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2018 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 2018 season. Next up: The Boston Red Sox.

The Boston Red Sox won 93 games and the AL East last year. They had one big need to fill — power — and they did so, signing 45-homer man J.D. Martinez. They have an outstanding young core of players including Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr., Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts. They have one of the best closers in the game — maybe the best — in Craig Kimbrel and able and durable setup men in Joe Kelly and Matt Barnes. They have 300+ strikeout man Chris Sale at the top of their rotation, Drew Pomeranz coming off of an excellent year and two pitchers in David Price and Rick Porcello who, while underachieving in 2017, are more than capable of rebounds. Top to bottom, the Red Sox look like one of the strongest teams in baseball.

So why does it feel like they’re getting so little love heading into the 2018 season?

Part of it is that the Yankees had a sexier offseason. They acquired Giancarlo Stanton in the early going while the Red Sox waited all winter before signing Martinez. Yankees fans were high-fiving each other through the holidays while Red Sox fans were largely frustrated at how long it took to land their big slugger. That doesn’t matter on paper, but it understandably led to an enthusiasm gap.

Another part of it is that, while the Yankees weaknesses, such as they are, involve questions like “will this young player be as good in 2018 as we think he’ll be,” the Red Sox weaknesses are characterized in terms of “can this old player show that he’s still good and capable of being healthy all year?” Again, on paper, there’s a lot of reason to think that, say, Dustin Pedroia, David Price and Hanley Ramirez can be more valuable, in the aggregate, than, say, Brandon DruryGleyber Torres and Greg Bird, but it’s nowhere near as exciting to ask those questions as it is to project greatness on young talent.

All of that is the perception game, though, right? Hopefully everyone can agree that the 2018 Boston Red Sox are a playoff team and should challenge for the division title all year long.

Most of the reason to think of that is that young core. Betts finished 6th in the MVP voting in what was supposedly a “down” year. That “down,” by the way, was mostly a function of bad luck on balls in play. The guy’s a beast. Bradley is a gold glove talent outfielder. Benintendi was projected to win the Rookie of the Year last year and, in a lot of years, would have. Those three, Devers and Bogaerts, who took a step back in 2017  largely due to a wrist injury, all have room to improve. That’s downright scary in Betts’ case and downright encouraging in the case of everyone else. With Martinez plopped into the middle of the lineup to add that much needed power, the Red Sox lineup should improve in 2018. That after being sixth in the AL in 2017, despite the league’s worst power.

Not that there aren’t questions. Dustin Pedroia is coming off his worst season and will not be ready for Opening Day. He is said to look good in light work this spring, whatever that means. It’s unreasonable to think that he’ll be the Pedroia of old when he returns, but it’s not crazy to think that he can contribute more than he did in 2017, which was his worst season as a big leaguer. First base will consist of some combination of Mitch Moreland and Hanley Ramirez. That’s not the most inspiring thing in the world, even if Ramirez claims to be a new man in better shape, yadda yadda, etc. etc.  The performance of those two in 2017 was a big reason they needed to go find someone like J.D. Martinez this year. But again, improvement is not out of the question.

There are questions in the rotation too, also focusing on health and durability.

Chris Sale was the leader in the clubhouse for the Cy Young Award last season before sputtering to the finish line in the season’s final month. Did he wear out? Striking out as many guys as he did is a lot of work, that’s for sure. It’s also the case, however, that people have been predicting that Sale’s beanpole frame will fail him for pushing a decade. It hasn’t failed yet. He’s the last one in that rotation you really have to worry about in my view.

More troublesome were the seasons of Rick Porcello and David Price. Porcello followed up his Cy Young campaign with a 4.86 ERA, 17-loss, tater-iffic season. Price was hurt much of the year and took a lot of heat from the Boston press as he recovered (he brought a lot of that heat on himself too). When he did pitch he was fine, finishing with a 3.38 ERA and a 76/24 K/BB ratio in 74.2 innings, but he only made 11 starts and five relief appearances all year. His playoff redemption has to give Sox fans some hope heading into this year and a return to even his 2016 form will give the Sox a big boost. It seems totally reasonable to expect at least that. Drew Pomeranz enjoyed his best season in the bigs in 2017. An early spring training flexor strain looks to be a mild thing, but obviously the Red Sox are crossing their fingers that Pomeranz does not return to his once-fraglie state.

