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.

Mark Lerner says Nationals can’t afford both Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg

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The defending champion Washington Nationals may have to replace two star players in third baseman Anthony Rendon and starter Stephen Strasburg as both are free agents. Both are represented by agent Scott Boras and both are expected to command lucrative contracts. As a result, Nationals managing principal owner Mark Lerner said the club can’t afford to bring back both players, Todd Dybas of NBC Sports Washington reports.

Lerner told Donald Dell in an interview, “We really can only afford to have one of those two guys. They’re huge numbers. We already have a really large payroll to begin with.”

As Dybas notes, there are myriad reasons why Lerner would say this publicly. If Lerner had instead said, “Yeah, we’re filthy stinking rich, especially coming off of a World Series win. We could afford to get every free agent if we wanted to,” then the Nationals would have no leverage in negotiations. Creating artificial scarcity increases the Nationals’ leverage when negotiating with Boras and his clients. And as Dybas also points out, Lerner’s statement also prepares fans for an unsatisfactory outcome not unlike when the club took itself out of the running to bring back outfielder Bryce Harper earlier this year. This not to say Lerner’s statement is justified; it’s just how things work in the current system.

Lerner also defended the Nationals’ approach to free agency. He said, “They think you’re really back there printing money and it’s whoever goes to the highest bidder. It’s not that way at all. You give these fellas — there’s a negotiation that goes on, but…We’ve been pretty successful in free agency over time. You’re not going to get everybody. Certain players may want to go home, closer to where their home is. You never know the reason why people move on. But, we’ve been very successful. Probably one of the most successful teams in free agency the last 10 years. We’re very proud of our record. But, again, I think people have to realize, it’s not all up to us.”

It is true that the Nationals have been one of the most active teams in free agency in recent years. In a league that has otherwise done the opposite, they deserve some credit for that. But the Nationals are also keenly aware of the competitive balance tax threshold, which teams use as a de facto salary cap. They don’t have to, but they choose to because it’s a convenient structure that allows them to limit expenditures.

At the end of the day, it’s baseball’s financial structure that is rotten. It forces constant misinformation out of everyone’s mouths so as to protect their financial interests and leverage, and incentivizes teams to value profits above all. In a perfect world, MLB team owners wouldn’t need to cry poor every offseason, but we don’t live in such a world.