Predictions for the 2015 Red Sox

Alejandro De Aza, Christian Vazquez

By now every baseball writer has written up their predictions for the 2015 season, from divisions to the world series to cy young and mvp awards. Which means that every baseball writer has also told us, in so many words, to ignore their predictions because they’ll be wrong.

Which is inevitable, because if accurately forecasting the outcomes of a major league season were simple what would be the point of playing the games? As simple as things can look on paper, there are always surprises. A pitcher tries a new grip on a cutter and takes a step forward. A catcher blows out his arm. Two front offices make bold trades: one succeeds and the club goes to the playoffs. The other has everything blow up in its face.

You just never know. But while that’s true, some predictions are easier to make, either because we have more data, because they’re narrower in scope, or both. Instead of making predictions about who’s going to the playoffs, then, I have tried to set down here general trends that I feel will impact the 2015 Boston Red Sox. They may or may not be more accurate than your average sportswriters predictions on the final standings, but they at least seem more reliable to me than trying to project a 2015 win total.

These, then, are my predictions for the 2015 Red Sox season.

The Red Sox Do Not Need an Ace

Everyone talks about how much the Red Sox need a high caliber pitcher to front their rotation. Typically, they’ll point to Madison Bumgarner as evidence of same. What most of those who make this argument will fail to acknowledge is that the Dodgers had one of these pitchers – one that every general manager in the league would pick over Bumgarner, in fact – and it didn’t work out that well for them. The Nationals, for their part, went out and paid Max Scherzer something between $185 and $210 million dollars in present day value, depending on how you account for things like inflation, to acquire a pitcher of this type. Unfortunately for the Nats, Scherzer actually went to the playoffs as part of a rotation that featured three former Cy Young award winners – and got knocked out in the first round. Oakland, meanwhile, acquired such an ace from our Boston Red Sox for the express purpose of winning games that matter. How did our former number one, Jon Lester, fare? Six runs allowed over seven plus innings to the Kansas City Royals. Those same Kansas City Royals, meanwhile, rode their number one pitcher, “Big Game” James Shields all the way to the World Series. Except that’s not exactly right, because over 25 innings pitched Shields gave up 17 runs, good for a 6.12 ERA – with one of the best defenses in Major League Baseball behind him. Which is one reason the market gave him around a third of what Scherzer got from the Nationals, in spite of the fact that his team went further in the playoffs. As did Baltimore, who beat Sherzer’s Tigers. Baltimore’s ace? Well, Tillman, probably? By default?

And this is just last season’s examples.

The lesson here is simple. Everyone wants an ace, and everyone expects them to roll through the playoffs á la Bumgarner. The reality is that an ace is not necessary to get to the playoffs, and doesn’t guarantee much if you get there.

So if someone tells you the Red Sox need an ace, don’t believe the hype.

The Red Sox Will Acquire Pitching

All of that said, the truth is that Red Sox need and will acquire pitching during the season. The best bets from the rotation are Porcello and Miley, and between them it’s reasonable to expect close to four hundred average innings. Porcello is likely to be a bit above average, Miley a bit below. But at least one of Buchholz, Masterson and Kelly is going to be ineffective if not unavailable this season. Which means, like every other team in the major leagues, they’ll need more than five starting pitchers. Steven Wright is next in line, but while the idea of him as a Joe Kelly alternative is interesting, he’d be a much less impressive selection for the kind of innings Buchholz is theoretically capable of producing.

Which is why that the Red Sox are likely to acquire pitching. It’s possible – even likely – that if one of Johnson, Owens or Rodriguez gets off to a hot start at Pawtucket they’d be given the first shot at replacing whichever member of the rotation fails. But it’s equally likely that the Red Sox package some of their offensive surplus along with one of the aforementioned minor league starters to acquire a free agent arm. Cueto, one imagines, will become available. If predictions of the Tigers demise come true, possibly Price. And given the modest return for free agent aces these days – a year and a half of Price only fetched Tampa Drew Smyly, Willy Adames and Nick Franklin – it’s logical that the Red Sox would pursue this avenue in 2015.