The back of the rotation will eventually feature the knee-injury-rehabbing Eduardo Rodriguez, knuckleballer Steven Wright, and lefty Brian Johnson. More like the Boston Left Sox, amirite? All in all it’s a solid group. Try the veal. As mentioned above, the Red Sox’ bullpen is also a strength with Kimbrel, Kelley and Barnes, who will be joined by Carson Smith, who returned from Tommy John surgery late last year and should be at full strength.

New manager Alex Cora is in much the same boat as his counterpart in New York: win or get the blame. Each is inheriting an excellent team which made a major offseason addition. Each is expected to make a deep playoff run. Unlike Aaron Boone, Cora just came off of one, coaching the Houston Astros. Those two will be a good case study in the value of a new manager and dealing with extraordinary expectations in a new gig.

Because young players are more likely to improve than old, injured players are likely to return to form, I’m leaning to the Yankees in the AL East this year. But that is no slight to the Red Sox. These two clubs, along with the Astros, are the class of the American League and it will not be anything approaching an upset if the Red Sox repeat as AL East champs. I’m just not quite prepared to predict that at the moment.

Prediction: Second place, AL East.

And That Happened: Wednesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

White Sox 8, Red Sox 7: Sox win! Chicago led by three in the seventh, blew that by the bottom of the eighth, but José Abreu hit a two-run jack in the top of the ninth to bring the White Sox back. The foundation of the win was the White Sox pouncing on Chris Sale for five runs in the first three innings. He struck out ten and only walked one, but when he wasn’t missing bats he wasn’t missing bats. Sale is still one of the best pitchers in the game but he hasn’t won at home in almost a year. “For some reason, I suck here,” he said after the game. Relatable. To any number of situations in basically of our lives.

Yankees 8, Blue Jays 7: The Jays jumped out to a 5-0 lead but there really isn’t any safe lead against the Yankees this year. Didi Gregorius homered in the second, Aaron Judge singled in a couple in the second as well and D.J. LeMahieu hit a two-run homer to tie things up at five in the fourth. It was tied up at seven by the bottom of the ninth and Gleyber Torres hit a walkoff single to win it for the Bombers. Lourdes Gurriel Jr hit two homers and a double in a losing cause.

The Yankees and Red Sox now head off to London. Blimey, cor, wot’s all this, then, etc.

Indians 5, Royals 3: Trevor Bauer finally had a great day after a couple of months of struggling, striking out 12 while allowing one run into the seventh. He didn’t even allow a hit until the fifth. Jake Bauers and Tyler Naquin homered in support. Francisco Lindor was 3-for-4 and Jason KipnisOscar Mercado and Jordan Luplow each drove in a run. Hunter Dozier hit a ninth inning grand slam on Tuesday. He struck out four times in four at bats here. Baseball is just the worst, you guys, right?

Padres 10, Orioles 5: Franmil Reyes hit two homers. The Padres hit five in all, with Eric Hosmer, Greg Garcia, and Hunter Renfroe going deep as well. This was the tenth time this year the Orioles have allowed five homers in a game. They’ve now allowed 165 homers on the year in 80 games. The 1970 Orioles allowed 125 all year long. Just sayin’.

Diamondbacks 8, Dodgers 2: Arizona was facing off against Dodgers starter Tony Gonsolin, who was making his big league debut and jumped out to a 4-0 lead, so, yeah. A three-run homer from Eduardo Escobar paced things in the first and the Snakes would never trail. Jarrod Dyson had three hits, knocked in a run and stole two bases. Russell Martin pitched in this one. Tossed a scoreless eighth, actually, and struck a dude out.

Rockies 6, Giants 3: The Giants jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first but David Dahl hit a grand slam in the third and drove in five in all. Man of the match, right? Is that a thing we have in baseball? We should have that.

