Whether they like it or not, the Red Sox are in rebuild mode. The jury is still out on how extensive and lengthy that rebuild will be, but there’s no denying that the Red Sox have a lot of work to do this offseason (and probably the next couple beyond that) to build back into a perennial contender. After finishing dead last in the AL East and with one of the worst records in all of baseball in 2020, the road could be long, but we only have to look back a few years to see that isn’t necessarily the case.
In 2015, the Red Sox won 78 games and came in last in the AL East. The following year, they won a division title. In addition, they won only 69 games and were a last-place team in 2012 before a magical run to a 2013 World Series title. Today, we’ll be looking at how the Red Sox went from last place to the top of the division between 2015 and 2016 and how the current organization can potentially follow that blueprint. Of course, that 2015 season marked the second-straight last place finish for the Red Sox, lending credence to the notion that a rebuild doesn’t happen overnight, but even with that caveat, the 2016 team pulled off quite the rapid rebuild in terms of division standing, and one the 2021 Red Sox could emulate.
Step One: Make major upgrades to the rotation and bullpen
The 2015 rotation for the Red Sox wasn’t exactly horrific, but it was altogether mediocre. This was a staff with no discernible top of the rotation starter and one that was led in innings pitched by Wade Miley. Although Eduardo Rodriguez and Clay Buchholz both gave solid efforts across shortened seasons, the bulk of the rotation was average at best, with the Red Sox ranking 13th in the majors in combined fWAR from their starters.
In the bullpen, Koji Uehara wasn’t the same pitcher as he was in 2013, but he was still excellent, saving 25 games while posting a 194 ERA+. Behind him, Alexi Ogando, Robbie Ross, Junichi Tazawa and a handful of others put up slightly above average campaigns, but the Red Sox were still rather underwhelming in the bullpen. In fact, their relievers combined to produce -1.0 fWAR, which was the worst mark in the majors and made them one of only two teams to produce a negative mark in reliever fWAR as a team that season.
When the 2015-16 offseason came around, the Red Sox knew they had to improve both in the rotation and the bullpen, and they did just that, trading for All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel and dropping the bag for the services of former Cy Young Award winner David Price. Your mileage may vary on the success Price had in Boston, but there’s no denying that he helped solidify the rotation in 2016, producing a 112 ERA+ while logging 230 innings. Kimbrel paid solid dividends as well, landing the first of his three All-Star appearances in Boston while posting a 132 ERA+.
The current Red Sox have the opportunity to emulate those moves during this offseason and the urgency to do so is even greater. The Red Sox were a train wreck when it came to pitching in 2020. The rotation struggled, especially without the services of Eduardo Rodriguez and Chris Sale, and racked up fewer fWAR than any staff in the big leagues (0.4). The relievers weren’t much better, tying for 25th in baseball in combined fWAR.
When it comes to adding a front-of-the-rotation starter like Price, the Red Sox have a few options. Trevor Bauer just won the NL Cy Young Award and is expected to rake in more than any other free agent starting pitcher. In addition, free agent Masahiro Tanaka returned to form last year for the Yankees by posting an 81 ERA-. Corey Kluber is another former Cy Young winner and someone the Red Sox have been linked to quite a lot, but I’m not sure he fits the mold of the 2015-16 Price signing.
On the reliever side, I suppose anyone could be available in a trade like the one the Red Sox made for Kimbrel, but just scanning the free agent market provides plenty of top shelf options, including Liam Hendricks, Brad Hand and Alex Colome. Heck, the Red Sox could even sign two of those guys and have the makings of an elite bullpen, not just a better than average one.
Step Two: Improve positional player depth
While the Price signing and Kimbrel trade were the talk of Boston during the 2015-16 offseason, the Red Sox made some other roster additions that paid dividends of the more subtle variety.
The Red Sox used a lot of guys in the outfield in 2015, including Hanley Ramirez, Rusney Castillo and Alejandro De Aza. Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. were also fixtures and clearly locked in long-term, but the Red Sox made improving their outfield depth a priority in the 2015-16 offseason by signing Chris Young. In fact, Young was the first free agent the Red Sox signed that winter, although he joined the team after the Kimbrel trade. Young only played two seasons in Boston, but he was solid, especially in 2016 when he posted a 121 OPS+ while sharing time in the outfield with Brock Holt, Andrew Benintendi and others.
