The Boston Red Sox begin their 2015 campaign with an interleague matchup with the Philadelphia Phillies Tuesday, hoping some of their newest acquisitions help them avoid a third sub-.500 season in four years.
Even after finishing last in the division at 71-91, the Red Sox are considered early favorites to reclaim the American League East and return to the postseason after addressing their lackluster lineup with the additions of third baseman Pablo Sandoval and left fielder Hanley Ramirez.
Boston’s currently a +200 favorite over the defending division champion Baltimore Orioles and the Toronto Blue Jays, both at +300, followed by the New York Yankees at +450 and Tampa Bay Rays at +700.
Sandoval, nicknamed “Kung Fu Panda,” signed a five-year, $95 million deal with Boston during free agency, ending a stellar seven-year run with the San Francisco Giants that included three World Series titles. A nimble infielder with a versatile bat, Sandoval is a career .294 hitter, and his low strikeout totals (66.3 per season) should help a Boston lineup that was 14th in the majors in on-base percentage.
The Red Sox are also looking to get the same from former Dodger Ramirez, who finished last season with a .283 average, his best since 2010, along with 13 home runs and 71 RBI in 128 games.
And though his deal falls in between Sandoval’s and Ramirez’s, the Red Sox will expect a big return on their $72.5 million investment in Cuban centerfielder Rusney Castillo. The 27-year-old stands to play his first full season in the majors after hitting .333 with two home runs, six RBI and three stolen bases in 10 games and 40 plate appearances last year. Castillo is with Boston’s Pawtucket minor league team now, but he’s expected to move up this month.
However, even with those new bats, the one area Boston really failed to address was the starting rotation, even after former ace Jon Lester seemed like a lock to return to the Red Sox in free agency. Boston’s pitching staff was 23rd overall in the majors, with a 4.01 combined ERA, and the bullpen was 24th, with only 36 saves. Boston certainly added some new starters to the rotation, but none was a big splash or could be considered an ace as of yet.
Let’s take a look at each aspect of the Red Sox roster to see where their strengths and weaknesses lie.
For now, manager John Farrell’s rotation begins with opening day starter Clay Buchholz, followed by free agent additions Rick Porcello and Justin Masterson, to go along with Wade Miley and Joe Kelly. Now entering his ninth season, Buchholz suffered through a losing season last year, his first since 2008, with an 8-11 record and a 5.34 ERA over 28 starts. A sharp improvement over 2014 seems likely, and he’s still the Red Sox best option at the top of the rotation.
The rest of the rotation could blossom as the season progresses. Porcello went 15-13 for Detroit last year, sporting a 3.43 ERA and three shutouts in 204.2 innings of work. Masterson went a combined 7-9 in 25 starts with Cleveland and St. Louis and showed some promise early in the season before he was traded. Miley has pitched no fewer than 194 innings over the past three seasons and has a career 3.39 ERA but could be better served behind a more potent Red Sox lineup than last year's Diamondbacks lineup.
At points this season, the Red Sox could provide the most potent lineup in the majors. From No. 2 to potentially as far down as No. 8, there are lots of trouble spots for opposing pitchers. Second baseman Dustin Pedroia and power-hitting designated hitter David Ortiz now have Ramirez and Sandoval behind them to clean up and to make sure they get some quality pitches.
The real difference, even late in the order, could be shortstop Xander Bogaerts, in his second full season. The 20-year-old Aruban smacked 12 home runs and drove in 46 runs, while totaling 129 hits, but his poor average of .240 and 138 strike outs limited his overall effectiveness last season. However, if he shows more patience at the plate (39 walks in 2014), Bogaerts could move up eventually.
Boston added a bunch of relievers to a bullpen that was No. 6 in the AL in ERA but needs to show it can finish off opponents late in games or work the middle innings long enough to preserve last year’s save leader, Koji Uehara. The likes of Anthony Varvaro, Steven Wright and Tommy Layne signed on with Boston this season, as well as former Texas Ranger Robbie Ross Jr. It could be a standout year for Varvaro, after posting a 2.63 ERA in 61 games last season for Atlanta, his second straight year with a sub-3.00 ERA.
The difference between a winning season and a division title could come down to the Red Sox bench. Ortiz and Pedroia figure to be the most consistent bats once again, but Boston will need a clutch bat in close games from someone like utility men Allen Craig and Brock Holt, or outfielders Daniel Nava and Shane Victorino. Combined Holt and Nava hit roughly .275 with eight home runs and 67 RBI, and how they fill in spots will go a long way in determining Boston’s season.
Prediction: If anything, this version of the Red Sox should put up some eye-popping offense numbers, which should bode well against division rivals, with no AL East foes really sporting elite starting pitching. How the bullpen performs late in games will be the Red Sox biggest hurdle. They can claim the division, and should do so with about 90 wins. A trip to the World Series is plausible, but only with the addition of an effective starting pitcher.