With all due respect to Space Mountain, Goliath and the Viper, the wildest roller coaster in the United States currently resides in Fenway Park. From worst to first to worst to … first again? — the Red Sox have put their fans through a stomach-churning wringer, sandwiching the elation of the 2013 World Series between a pair of lost seasons, not to mention an epic collapse in 2011. The Red Sox can only hope that this is the dawn of a new age of stability, however. They recognized the error of relying on too many youngsters simultaneously last year and imported a number of veterans this winter. They’ve remade much of the roster and virtually all of their rotation and have built the best lineup in the division. In what projects to be a down year for the AL East, that should be enough to return to contention, where the coaster can perhaps once again provide thrills instead of dread.
This group will ultimately determine the team’s fate. Stalwarts Jon Lester and John Lackey are gone, and the Red Sox chose to replace them with pitchers they hope are about to make the ascension to ace. Their primary offseason target was Detroit’s Rick Porcello, 26, a six-year veteran coming off his best season (15–13, 3.43), and a pitcher the Red Sox believe is ready to take the next step. In a similar boat is 28-year-old Wade Miley, a former All-Star who struggled last year with Arizona (8–12, 4.34) but struck out a career high 183, suggesting the stuff is there. If either fails to emerge as a No. 1, there’s always old friend Clay Buchholz, a true Jekyll-and-Hyde performer, or Justin Masterson, who is expected to improve after battling injuries (7–9, 5.88). All three newcomers are groundball pitchers. Joe Kelly rounds things out.
The first move of the winter flew largely under the radar. The Red Sox re-signed closer Koji Uehara for two years and $18 million. Because Uehara doesn’t rely on power, the Sox believe he will remain effective into his 40s, a la Trevor Hoffman. The rest of the pen is a bit muddled. Junichi Tazawa returns as the primary setup man, even though his fastball has lost just enough steam to leave him as a borderline power pitcher. The Red Sox also retained lefty Craig Breslow, who never seemed to recover from his workload in 2013 en route to a horrible 2014 (2–4, 5.96). Virtually every other spot will be up for grabs in spring training, with veteran Edward Mujica looking to rebound, newly acquired Anthony Varvaro and Robbie Ross trying to find a home, youngsters Brandon Workman and Matt Barnes doing battle, and a lefthander like Tommy Layne perhaps claiming a specialist role. Former All-Star Alexi Ogando also could factor into the mix if he’s able to show he’s recovered from the elbow inflammation that limited him to just 27 appearances last season with the Rangers.
Maybe this is the year Dustin Pedroia stays healthy. His will and determination remain beyond reproach, but he has undergone hand or wrist surgery in three straight offseasons. All that slicing and dicing has cut into his power, with his OPS falling in each of the last four seasons (from .861 to .797 to .787 to .712). He’s still a Gold Glover, but the Red Sox need his pop, too. Meanwhile, double-play partner Xander Bogaerts will be manning one of the most pivotal positions on the field. He’s not only coming off a down season offensively, but his defense also often appeared shaky, and the Red Sox have left him with no safety net after signing a trio of groundball starters. The team believes the 22-year-old will eventually be a star — for now it’s simply asking him to make routine plays in the field. And speaking of stars, Boston hopes it has found its next one in Yoan Moncada. The Red Sox signed the 19-year-old Cuban free agent in late February, committing $63 million ($31.5 as a signing bonus to Moncada, $31.5 to MLB as a 100 percent overage tax for exceeding their allotment of international bonus money) to the switch-hitting shortstop who could end up at second or third or even in the outfield by the time he arrives in the majors.
Say hello to the Panda. The arrival of Pablo Sandoval should solve the vexing problem of wildly subpar third base production the last two seasons. Sandoval is everything the Red Sox seek — a durable hitter in his prime with a flare for the dramatic, a slightly above-average fielder, and a high-energy leader who should light up the clubhouse. He’s also one of the best low-ball hitters in the game, an area of emphasis with the strike zone dropping precipitously over the last three years. The solid Mike Napoli returns at first base, presumably recovered from the injuries that slowed him last year, with his 25-homer potential and clubhouse leadership intact.
The arrival of All-Star Hanley Ramirez positions the Red Sox with one of the deepest lineups in the American League. The deal wouldn’t have been possible without Ramirez volunteering to forgo a career as an infielder to take a stab at left field. Ramirez hits lefties (.307) and righties (.298) and will play every day. Center likely will go to Cuban import Rusney Castillo, who tore up the Puerto Rican winter league after impressively hitting .333 with two homers in a brief September call-up. Right field is up for grabs, although it’s hard to see the Red Sox going in any direction other than with Mookie Betts, who has all the skills to be an All-Star leadoff hitter. Betts carries himself with a swagger that has earned him the immediate respect of the team’s veterans.
