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Where do the Red Sox stand heading into the season?

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The Sox were ready to take a step forward heading into 2018 before they signed J.D. Martinez. Now it’s title or bust.

MLB: Spring Training-Pittsburgh Pirates at Boston Red Sox
It’s on you, big guy.
Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball anxiety is the best type of anxiety, because baseball is involved. At the same time, it’s still anxiety, which sounds bad but it is actually good. Baseball anxiety makes the world turn from March to November.

The Red Sox have no choice but to win the World Series this year, and this goal will bring them and you no small amount of stress. The fun begins on Thursday when Chris Sale faces the Rays at 4:10 p.m. The terror begins on Friday. Opening Day is a party no matter what; it’s the rest of the games that can scare you.

At the same time, there’s every reason to be positive about the 2018 Sox. Virtually every player is back from last year’s 93-win, first place team, and there are good reasons to think many of them will be better than they were in 2017, especially on offense. To wit:

  • Mookie Betts eked out a .803 OPS, battled popup problems for a decent stretch of the year and still finished with a 6.4 WAR, per Baseball-Reference. It would shock me if Betts finished with an OPS near .800 again, much less below it, so I see a relative bounceback season coming.
  • Andrew Benintendi follows up a good rookie season bulked up and ready to, in Hanley Ramirez’s opinion, win the American League MVP Award. That might be pushing it, but if Bennie can even out his streakiness — and as a talented second-year player, I expect him to — it’s not out of the question. He certainly has the talent and just needs to hone it. Last season, he alternated good and bad months at the plate. Here are his OPS numbers from 2017:
  • April: .870
  • May: .602
  • June: .895
  • July: .643
  • August: .979
  • September: .672

He doesn’t even have to make every month a good one to have a huge impact; he just needs to put a floor under the bad months or limit them to one. I think he can manage.

  • Ramirez lost the 15 pounds Benintendi found, and looked nimble at the plate during Grapefruit League play. Hanley perpetually feels like his playing for his reputation, (somewhat strange for a batting title winner), and this year, nestled in the third spot in the beastly batting order, I expect him to outpace his .750 OPS from 2017.
  • Xander Bogaerts is the team’s potential bounceback poster boy, and with good reason. He put up a .746 OPS last season and just never looked right, and he’s still only 25.
  • On the pitchers’ side, David Price is another player who has been pegged for a return to form by no less an authority than the man himself. He says he feels better than ever heading into 2018, and while that sounds like a variation on the “best shape of his life” spring training cliché, I think there’s good reason to suspect Price is in his best condition heading into a Red Sox season. Given how sneaky good he was in 2016, this is a good sign for a team that needs a solid arm behind Chris Sale, given injuries to Drew Pomeranz and Eduardo Rodriguez

On top of all of this, the Sox signed the best hitter on the free agent market, and on top of that, J.D. Martinez is probably even better than you think. He’s had a strangely peripatetic career for someone so talented (outright released by Detroit Houston, traded to Arizona at last year’s deadline, only signed with the Sox in late in February), but he’s far more than just a home run hitter: He has an even .300 batting average since 2014, helping him to a .935 OPS.

With that said, he is very much a home run hitter as well. He famously hit 45 in 119 games last year, putting up an insane .690 slugging percentage between Detroit and Arizona to lead the majors. You don’t need to be Nate Silver to know that’s good. With Martinez in the batting order, the Sox go from a team rightfully expecting a good bounceback season on offense to one expecting a huge season at the plate.

This is just the good stuff, and I haven’t even mentioned potential bouncebacks or improvements from Jackie Bradley Jr. and Dustin Pedroia, among others. They arguably have far bigger downsides than the players I’ve just mentioned, though... and with that, it’s time to explore the potential steps back the Sox could take this year.

I’ll be brief, because we have seven months to worry about the team and there’s not much to fret over now, but I’m concerned about:

  • Starting pitching depth. Pomeranz and Rodriguez are already hurt, Steven Wright is suspended to start the year, and Brian Johnson and Hector Velazquez seem to be in line for depth starts. A more serious injury to an established starter (Sale, Price, Rick Porcello) and they could be tossing far, far more innings than we’d like.
  • The bullpen. It was great last year and even with the addition a full-season of Carson Smith (fingers crossed) and rookie lefty Bobby Poyner, it will probably take a step back simply due to attrition. There was a reason the Sox won 93 games in what felt like a down year, and that reason was relief pitching. It doesn’t need to be the 2017 bullpen for the Sox to succeed, but if it was 85 percent of it, that would be fine.
  • The minor league system. Obviously this is a long-term concerned, but it’s fairly gutted right now. I mostly added this to get a third bullet point down here.

That said, I think the Sox are in a great position heading into Thursday’s opener, and I’m more excited for this season than I have been for a long time, at least until Friday, when the nerves will kick in, non-stop, until the middle of the NFL season. If it’s terrifying, it’s the most exciting type of fear, and one of which I can never get enough.