2016 Preview: Boston Red Sox

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2016 season. Next up: The Boston Red Sox.

After a second consecutive fifth-place finish in the AL East in 2015, the Red Sox are revamped and ready to take back the crown. Their offseason kicked off in a big way in mid-November, when they acquired closer Craig Kimbrel from the Padres in exchange for outfield prospect Manuel Margot and three other minor leaguers. Then, at the beginning of December, the Red Sox decided to celebrate Christmas a little bit early by signing David Price to a seven-year, $217 million contract.

Is the addition of Kimbrel and Price all the Red Sox need to do to improve on their 78-84 record from last season? It seems that way. The club is less reliant on Hanley Ramirez – who is now at first base – and Pablo Sandoval, who had disappointing campaigns, and more reliant on their young prospects, including Mookie Betts, Blake Swihart, Xander Bogaerts, Rusney Castillo, and Jackie Bradley, Jr. Price and Kimbrel should more than get them over the .500 hump; progression from the young core, if all goes as expected, should push them towards 95 wins.

Price is coming off of a second-place finish in American League Cy Young voting, leading the AL in ERA at 2.45 while compiling an 18-5 record with a 225/47 K/BB ratio in 220 1/3 innings. He takes the pressure off of Clay Buchholz, who functioned as the staff ace last season and missed the entire second half of the season with a right flexor strain. Likewise, Rick Porcello will be under less pressure and can comfortably attempt a rebound from his 4.95 ERA over 28 starts. Eduardo Rodriguez and Joe Kelly make up the back of the rotation while Henry Owens and Steven Wright will be the first line of defense should any falter.

Sandoval has already been the subject of controversy, as an unflattering photograph early in spring training showed his gut spilling out from under his shirt while throwing a baseball. The Red Sox quickly dispelled any concern created by the image, saying that Sandoval showed up to camp healthy after losing weight, as requested, over the offseason. The veteran third baseman disappointed in his first year with the Red Sox after signing a five-year, $95 million contract, finishing with a .658 OPS and a career-low 10 home runs.

Similarly, Ramirez was another free agent signing (four years, $88 million) who flopped in his first year in Boston. He played in only 105 games and posted a .717 OPS. When adjusting that OPS for the quality of the league and park effects, it’s the worst mark of his career, according to Baseball Reference. The Red Sox had him play left field for the first time in his career, which turned out to be such a disaster that they moved him to first base, another career first.

Elsewhere, the Red Sox are very young with a lot of upside. No one exemplifies that more than Betts in right field. In his first full season in the majors, he finished with a .291/.341/.479 triple-slash line, ripping 42 doubles, eight triples, and 18 home runs while stealing 21 bases and playing terrific defense. And to think, the 23-year-old still has plenty of room to grow. While it’s not a statistically likely outcome, an MVP-caliber campaign from Betts this season would shock no one.

Bradley, in center field, was yo-yoed between Triple-A and the majors for much of the first half and brought a paltry .426 OPS into an August 9 game against the Tigers. That afternoon, he drew a bases-loaded walk, hit a bases-clearing triple, and hit a solo home run. He never looked back. From August 9 through the end of the season, Bradley hit for a .980 OPS, which included 30 extra-base hits in 184 plate appearances. All the while, the 25-year-old played terrific defense in the outfield, as expected. While Bradley won’t repeat with an .800-plus OPS over a full season, he’ll help the Red Sox contend for one of the best defensive outfields in the game.

Castillo is worth mentioning as well as he has a lot of upside, but the Red Sox aren’t sure he’s “an established major league player” yet, as MLB.com’s Ian Browne reported last month. Castillo struggled to a .647 OPS in 289 plate appearances last season, and though he played good defense, the Red Sox are considering Chris Young in left field as well. Young is a known lefty masher, so he could split time with Castillo or simply get the full-time job outright.

In the bullpen, the addition of Kimbrel pushed Koji Uehara to the set-up role and Junichi Tazawa back to the seventh inning. That’s probably for the best, as Uehara is working his way back from a non-displaced fracture in his right wrist suffered last August. He turns 41 years old in early April, and saw his strikeout and walk rates worsen compared to the previous season. The addition of Kimbrel, who struck out 87 batters in 59 1/3 innings last season, turns the back of the bullpen from competent to downright scary.

The Red Sox keys to success in 2016:

  • Offseason acquisitions Price and Kimbrel don’t flop like Sandoval and Ramirez last year
  • Sandoval and Ramirez have some kind of a bounce-back effort and stay healthy
  • Youngsters Betts, Bradley, Bogaerts, and Swihart don’t regress after getting their feet wet last year
  • Porcello and Kelly figure out what went wrong in 2015 and correct it
  • Buchholz makes it the 30-start plateau

Prediction: 96-66, first place in the AL East.

Manoah, Merrifield lead Blue Jays to 3-1 win over Rays

Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Alek Manoah pitched seven shutout innings, Whit Merrifield hit a three-run homer and the Toronto Blue Jays regained the top AL wild-card spot with a 3-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday night.

The Blue Jays lead Tampa Bay by one game. The top wild card finisher will host all games in their best-of-three opening-round series, while the other two wild cards play strictly on the road.

Manoah (15-7) scattered four hits, walked two and struck out eight while throwing a season-high 113 pitches. The righty worked out of a two-on, one-out jam in the sixth by striking out Randy Arozarena and getting a flyout from David Peralta.

Jordan Romano replaced Tim Mayza with two on and two outs in the eighth and allowed pinch-hitter Harold Ramirez‘s RBI infield single but avoided further damage by striking out Manuel Margot. Romano finished the game to get his 35th save in 41 chances.

Tampa Bay starter Drew Rasmussen (10-7) gave up one run, three hits and two walks in 6 1/3 innings. He struck out five.

The teams combined for 31 runs, with the Rays accounting for 20, in the first two games of the series that were both won by Tampa Bay.

Arozarena got the Rays’ first hit off Manoah with a two-out double in the fourth. He became the first Tampa Bay player and 20th big leaguer to have 40 doubles, 20 homers and 30 stolen bases in a season.

Teoscar Hernandez ended Rasmussen’s night with a double in the seventh. Brooks Raley entered and, after a walk to pinch-hitter Danny Jansen, Merrifield made it 3-0 on his 10th homer of the season.

Merrifield homered twice in Thursday night’s 10-5 loss to the Rays.

Alejandro Kirk opened the second with a single before Rasmussen retired 12 in a row until Merrifield’s leadoff double in the sixth.

Plate umpire Corey Blaser took a hard foul ball by Margot on the mask in the eighth but remained in the game.

HONORING KK

The Rays posted a thank you on the message board for CF Kevin Kiermaier, who is out for the season following left hip surgery. Kiermaier is in the final season of a $53.5 million, six-year contract that includes a club option for 2023 that is expected to be declined.

TEAM AWARDS

Rays ace Shane McClanahan was voted the Don Zimmer MVP award winner by members of the Tampa Bay chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. CF Jose Siri was selected as the outstanding rookie. 3B Yandy Diaz received the Paul C. Smith Champions award as the player who best exemplifies the spirit of true professionalism on and off the field.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Blue Jays: RHP Nate Pearson (lat strain) allowed three runs and three hits over two-thirds of an inning for Triple-A Buffalo.

Rays: 2B Brandon Lowe (lower back) is done for the season.

UP NEXT

McClanahan (12-6), pulled from his start Tuesday in the fifth inning due to neck tightness, will face Blue Jays RHP Ross Stripling (8-4) on Sunday.