I had the expectation that the Red Sox could make the playoffs. I saw many of the issues from 2012 resolved by the changes that the front office made. They got some guys known to love playing the game, and able to grind out at bats. The previous season they lost plate discipline. I expected the starters to return to much better form than they exhibited the previous year. I can’t see Lester and Buchholz having lost it. Guys can just have bad years, and when there is turmoil in the club house it is hard to focus on your job. So, I expected both the pitching and hitting to be better.
I didn’t expect a World Series. As the season developed, I saw it as a distinct possibility particularly after soundly beating the Tigers and Dodgers late in the season. I was encouraged in that they didn’t have any big losing streaks.
I was also encouraged by their resiliency. They survived after Clay’s rather inexplicable injury. They survived season-ending injures to the 2 men competing to be the closer: Hanrahan and Bailey. It was disconcerting to see Miller also go down with an injury, but they had enough depth to deal with his loss in the bull pen. It was Pedroia, in my mind, that set the pace for the team. He suffered a thumb injury in the season opener and kept playing. His power numbers were down, but he still hit for average and still played exceptional defense, earning a Gold Glove award.
A tragedy like the Marathon bombings could have distracted them. In this case it drew them together and provided them with additional motivation. Some analysts have said they took off after this, but they were playing great ball with great results before the Patriots’ Day tragedy and the following hysteria until the brothers were killed and captured by authorities.
One concern was their hitting against the elite pitchers, particularly lefties. Sometimes funny things happen and the Red Sox ended up facing 3 of the best pitching staffs in the Rays, Tigers and Cardinals in the playoffs. Not an easy assignment. Thankfully the Red Sox had a pretty good staff of their own. Ellsbury carried them offensively in the first round. Papi was a consistent force in the last 2 rounds. There were surprising contributions from Gomes, Victorino and Napoli who struggled offensively. They had just enough offense to win these pitching battles.
It ended up being a very satisfying.
In baseball you can’t really savor these things too long. Qualifying offers have to be tendered and plans for free agency have to be made. Let’s look at their players facing free agency.
Jacoby Ellsbury really raised his stock with a fantastic second half after trying to put it back together after last year’s injury. While his power didn’t return, he was the table setter for the Red Sox and putting pressure on the pitchers with stolen bases that helped them create runs instead of waiting for the big boys to bash the ball.
I would love for Jacoby to come back. He isn’t Carl Crawford. The Red Sox know he can play well in Boston, as evidenced by significant contributions to 2 World Series championships. I wouldn’t do an 8 year deal, but 5 or 6 would allow him to get one more good contract on someone else’s dime.
While coveted by the Yankees, among others, I see him moving west. I think he will want to get closer to home. There will be plenty of money for teams to toss at him. I don’t see him granting a “home town discount” to either the Red Sox or Mariners. The Mariners probably have the money to get him.
Thankfully, the Red Sox have their center fielder in waiting in Jackie Bradley Jr. He won’t steal as many bases as Ellsbury, but like him Jackie has the pedigree of a winner. He may struggle at first, but I’m pretty confident he’ll adjust and do well. It will be interesting to see if they are able to turn the compensation pick into a great player.
Napoli wants to be back. As with Ellsbury, he was given a qualifying offer that is a slight raise over last season. He played very good defense. The one concern is the strike outs, and streaky hitting. Since the Red Sox don’t really have a top notch first base prospect, I think they will press hard to keep him. He was one of the guys who really changed the culture in the club house. Perhaps he’ll remember that it was the Red Sox that took a chance on him.
Drew is the tough one. Farrell really likes his defense. He hit very well the second half of the season once his concussion issues were gone. Though he disappeared offensively in the playoffs, his defense continued to be one reason they stayed in games. Conversely, the elite SS they traded for Peavy made key errors that enabled the Red Sox to defeat the Tigers.
At least a few teams will make runs at him. The loss of a pick may be a disincentive. From the Red Sox perspective, they have an elite prospect in Xander Bogaerts to take his place. As a result, who knows what will happen. I guess it depends on how much other teams throw at Drew. If Drew re-signs I’d expect Xander to slide over to third base as he did in the playoffs.
This brings us to Middlebrooks. The question is which season was the fluke: 2012 or 2013? If Napoli leaves he could slide to first base. If both Napoli and Drew return Middlebrooks could be the odd man out, and become trade bait. There is a good probability that he is wearing another uniform next year. This would be disappointing because I like Will. At least 2012 Will.
The problem for Will is that there is another excellent third base prospect that could force the issue even if Drew is gone and Xander plays short. Gerrin Cucchini hit for power and average in AA and ended up an Arizona Fall League All Star. Middlebrooks should think he is in a precarious position because he is. He could be the major league version of Lars Anderson. That would be unfortunate.
Back to the free agents. Salty was not given a qualifying offer. I wouldn’t read to much into that since it would represent a big raise for him. He is coming off a great year, though he still struggles with strike outs and defense. His game calling is much improved. Other teams will pursue him, but he might be back.
If not, I’d expect to see Christian Vazquez to make the jump to the big leagues. His defense is excellent, and his hitting has gotten much better. He also has much better plate discipline as evidenced by his OBP. He could realistically be their catcher of the future, or at least until they figure out if Blake Swihart is. Blake could slide to DH if Big Papi ever retires.
Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal speculates that the Red Sox will pursue McCann. Since he will be 30 when Spring Training starts, he’d catch until Ortiz retires and then DH which would open the door for Vazquez or Swihart. Maybe. As a better hitter than Salty, he’d probably draw more interest and a higher price tag. If they did sign him, they could bring up Vazquez when Ross’ contract is done and have him continue to learn from McCann for a few years as they platoon. Interesting.
My big question is what do you do with Clay Buccholz. When he is healthy he is one of the best pitchers in baseball. Period. The problem is that he’s often injured. Unlike Lester, I can’t remember that last time he didn’t miss time on the DL. When he misses time it tends to be significant time. With 5 other starters on the big league roster, and a number of young guys like Ranaudo, Webster, Owens and Barnes knocking on the door, it may be time to move Clay and perhaps pick up a first baseman. Or you feel confident that if he does get hurt, nearly inevitable, you have some great options in AAA. This is a great option to have.
As a Red Sox fan you have to feel good. Though you won’t be as good as this year, there is long-term hope based on the the revived strength of the farm system. They should be able to field a very good team with playoff hopes for years to come unless they mess it by returning to the strategy that got them to 2011 and 2012.