Victorino Will be Moved Before Craig

A lot of people in Boston want to run Allen Craig out of town, and no wonder: his 2014 season was absolutely horrific. Granted, it was only a 29 game sample, but miserable doesn’t even begin to describe his .128/.234/.191 line. With him hitting even a little bit then in Spring Training – .250/.333/.404 – the conventional wisdom was that he’d be shipped out.

Here’s the thing though: as Jonah Keri says when evaluating trade value, contracts matter. Craig is owed $5.5M this year, then $9M next, $11M the year after that and $13M in 2018. The question then if you’re a team other than the Red Sox is whether you’re willing to bet close to $40M he comes back from last year. The answer to that is maybe, if the acquisition cost is effectively zero. Which is why, along with Craig’s ability to play both the infield and outfield, I’m betting the Red Sox end up trading Victorino before Craig.

True, the Hawaiian outfielder is coming off a lost season, having played in only 30 games thanks to a scary back injury. And it’s not as if he’s ever been the picture of health. But Victorino is also only a season removed from a 6 fWAR season and being a World Series hero. Just as importantly, he’s owed only $13M. So if he shows he can play to start the season, he may fetch something useful in return due to his history and lack of contract obligations. If, on the other hand, it looks like he can’t play, the Red Sox are likely to trade him for minimal return.

Castillo Starting in the Minors Will be the Right Call

Speaking of Victorino, there are a great many people in Boston unhappy with the rightfielder, because they think he wants Mookie Betts out of town, because they correctly believe he’s blocking Cuban import Rusney Castillo, or both. Which, naturally, means that there are those on the Boston beat upset with fans not showing the appropriate deference and respect to their one-time fan favorite.

The reality is that Castillo starting in the minors is the logical decision for everyone. In a perfect world, Victorino would have been healthy in Spring Training from start to finish, attracting the attention of a club who needs his blend of offense and defense. Instead, he hurt himself his first game back.

From the Red Sox perspective, this is pretty simple. There are two possible outcomes. Option A, they move Victorino while the player is devalued, having not proved he is healthy or can still play, to make room for Castillo. Option B, they stash Castillo in the minor leagues until both they and the rest of the market figures out what Victorino has left.

Option A gives the Red Sox no options other than minimal return. In Option B, if Victorino plays well, he can be traded for a return. If another outfielder gets hurt in the interim – Ramirez or God forbid, Mookie – Castillo has their back. And if Victorino can’t in fact play anymore, he’s released or traded for minimal return and Castillo takes his place – at the cost of a couple of weeks of Castillo at bats.

This is not a terribly complicated equation, and the club is doing the obviously correct thing.

Mookie Will Not Play Like a Hall of Famer

Speaking of Mookie, he is not going to play like a Hall of Famer. He might not even play like an All Star this season.

People are assuming because of his preternatural poise and seemingly inhuman ability to make contact that there will be no bumps in the road. As evidence, they point to his .291/.368/.444 mark in the majors last year. Here’s the problem with that: most of the damage was done in September, which is a notoriously difficult time to evaluate players because of expanded roster call ups, thinned rosters and more. In the October 2013 playoff run, against some of the best pitchers in the major leagues, Bogaerts put up a .296/.412/.481 line. He was almost a full year younger at the time than Mookie was when he debuted last summer.

We all know how that turned out for the can’t miss Bogaerts last season, don’t we?

Now it’s possible, of course, that Mookie’s skills, development path or neurological makeup will make his transition to the majors seamless where Bogaerts’ was rocky. But from this vantage point, it seems as if expectations for Betts have gotten a bit out of hand – I expect him to take some serious lumps this year.

And if Mookie proves me wrong this year, as he has his doubters ever since his recovery from a shaky professional debut? I will be absolutely delighted.

We’re Not Going to Miss the Pieces We Traded

It’s certainly true that we dealt Will Middlebrooks at something close to the nadir of his value. And it’s possible that pitchers like De La Rosa, Ranaudo or Webster could emerge at least as bullpen weapons. But the guess here is that Cherington bet correctly on all four. Middlebrooks has always had problems with contact, and his power will be suppressed at Petco. De La Rosa and Webster for their part showed zero improvement in their control this spring, and Ranaudo couldn’t even crack a decimated Rangers rotation.

