At this point in the offseason, essentially all of the focus around the Red Sox involves the pitching. The lineup is more or less set, but the pitching has been the story for a while. Not only did they steal the show in the postseason with their performance and heart, it’s also been the area of need in the winter. The rotation needed one more pitcher before Nathan Eovaldi came back. And, of course, the bullpen needs at least one late-inning arm. That last one represents the final hole on the roster as they get set to head to spring training in a little over a month. We all know this, because it’s been just about the only thing we’ve had to talk about with the Red Sox for months.
Despite all of that, the offense remains the most exciting part of the roster as we look ahead to the 2019 season. That’s not to say it’s necessarily going to be the best — that rotation has the potential to be sick — but it’s where the majority of the young core resides. Last year, the unit was the best in all of baseball. It featured the league’s MVP, arguably it’s best pure hitter, and a couple of other star-caliber hitters that carried the load. While their top five (sometimes six) hitters were outstanding all year, the bottom of the lineup was among the worst in baseball. By the end of the year, their bottom three hitters ranked just 19 in OPS. Baseball-Reference has a stat called sOPS+ that compares a split to a team’s overall production, and by that metric Boston’s bottom-third of the lineup was at the very bottom of the league. If you go lineup spot by lineup spot, the culprits went beyond the last three spots, as four-to-five players in any given lineup construction were liable to struggle. This year, things look like they should be more balanced in the bottom half of the lineup.
It starts with the man pictured at the top of this post, as World Series MVP Steve Pearce will be back for a full season in Boston. In a way, that doesn’t represent too much of a change from last year when they had Hanley Ramirez as their right-handed platoon bat at first base. Ramirez, however, struggled quite a bit outside of a hot start to the year and obviously didn’t make it through May. That led to too large of a role for Mitch Moreland and numbers to match. Pearce always mashes lefties, but he’s also better against righties than he gets credit for. The Red Sox had stretches where first base was a position of production for them in 2018, but it should be more consistent in 2019.
Then there’s second base, where the Red Sox struggled for almost the entirety of 2018. Eduardo Núñez spent the bulk of the first part of the season there, and while his rough defense at the keystone position got the bulk of the headlines he did not exactly perform at the plate either. Then Ian Kinsler was acquired, but while he had flashes here and there, for the most part the veteran didn’t provide much at the plate. The only strong performer was Brock Holt, but he is still at his best if he’s not overextended. Looking ahead to 2019, there’s certainly no sure thing for the Red Sox at second base, but it’s hard to see them being worse. Dustin Pedroia is a massive question mark, but as long as he’s healthy (admittedly, a big if) his floor at the plate is relatively high given his plate discipline. Brock Holt should also be motivated (not that this has ever been an issue for him) given his upcoming free agency, and last year he certainly seemed to be past his head injuries. Eduardo Núñez shouldn’t see too much time here if everything goes to plan, but if he does at the plate at least it’s hard to see him being worse than last year.
Moving further down the infield, Rafael Devers had a bit of a disappointing season given some preseason expectations, but really it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. We saw plenty of flashes of why we are so excited about the third baseman’s future, Unfortunately, we also saw how raw his game is and how much work there is to do. The end results of his season were below-average numbers, though in the postseason we saw some strides he had made on both sides of the game. Devers will still be only 22 in 2019, so we shouldn’t expect a finished product just yet, but there’s every reason to expect he should take a step forward with his first full season at the highest level under his belt.
Finally, there’s the catching position. This one, well, this one is pretty simple despite the fact we have no idea who will actually be playing catcher for the Red Sox in 2019. There’s a very slight possibility they’ll add someone from outside the organization to help here, and that would certainly give them a significant improvement. Even if they keep two of the internal options, there’s still reason for optimism. None of their options will provide good production offensively, to be fair, but they should improve simply because it’s nearly impossible to be worse. Even if Sandy León is one of the catchers who stays — and I think it’s safe to say he has the lowest ceiling offensively — he can’t be worse than he was in 2019. I mean, technically he can, but come on.
So, yeah, the Red Sox should be more balanced off offense this year. Keep in mind, though, that this is not the same as saying they should be better. Balance is great, but at the end of the day you just want to score as many runs as possible. Whatever way you get that done, the better. Boston was able to do so with an extremely top-heavy lineup last year, but it’s hard to ask them to repeat that formula in 2019. Guys like Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez are all incredible and should be great again in the coming season. At the same time, what they did in 2018 is presumably at or near their ceiling, particularly for Betts and Martinez. It’s hard to see anyone being better than that. It’s likely that at least two of the three will be worse in 2019 — remember, there’s a ton of room between where they were last year and even average. The Red Sox are prepared for that, and should be able make up at least a chunk of any regression with more consistent play from the lower portions of the lineup.