The Red Sox have proclaimed a willingness to hand things over to strong-armed Christian Vazquez, an advanced game-caller and pitch-framer who must answer major questions about his bat. Perhaps the Red Sox will be able to carry a .200 hitter if the rest of the lineup mashes, because the feeling is that Vazquez is only a one- or two-year stopgap until prospect Blake Swihart arrives. Ryan Hanigan fills the David Ross role of veteran who can play more than the typical backup if needed. He hits lefties well (.762 lifetime OPS), though he was better against righties last year.
The name of the game here is flexibility. Brock Holt can play anywhere and would pull on catching gear if asked. His surprising ability to hit lefties from the left side last year (.293) helped fuel an eighth-place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting. Daniel Nava’s skills against right-handed pitching will find him some playing time in either the outfield or at first. Ramirez, a former shortstop and third baseman, provides options in an emergency. The interesting decision will be finding a role for either Shane Victorino or Allen Craig. The remade roster likely squeezes out one, if not both. Victorino, if he heals from back surgery, has the higher upside and is the more battle-tested player.
A year after pushing all the right buttons, manager John Farrell and general manager Ben Cherington took a step back, along with the rest of the organization. Cherington’s relative inaction left the 2014 team with too many holes, and Farrell never figured out how to make the right moves with an offense that ranked in the middle of the pack in on-base percentage but bottom of the barrel in runs scored. That was last year, however. In the big picture, the team remains in good hands. Cherington is at his best when juggling a complicated offseason, and this past one certainly qualifies, with Castillo (signed in August), Sandoval, Ramirez, Porcello, Miley and Masterson coming aboard, to name a few. Farrell, meanwhile, is a proven leader who has already helmed a World Series winner.
The Red Sox are right where they want to be — as $200 million underdogs, if that’s possible. They’ve built a roster in the spirit of the out-of-nowhere 2013 World Series winners, although they’ve gambled a bit more, since their buy-low acquisitions are primarily in the starting rotation. One of last year’s biggest problems — a lack of depth up and down the roster — is no longer an issue. The lineup is deep, with Betts ready to step forward and the projected seven-eight hitters possible stars in Castillo and Bogaerts. While the jury very reasonably remains out on whether the Red Sox are built to win in October, there’s no question they’re at least constructed to get there.
2015 Prediction: 1st in AL East
RF Mookie Betts (R) Betts has potential star written all over him. The Sox love his combination of on-base, speed and swagger.
2B Dustin Pedroia (R) Are Pedroia’s hands/wrists a time bomb? We’ll find out. He has vowed to return stronger than ever.
DH David Ortiz (L) Time keeps on ticking, and Ortiz keeps on slugging. The ageless DH seeks his third straight 30-100 season.
LF Hanley Ramirez (R) Ramirez has agreed to move to the outfield, where his bat still profiles as one of the best in the game.
3B Pablo Sandoval (S) Get ready for the Panda. The Red Sox expect that Sandoval will plug their gaping hole at third.
1B Mike Napoli (R) It’s easy to forget that before badly dislocating his finger last year, he appeared capable of a career year.
CF Rusney Castillo (R) Was signed to hit leadoff, but with that job likely going to Betts, the $72.5 Million Man can ease into things.
SS Xander Bogaerts (R) Bogaerts shouldn’t feel the pressure to be a star hitting at the bottom of the lineup.
C Christian Vazquez (R) The Red Sox have built a deep lineup, but the rifle-armed Vazquez is the one potential hole.
OF Shane Victorino (R) Coming off back surgery, Victorino is a man without a position and could be moved.
OF Daniel Nava (S) Provides real value from the left side of the plate on a roster that is otherwise heavily right-handed.
UT Brock Holt (L) One of last year’s few bright spots is Holt, who’s not an everyday player, but could excel in a super-utility role.
C Ryan Hanigan (R) Hanigan was acquired for Will Middlebrooks and could play regularly if Vazquez struggles.
RH Rick Porcello The Red Sox hope Porcello can continue to build off a strong 2014 and become an ace.
LH Wade Miley Miley had career-highs in ERA (4.34) and WHIP (1.401) in his final season in Arizona.
RH Clay Buchholz There’s no more enigmatic player on the team than the wildly talented, equally inconsistent Buchholz.
RH Justin Masterson The Red Sox believe Masterson’s struggles last year (7–9, 5.88) were purely injury-related.
RH Joe Kelly Kelly impressed during his two months, featuring a 95 mph fastball and winning four of his final five starts.
RH Koji Uehara (Closer) The indomitable closer turns 40 in April, but the Red Sox don’t expect him to slow down anytime soon.
RH Junichi Tazawa Tazawa has settled in as a strikeout-an-inning arm in the eighth, and will continue to fill that role.
LH Craig Breslow Breslow returned on a one-year deal after a brutal season that saw his ERA soar to a career-worst 5.96.
RH Edward Mujica Mujica lost 1 mph off his fastball (to 91 mph) and saw his walk rate climb to 2.1/9 IP last season.