None of these deals were the definition of selling high, but it seems likely that Cherington got the best of each one of these transactions.

Barnes’ Role in 2015 Will be in the Pen

One of the major criticisms of the Red Sox bullpen headed into 2015 is their lack of velocity. Which is understandable, because out of the 30 major league clubs, the Red Sox last year ranked 30th in terms of their velocity. Velocity isn’t everything, of course, as Boston’s own Koji Uehara proved over and over until the wheels came off late last August.

With the two year contract, Boston is obviously betting that August was an anomaly, and that Koji’s command and movement will continue to offset his pedestrian velocity in 2015. But the reality is that while velocity isn’t everything, it’s certainly something. Something important.

Looking around the Red Sox bullpen, however, velocity is tough to come by. Tazawa’s the hard thrower, averaging just under 94. Varvaro’s a tick above 92. Mujica and Ross are right around 90 MPH, Layne just under. Breslow was below 89 last year. As for newcomer Alexi Ogando, at his peak he’d run it up there over 96. By last year, however, he was more around Tazawa’s velocity. Also, there’s a non-zero chance his arm simply flies off his body at some point this season.

The Kansas City Royals we are not, in other words. But given how frequently Cherington and Farrell both talk about the emergence and importance of elite, hard throwing bullpens, it’s almost a given that Barnes will be up sometime as a harder-throwing option out of the bullpen. He averaged just under 94 last season, but this was Farrell on Barnes this spring:

“I don’t have a whole lot of history with Matt Barnes but that was a different guy than even what we saw in September…I’ve never seen that kind of velocity from him. He was a different guy last night.”

This is presumably why Farrell had a long look at him as a bullpen option in Spring Training, and why you should expect to see Barnes sooner rather than later out of the bullpen.

Swihart Will be the Red Sox Starting Catcher by September

This is how good Christian Vazquez is defensively: more than one credible analyst – Keith Law, for one – has asserted that the loss of Christian Vazquez to surgery could be the difference between the Red Sox making the playoffs and not. And they may well be correct.

At least on paper, the Red Sox have put together one of the better offenses in the league. With the exception of catcher – Vazquez or no Vazquez, it’s reasonable to project average to above average offensive performances at every position on the field. But just as the 2014 Red Sox went into the year with question marks in its lineup, the 2015 Red Sox will head into the year with a lot of uncertainty in its pitching staff.

Part of the reason to expect individual pitchers to outperform their expectations was Vazquez, who is an elite framer – critical for a staff that will be working the lower half of the strikezone – with a huge arm. He’s not Yadier Molina, but he was on his way to being in the same conversation. Hanigan is a solid framer and catch and throw catcher, but he’s not on Vazquez’s level. Worse, he’s only played a 100 games in a season once.

That being said, the bet here is that Swihart will be catching for the Red Sox by September. Calls for him to start the season with the major league club were misguided. The player’s had less than 80 at bats at Pawtucket, and didn’t fare particularly well at the level. More importantly for the club, while Swihart’s athleticism has led to conclusions that he can be above average to well above average defensively, by all accounts he remains a work in progress – particularly in terms of pitch framing and game calling.

As with the Victorino/Castillo situation, the Red Sox have followed the path here which maximizes their options. By bringing in Sandy Leon, they at once increased their catching depth, bought Swihart time to develop and gave their pitchers an option with an excellent defensive reputation. Leon probably won’t hit, but he can throw and is reported to be an adept framer as well. Humberto Quintero, meanwhile, can be stashed at Pawtucket as insurance in case of injury, underperformance or both.

Swihart, meanwhile, gets time to adjust to pitchers with better command and control, the time to refine his swing from both sides of the plate, and most importantly additional months of instruction and experience at the most difficult position on the field. If he performs at an even reasonable level offensively, and continues to make strides defensively, he’ll be the Red Sox starting catcher by September.

Which, incidentally, sets up an interesting dynamic for 2016. In a perfect world, Vazquez would have established himself as a starter this year with Swihart getting the benefit of an entire year at the minor league level, leaving the Red Sox entering next year with two potential starting catchers. Now, one of them loses a year of on the field experience while the other may have his apprenticeship cut short. Not an ideal outcome for anyone involved.

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