Rangers 4, Tigers 1: Mike Minor tossed a complete game allowing on run on five hits and needed only 108 pitches to do the job. Homers from Willie Calhoun, Danny Santana and Jeff Mathis backed him up. The game only took two hours and nineteen minutes. I’d say the Tigers had a plane to catch or something but they’re just playing the Rangers again today. Maybe they all had early reservations at Sammy Sofferin’s Wonder Bar and Indian Room. I hear that Latin troupe extraordinaire, the La Playa Dancers, led by the exotically beautiful Grace Conrad often play on Wednesday nights. Get there early, get a seat by the stage, fill up on Shrimp a la Powhatan and you’re living, buddy.

Phillies 5, Mets 4: Jason Vargas pitched great, giving up only one run to the Phillies for the first six innings, but he ran into trouble in the seventh. That’s when he gave up a second run and left, having struck out ten. Seth Lugo came on in relief and gave up a two more runs, and bing-bang-boom, tied at four, which is how it’d end in regulation. Stephen Nogosek came on to handle the 10th inning but couldn’t record an out, giving up a walk, a single and then a walkoff double to Jay Bruce to end the game. If you wanna feel bad for Vargas for having such a great start blown by his pen, know that a few days later he’s still trying to justify threatening a reporter with violence. Here’s what he said after last night’s game:

“I don’t think all the information is really out there. I don’t think this is a time to get into that. But I think that anybody that knows me, anybody that has played with me, there’s never been a situation like that. So to think it happened out of the blue, it’s foolish . . . “It’s over. Our organization made a statement. We put an end to it. But I think it’s pretty obvious all the info isn’t out there.”

Whatever, my man.

The Mets have lost four in a row. Philly’s seven-game losing streak is now way back in the rear-view mirror, with three straight wins over the Mets.

Angels 5, Reds 1: Yasiel Puig and Justin Bour exchanged solo sots to make it a 1-1 game until the eighth inning. The the Halos scored one more before Bour homered again, this time a three-run blast to give him a four-RBI night and to give the Angels a win. Bour has four homers in five games since being recalled from Salt Lake. You might say he’s really enjoyed the spotlight since being recalled:

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Nationals 7, Marlins 5: It was close until the sixth when Matt Adams hit a three-run blast to make it 4-1. The Nats added three more in the ninth, with runs coming on a wild pitch, a passed ball and a sac fly. They all count. And two of those runs were needed as the Marlins made it interesting with a four-run ninth inning rally of their own, with Bryan Holaday singling in a run and Curtis Granderson tripling with the bases loaded. The old man is still an artist with a Thompson.

Athletics 2, Cardinals 0: Daniel Mengden and his old-timey delivery stymied the Cards for six innings and three relievers finished the five-hit shutout. Beau Taylor and Matt Chapman went deep for Oakland. St. Louis has been shut out six times this season. Three of them have come in the last 14 games.

Mariners 4, Brewers 2: J.P. Crawford drove in three of the M’s four runs and scored the fourth, notching two RBI doubles and an RBI triple. Wade LeBlanc allowed two runs after coming in following an opener and the opener and two other relievers shut Milwaukee out. That’s three straight wins for Seattle.

Braves 5, Cubs 3: Atlanta took a 4-0 lead off of Yu Darvish early thanks to a wild pitch, a Brian McCann solo shot and a Nick Markakis three-run homer. Willson Contreras and Kris Bryant homered for Chicago and they’d add a third run on a Jason Heyward ground out, but otherwise Dallas Keuchel was solid — more solid before a 48 minute rain delay in the fourth than he was upon resuming the game after — and picked up his first win of 2019.

Pirates 14, Astros 2: It was 8-2 heading into the ninth when A.J. Hinch sent first baseman Tyler White to the mound. Sometimes those position players pitching do an OK job mopping up. White did not, allowing six runs on four hits — two of ’em dingers — while walking four. Every team has eleventeen relief pitchers but they’re all drag racers instead of horses and so none of ’em can go more than an inning, leading to silliness like this. Great game we got going right now, eh? Anyway, Josh Bell, Jung-Ho Kang, José Osuna and Kevin Newman homered and Corey Dickerson had four hits and three RBI. 

Twins 6, Rays 4: Minnesota jumped out to a 3-0 lead, had blown it by the seventh to trail 4-3 but then Nelson Cruz hit a go-ahead, three-run, two-out double in the seventh to give the Twins the win. The Rays have lost seven of nine.