RH Anthony Varvaro Acquired from the Braves, Varvaro posted a career-low walk rate (2.1) last year while posting a 2.63 ERA.
RH Brandon Workman He’s fearless and has an attacking mentality, but his stuff isn’t overpowering, and he can be taken deep.
LH Tommy Layne Layne impressed in 30 games (0.95 ERA) and could join Breslow as the second lefty in the pen.
Beyond the Box Score
Memorable debut Red Sox fans will never forget Rick Porcello’s first start at Fenway Park, in 2009, when the 20-year-old rookie drilled Kevin Youkilis and incited a bench-clearing brawl. After Porcello signed, he wasted little time when asked for his most memorable Fenway moment: “Getting thrown out in the second inning my rookie year. Getting charged by Kevin Youkilis.” It should be noted that Porcello stood his ground and body slammed the enraged Youk.
Native son Catcher Ryan Hanigan will become the fifth Massachusetts native to play for the Red Sox in the last decade. The Andover native joins Chris Capuano (Springfield), Alex Hassan (Quincy), Rich Hill (Milton) and Manny Delcarmen (West Roxbury).
No love lost Oh, what might have been. When the Red Sox signed Hanley Ramirez in free agency, it opened the possibility of reuniting Ramirez with former minor league teammate Jon Lester, who made no secret of his dislike for the then-shortstop at the 2010 All-Star Game. “I’d have a better chance of being struck by lightning than me and him getting a pizza together,” Lester said at the time.
Big-time bowler Where does Mookie Betts get his incredible hand-eye coordination and ability to perform under pressure? It might have something to do with bowling. Betts is a tremendous bowler who took up the sport as a child and still rolls regularly. He has bowled a 300 game and an 800 series and was good enough to turn pro, had he so desired. Also, take heart Red Sox fans — he’s named after Mookie Blaylock, the former NBA All-Star, not Mookie Wilson.
Fun fact Random fact about manager John Farrell — he ended Paul Molitor’s 39-game hitting streak in just his second big league start in 1987, taking a no-decision against Teddy Higuera in a 1–0 loss to the Brewers. The game ended with Molitor on deck. “Rick Manning drove in the winning run in the 10th,” Farrell said, “and got booed off the field.”
King of gluten Wade Miley did not take kindly to friction with the Diamondbacks over the composition of his diet. His former team’s biggest complaint? That he ate too much gluten. The 6'0", 220-pounder is not having any of it, telling WEEI in Boston that, “You can’t tell me Babe Ruth ever stopped eating gluten.”
2014 Top Draft Pick
Michael Chavis, SS
The Red Sox used their first pick on one of the more intriguing power prospects in the draft. Chavis, a product of Georgia’s East Cobb baseball factory, isn’t huge (5'10", 190), but he owns tremendous bat speed and serious pop. He won a Perfect Game home run derby as a high school senior, and after a slow start to his pro career, finished with a .425 slugging percentage in the Gulf Coast League. He hit .379 with a homer and 1.057 OPS over his final 15 games. A shortstop at Sprayberry High School, Chavis will probably end up at third base in the long run. While Chavis has a big swing capable of producing loft, the Red Sox liked him because he’s calm and controlled at the plate. Another plus: His makeup and work ethic drew raves from rival scouts in the lead up to the draft.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Blake Swihart, C (23) Swihart has all the tools to be a star, with athleticism that reminds more than one observer of the Giants’ perennial MVP candidate Buster Posey.
2. Henry Owens, LHP (22) While there are questions over how Owens’ fastball (92 mph) will play in the big leagues, there’s no questioning his secondary stuff, which includes a plus changeup.
3. Yoan Moncada, IF (19) The switch-hitting Cuban is probably at least a year or two away from the majors, but the Red Sox hope their patience, not to mention the total of $63 million they invested to sign him, will pay off in a big way.
4. Rafael Devers, 3B (18) Remember how hyped Xander Bogaerts was when he arrived stateside? Devers has outperformed him at a similar age/level thus far and is the organization’s Next Big Thing.
5. Manuel Margot, OF (20) He posted one of the most tantalizing seasons in the minors as a teen, batting .293 with 12 homers and 42 steals between two levels of Class A.
6. Brian Johnson, LHP (24) Johnson’s pure stuff isn’t jaw-dropping, but he effectively mixes four pitches in the style of a crafty lefty.
7. Eduardo Rodriguez, LHP (22) Rodriguez has a changeup that rivals Owens’, but he pairs it with a fastball that regularly reaches 97 mph.
8. Matt Barnes, RHP (24) Barnes’ 2014 season ended in the big leagues, where he passed fellow pitching prospects Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster and Anthony Ranaudo (traded to Texas in January).
9. Deven Marrero, SS (24) Marrero may never hit, but there’s no doubting his glove. He has a strong arm and tremendous instincts.
10. Sean Coyle, 2B (23) Mildly reminiscent of former Sox prospect Jed Lowrie, Coyle’s a similarly undersized infielder with surprising pop.