It’s mid-May and so far the Red Sox are exceeding my expectations. In fact, I think you could say they are exceeding most people’s low expectations. Before the season began I predicted that the Red Sox would win 83 games, finish fourth in the division, and not make the playoffs. Right now they are fifth in the division, three games above .500, and currently just a half game out of the third wild-card spot—all of which are occupied by AL East teams. It’s very early but this is quite encouraging and if nothing else the team has proven to be wildly entertaining.
The Red Sox have been succeeding at this level thanks to an offense that has scored 226 runs–that’s good for third best in all of baseball. Furthermore, they have been able to lock down wins with a much improved bullpen that is now Ryan Brasier free. Despite the two Kenley Jansen meltdowns this weekend the Red Sox still rank in the upper third of the league in blown saves allowed with only five. This is a far cry from where the Red Sox ranked over the last three seasons where they were the fifth worst team in baseball late in games with 63 blown saves. It’s not perfect but it is a huge improvement.
The team’s biggest weakness is now starting pitching which ranks 26th in fWAR, 28th in ERA, and a league worst 17.8 percent HR/FB rate. Since the team really only added a very washed looking Corey Kluber in free agency there are limited internal options for improvement. Things are not entirely hopeless in this area though as some reinforcements are right around the corner.
James Paxton made his much anticipated debut on Friday May 12th. He looked fantastic hitting upper 90’s with his fastball and striking out nine. Paxton has always been effective when he’s been on the mound and looks like a top three starter moving forward. Chris Sale has started to look more like his old self and I was especially encouraged to see him hitting 99 in his duel with Bryce Harper last week. Sale followed that up with his best start of the year on Saturday going in eight innings against a very talented Cardinals lineup while punching out nine and walking just one. I think we can confidently say we have our ace back.
Adding to the Red Sox options, starter/reliever Garrett Whitlock is scheduled to return this week from Ulnar Neuritis and could provide a boost to the rotation should the team deem him healthy enough to return to it. Brayan Bello, who has the best ERA on the Red Sox staff at 5.01, looked fantastic in his last outing against the Atlanta Braves and has allowed two or fewer earned runs in each of his last three starts. Hope remains limited when it comes to Nick Pivetta, Tanner Houck, and Kluber.
The team will be faced with many decisions in the upcoming weeks including: which starter will move to the bullpen when the six-man rotation is trimmed down, which member of the bullpen will be jettisoned when Kutter Crawford returns, and how do Christian Arroyo, Adam Duvall, Trevor Story, and Adalberto Mondesi fit into the lineup puzzle? These are good problems to have and as we know both time and injury usually answer these difficult questions for us. I do, however, have some suggestions.
When the rotation is cut down to five the person I would move to the bullpen is Houck. Houck has had tremendous success in the bullpen, his stuff for multi innings appearances can be deadly and borderline unhittable, and he has continued to struggle the third time through the order despite adding pitches to his repertoire. When Crawford is healthy I would take advantage of Bernardino’s options and send him down. Crawford’s multi inning excellence is too valuable with the inconsistent rotation. The Red Sox are expected to add Joely Rodriguez back to the bullpen today to fill the spot vacated by Brasier, this will give the team another lefty.
When Arroyo’s hamstring is healthy Bobby Dalbec is the easy choice to go back down to Worcester. The next few decisions are painful and not easy to predict. When Mondesi is healthy do you try to trade Rob Refsnyder who really only has value vs left handed starters? I would keep Refsnyder and get rid of Arroyo because I really value giving Cora the ability to matchup with right handed relievers or left handed relievers by pinch hitting either Raimel Tapia or Refsnyder. When Duvall comes back I’d imagine optioning Enmanuel Valdez as the logical move. The hardest choice is also likely the last to be made, but if Story is healthy and Triston Casas is still struggling, the Red Sox should option him to Worcester because a competing team simply can’t afford to have his production at first base. This would allow Justin Turner to take over at first for the majority of the time.
This could end up being good and potent offensive and defensive lineup including:
C- Conner Wong
1B- Justin Turner
2B- Kiké Hernandez
SS- Trevor Story
3B- Rafael Devers
LF- Masataka Yoshida
CF- Jarren Duran
RF- Alex Verdugo
DH- Adam Duvall
C- Reese McGuire
OF- Raimel Tapia
OF- Rob Refsnyder
SS- Adalberto Mondesi
The rotation and bullpen will also look much better:
SP1: Chris Sale
SP2: Brayan Bello
SP3: James Paxton
SP4: Garrett Whitlock
SP5: Corey Kluber
SU- Chris Martin
HL- Tanner Houck
LR- Nick Pivetta
That bullpen construction, with four-multi inning relievers in Winckowski, Houck, Crawford, and Pivetta, would give Alex Cora maximum flexibility for days when any of the starters fail to perform. Crawford, Houck, and Pivetta would be able to cover three or four innings and save the remainder of the bullpen for more closely contested games. This bullpen would be so good it would nearly cover up for the inadequacy of the rotation. If Sale, Bello, and others come along and progress then the Red Sox could move from fringe wildcard team to contending for the first wild card and perhaps even the division. If Kluber continues to struggle it would also allow Cora the flexibility to DFA him replacing him with Crawford and adding Bernardino back to the bullpen.
A lot has gone right for Chaim Bloom this season that I don’t think we could have counted on. Wong has broken out and is now getting to his power and using his athleticism while playing incredible defense. Duran, at the advice of Dustin Pedroia, has put his hands up and tapped into the athleticism that he always possessed. Moreover, Duran has completely transformed his defense in a way that I can’t remember a player doing in recent memory. He has gone from liability to Gold Glove caliber. Alex Verdugo is now enjoying his breakout season that many thought was never going to come. Perhaps most importantly of all Masataka Yoshida is more than living up to the financial commitment the team made to him and is playing like one of the more unique stars in the game.
Of these I think Bloom deserves a lot of credit for his bet on Yoshida. The move was widely criticized at first, but has proved prescient. I think he deserves some credit for the Wong and Verdugo breakouts even though I still believe the return for Mookie Betts was underwhelming. He most certainly deserves credit for the thorough overhaul of the bullpen. The Duran breakout is found gold that does a tremendous amount of good for the future of this team. Centerfield is one of the hardest positions to fill and now the Red Sox have an above average offensive and defensive player who will not be a free agent until at least 2029.
The Red Sox could look to make a move to improve the rotation should someone worthwhile become available. The team certainly has enough depth to withstand such a trade. Perhaps Duran’s breakout makes a player like Ceddanne Rafaela more tradable or maybe another team views Houck or Crawford as a member of their rotation. Lots of possibilities await. One thing is for sure, it looks like we will have a baseball season to follow.