By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
It’s Opening Day and the Boston Red Sox are prepared to defend a World Series championship for the fourth time in the last 15 seasons.
Wow. The college version of me can’t believe I just typed that. On an iPhone, no less. What's an iPhone? Maybe some other time. We're here to talk about the Sox.
Aside from the Chris Sale extension, it wasn't a particularly buzzy camp or offseason, with no major trades or free agent deals to speak of. There are some changes - the absence of Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly in the bullpen is certainly a difference - but the main question is whether this squad has enough to be the first team to repeat since the 2000 New York Yankees.
Once again, I e-mailed my friend and fellow seamhead, Hardcore Baseball podcast host Matt McCarthy, to discuss some areas of note for this year’s squad.
SEAN SYLVER: It dominated the conversation last year, and this season it’s only gotten more wacky — the bullpen. No Craig Kimbrel and, for better or for worse, no Joe Kelly. The Sox seem hell bent on some kid of shared role or “closer by committee.” We’ve been here before and it wasn’t fun. Is there any chance it works out this time? What’s your forecast?
MATT MCCARTHY: I don't think it will work out, but I don't think it will necessarily matter either. The Red Sox are good enough to overcome any bullpen issues they might have early on in the season. If the 'pen is really a problem, they can make a trade and fix it at the deadline. I think the lack of relief depth will hurt them more than the lack of clear cut closer entering the year. Barnes and Brasier will be fine, but can the likes of Tyler Thornburg and the rest of the uninspiring names get the job done? I have my doubts.
SYLVER: I think the actual "closer" they use in the postseason will be someone they don't currently have on the roster. Unless they want to play matchups the whole way and not actually name a guy. We should expect some regression to the mean for this team, and the 'pen may be the first place to look.
One player who could actually produce BETTER numbers than in 2018 is Chris Sale, if he puts it together for 30 or more starts. His contract extension was the big news out of Fort Myers, and I want to get your take. To me, the deal itself isn't bad - it's less than they would have paid had he hit the open market after a big year. He has an opt-out I doubt he'll exercise and it's easy to see Sale breaking down at some point in the next six years, but it's not the end of the world.
There are two things here that make me uncomfortable: one, continuing to overcompensate for the fact they bungled the Lester deal five years ago. Two, it's an excuse for management to claim, "We can't have a top tier pitching staff AND Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, given luxury tax considerations," when one of the aforementioned eventually leaves town. I've long valued elite offensive talent over a volatile commodity like starting pitching, so you can imagine I wasn't throwing a party when I heard the extension news.
MCCARTHY: As much as I love Sale as a pitcher, I have major concerns about this contract. He hasn't proven he can stay healthy, and I worry that he will break down sooner rather than later. I suppose any pitcher's arm is liable to fly off at any time, but if I were a betting man I'd bet on Sale's arm flying off before I put the same bet down on any other pitcher. I actually would have been more comfortable had the Red Sox let this year play out before handing Sale an extension. Let's see if he can have one season where he isn't fading by August.
There should be no excuse for not retaining Bogaerts and Betts. Money should never be a problem for the Red Sox. Pablo the Hutt's $19 million per year disaster comes off the books next year, and that money can be easily reallocated to Bogaerts. Betts is the face of the franchise and arguably the second best player in baseball. Letting him go elsewhere simply because of money would be an embarrassment.
SYLVER: It would be pretty pathetic. It's been a strange winter - teams waited until well into the Grapefruit and Cactus League schedules before suddenly lavishing big money on free agents, and now we're seeing a wave of extensions. Jacob deGrom is the latest example. It's fantasy speculation as to whether you'd rather have Sale or deGrom for the next five years, but as far as where Betts rates in comparison to Trout, Machado, Harper, et al - that's math for which somebody is going to have to break out the TI-83 graphing calculator.
I've always been leery of paying a premium for a five-tool player when one of those tools (speed) is bound to evaporate at some point during the contract term. But unlike Jacoby Ellsbury or Carl Crawford, Betts will be 28 if and when he hits free agency, and his speed is more of a complementary tool. Offensively, we're looking at a guy who can do it all; his defense is phenomenal. I've heard a lot of theories as to what the Red Sox should do with Betts, and some of them include moving on. I see no reason why he shouldn't be the face of the franchise for the next decade.