As it turns out, the Red Sox have an even larger outfield gap to fill this offseason now that Bradley Jr. is a free agent. The obvious answer is to bring Bradley Jr. back, but even if they do that, they could always add another veteran bat to the mix. In fact, it would probably make more sense to add someone who can play the infield as well. So, who could be this year’s Young? From what I can see, someone like Marwin Gonzalez or Tommy La Stella would fit the billing, both in terms of flexibility and cost, although both are more infield-focused.
Step Three: Get bounce-back seasons from All-Star caliber players
A big driver of the Red Sox’s success in 2016 was the return to form of star players, particularly Ramirez and David Ortiz. Ramirez was one of the premier signings of the Red Sox’s 2014-15 offseason, but he struggled to find a rhythm in his first year in Boston. He slashed just .249/.291/.426 and was 11 percent below league average as a hitter based on OPS+. Ortiz was much better than that, and really didn’t need to bounce back, slashing .273/.360/.553 in his age 39 season. However, he was on another level in 2016, leading the majors in doubles (48), slugging percentage (.620) and OPS (1.021) on his way to a sixth-place AL MVP finish and a Silver Slugger. Ramirez didn’t enter that stratosphere in 2016, but he smashed 30 home runs and posted a 126 OPS+, giving the Red Sox another powerful bat in the middle of the lineup.
There are more than a few hitters on the Red Sox who could use bounce-back seasons in 2021, but J.D. Martinez and Rafael Devers have to be at the top of the list. Martinez was simply bad last year, posting an 81 OPS+ while batting .213. Devers was a bit better, finishing with an above average OPS+ (110) thanks to a surge in the second half, but he wasn’t the future franchise cornerstone the Red Sox needed him to be. If Martinez can once again be the guy who smashes 30-plus home runs and keeps his batting average above .300 while Devers picks up where he left off in 2019 when he led the majors in total bases, the Red Sox will have their 2021 version of Ramirez and Ortiz.
Step Four: Get exceptional seasons from starters already on the roster
It’s still unclear just what the Red Sox’s starting rotation will look like in 2021. We still don’t know just how much Sale will be able to contribute and the same goes for Rodriguez. Getting either or both of them back at full strength would obviously be ideal, but that’s unlikely to be how things shake out. Either way, the Red Sox will need improved pitching from starters already on the roster, just like they got in 2016.
Although Price was heralded as the ace of the 2016 staff entering the season, Rick Porcello ended up being the best starter on the staff that year. After a pretty forgettable first year in Boston following a trade from Detroit, the right-hander went on to claim the AL Cy Young Award in 2016 by winning an MLB-high 22 games and posting a 142 ERA+. At the same time, Steven Wright came out of nowhere to make the All-Star team and provide even more solid starting pitching depth.
Do the current Red Sox have two pitchers from last year who could enter the Cy Young and All-Star discussions? Probably not, but if Nathan Eovaldi can rediscover his effectiveness and Tanner Houck builds off a promising end to 2020, there’s some life to the consideration of such discussions — and that’s without even taking into account any big-time rebounds from Rodriguez and/or Sale.
Step Five: Shore up second base
Dustin Pedroia was still a pillar at second base in both 2015 and 2016. He was better and played more in 2016, but the point is that the Red Sox had someone they could rely on at second when they completed their turnaround in 2016.
The 2020 Red Sox had no such consistency at the position. Neither Michael Chavis nor José Peraza took control of the position like the Red Sox hoped entering the season, leading to a lot of shared time among a group of players, including in-season addition Christian Arroyo. The current Red Sox still don’t have a long-term answer at second, although Chavis, Arroyo and Jonathan Araúz are still on the roster, so the Red Sox either need to get a big step forward from someone inside the organization or find an answer on the free agent market. DJ LeMahieu anyone?
Step Six: Have Mookie Betts on the roster
The Red Sox had Mookie Betts in 2016 (and 2015 and 2014). The Red Sox did not have Mookie Betts in 2020. They won’t have him in 2021 either, so they can’t completely replicate the turnaround between 2015 and 2016, but they could come close. In many ways, that’s the point.