirt with .300 once again. It was awesome to see Hanley Ramirez turn on so many balls last year. The Sox really need him to keep it up now that David Ortiz is gone. I think he’s pretty much a lock for 25 home runs, but maybe even more if he gets to spend most of his time at DH. Dustin Pedroia is another year older, but that doesn’t worry me at all.
As for the question marks, Sandy Leon is going to crater back to earth in my opinion and Mitch Moreland was a pretty eh move. I also am not ready to believe in Pablo Sandoval even if his Instagram has been popping this winter. I am bullish on Marco Hernandez though and I’d like to see him make the roster and get playing time. Chris Young can mash lefties, we all know that, so the bench is pretty solid.
Then there’s Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi. Bradley has been great for the last season and a half and his defense is excellent. His approach at the plate has clearly improved so I expect him to be just fine but I’m not sure we can expect 25 home runs every year. As for Benintendi, this is where you will want to throw assorted vegetables across the internet at me. I’m not sold on him yet. Call me crazy, and I probably am since he’s the consensus No. 1 prospect in baseball, but his struggles hitting lefties (.179 BA in 33 plate appearances) make me think he might go through some growing pains. That’s not to say I think he’ll be a bust, I’m just not ready to proclaim him Rookie of the Year just yet.
After reading through this, you might think I’m down on the Sox this year. I’m not. I’m just a perfectionist, or at least that’s what I tell myself. With Sale and Porcello leading the rotation and bats like Betts, Bogaerts, Ramirez and Pedroia in the lineup, the Sox are clearly built to be in the playoff picture and they will be. I foresee 93 wins, an AL East title and a nice run in the playoffs.
Now let me tell you why the Pelicans should trade Boogie to the Celtics...
The 2017 season is the first since 2002 that will not feature David Ortiz as a lineup fixture. That doesn't mean this will be a bad year. The rotation has less uncertainty in it than recent seasons. If David Price is healthy he'll join Sale, Porcello, a promising E-Rod, and 2016 breakouts in their respective leagues, Pomeranz and Wright. This is a rotation that will win games and mean the difference between 90-91 wins and the potential for 97-98.
Craig Kimbrel may never return to what he was in Atlanta but when Joe Kelly reinvents himself in the Andrew Miller mode he won't have to. Koji will be missed, of course.
So much attention is being given to Pablo Sandoval and Andrew Benintendi due to their comeback-player and breakout-prospect status but their contributions are icing on the cake. Xander, Pedroia, Mookie, JBJ, and Hanley are the core. If they succeed so will the team. (Sandoval and Benintendi will be fine too). Chris Young is still a great addition to the bench. Will Mitch Moreland thrive in Boston? We'll have to hope so if Hanley is the DH. 2017 will be a very good year.
I remember when I was in school and I studied hard for a test (which actually did happen sometimes), I would always still be nervous right before the test. It didn’t matter how much work I put in, or how much I knew I knew, it was only natural to doubt myself, and I think it’s like that for a lot of people. That’s what I see happening with the Red Sox before the season starts.
Obviously, things aren’t perfect right now. Who knows how long David Price and Tyler Thornburg will be out. The same goes for Drew Pomeranz, I suppose. This is not what a team wants to see heading into the season. Despite that, this is still an outstanding team. The lineup is ridiculous, particularly if you’re like me and don’t think Sandy Leon is going to hit .001/.002/.003. It’s deep, can hit both handedness of pitching and has star power at the top.
The pitching has injuries, but it’s still looking good. The rotation is led by Chris Sale and Rick Porcello, both of whom could compete for the Cy Young this year. In particular, I don’t think Porcello is going to regress as much as most think. Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright are really good second-tier rotation starters, and the former has legitimate upside. I even remain confident in Pomeranz and Price if they can get back to the mound without complications. I’m less confident in the bullpen, but I still think it can be an average group if not a good one. Luckily, they should have an elite defense to make things much easier on a ravaged pitching staff.
All of this is to say that I think this is a division winning team, and I’m not sure it’s going to go down to the wire either. The other AL East contenders (mostly the Blue Jays, in my mind) could easily have big years, but it’s not as likely as it is for the Red Sox. I think the Red Sox can win 94 games (I read Jake’s and Phil’s before this and decided to one-up them) and I see them losing in the ALCS to the Indians.