As for Bogaerts, I see another excellent season ahead for him, and that makes the accounting even more difficult. We say money's not a problem for the Red Sox, but they've conveniently brought it up in the past.
MCCARTHY: Money is only a problem when the Red Sox let it be a problem. I've never seen an organization randomly decide when they're going to let money get in the way quite like the Henry-era Red Sox. They handed out huge money to Carl Crawford, John Lackey, and Adrian Gonzalez, dumped most of that salary, refused to pay Jon Lester, then gave nearly $250 million to Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, and Rusney Castillo months later.
Money wasn't a factor a year later when they gave David Price $217 million. They were hellbent on not going over the luxury tax in 2017, then blew past it in 2018, and now refused to add a veteran bullpen arm for 2019 because of tax concerns. Where's the consistency?
When it comes to Betts and Bogaerts, I guess it all depends on how the wind is blowing that day. Will the Sox cry poor or will they throw around money like it's nothing? Good luck trying to predict that.
SYLVER: There's a rumor that John Henry's favorite song is "They Call Me the Breeze."
This talk of Betts as the potential face of the franchise for the next decade leads me back to the guy the Sox were clearly trying to make the next face of the franchise back in 2013 when they signed him to an eight-year extension: Dustin Pedroia. He's by far the longest tenured member of the roster, arguably the second-most popular Red Sox player over the last decade, and in the midst of another comeback bid. We've touched on him before, and you seemed resigned to "a revolving door of Ian Kinslers" for the next couple of years at second.
With the perspective of spring training, what are the odds of a productive season from Pedroia at the keystone? I'm rooting hard for it. With all the talk about free agency and extensions, give me a good, old fashioned comeback. Because I'm not bullish on Tyler Thornburg providing one.
MCCARTHY: I'll believe it when I see it. A healthy Pedroia would be the biggest boost the Red Sox could possibly get this year, but I have a hard time thinking he can play second base on a nightly basis with his knee injury. Let's be realistic: it's far more likely Pedroia plays three games and has to shut it down like last year than stays healthy and has a big impact on this team. There is no track record of an athlete coming back from this surgery. I hope he becomes the first, because I loved watching him play when he could play, but I don't see it happening.
I think the most realistic boost the Sox can get from a player on their roster this year is Rafael Devers. He had a disappointing sophomore campaign, but that's certainly common with young players. Let's not forget that he's still one of the most talented young hitters in baseball, and if he's going to hit toward the top of the order, he will get legitimate protection in the lineup. If you're looking for a breakout player, bank on Devers having a big season.
SYLVER: I'll echo your sentiment with Devers. It took Xander Bogaerts a few seasons to blossom into an All-Star, and that could certainly be the case here, as well. But I'm excited to see what Devers can do in this lineup, with a full season and a playoff run under his belt.
I'm also waiting to see if this is finally the year Eduardo Rodriguez dominates over 30 plus starts, or if that's wishful thinking. And it looks like your guy Blake Swihart will finally get a chance to strut his stuff.
Every title team has candidates for regression and injuries will be a given. Can Steve Pearce mash like he did last year? Is Nathan Eovaldi set to wander in the desert as Keith Foulke once did after establishing his championship bona fides? They say the baseball season is an interminable slog, but there’s a reason they play the games.
MCCARTHY: I've never been the biggest Swihart fan, but I thought he improved enough behind the plate last year to justify a legitimate chance to play at the big league level, something he hasn't gotten to this point in his career.
I've always been a Rodriguez fan and while he's been frustrating at times, he still has a world of talent. The Red Sox don't exactly need much from him given that he's the fifth starter, but find me a fifth starter around baseball with this much potential. I'd put the Boston rotation up there with any other team in baseball. It's the big reason I'm picking them to win the division over the Yankees. Go ahead, play the games, and they'll win enough of them to take the AL East.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox. You can hear Matt McCarthy on 98.5 The Sports Hub's own Hardcore Baseball podcast and other 98.5 The Sports Hub shows. Follow him on Twitter @MattMcCarthy985.