The Red Sox spent years building for the future. Under Dave Dombrowski, however, they’re acting as if the apocalypse is drawing near. Blessed with a young roster and loads of talent at the big-league level, Dombrowski is going for it in a big way. By trading away the top two remaining jewels of his farm system — Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech — for former White Sox ace Chris Sale, he has opened what amounts to a three-year window of contention for a Red Sox club that’s one of the favorites in the American League. If the Sox win a World Series, no one in Boston will complain. If they don’t, we could look back at his aggressive dealing as the beginning of another dark age.
Two short years ago, the Red Sox sent Clay Buchholz to the mound on Opening Day. Now they have their choice between Cy Youngs past (David Price), present (Rick Porcello) and future (Sale). Porcello made the leap in his second year with the Red Sox, winning the Cy Young Award on the strength of perhaps the most consistent season in baseball, but he’s not even close to the most talented starter on the roster. That distinction belongs to Sale, who’s working on four straight top-five finishes in the Cy Young voting but has yet to win the award. They’re joined by Price, who knows he needs to be better than his middling debut. Talented lefthander Eduardo Rodriguez should claim the fourth spot, with the fifth coming down to All-Star knuckleballer Steven Wright and trade-deadline acquisition Drew Pomeranz, who’s likely the slight favorite.
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What manager John Farrell wouldn’t give for a dependable eighth-inning option. That man looked like Koji Uehara last year, but then he got hurt and joined the Cubs in free agency. Farrell also shuffled through Matt Barnes, Junichi Tazawa, Brad Ziegler, Robbie Ross and Joe Kelly with inconsistent results. Now the Red Sox have former Brewers setup man Tyler Thornburg for the role, with the intriguing Kelly also in the mix. They’ll set up All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel, who allowed just enough big hits to produce questions about his reliability in October. The rest of the pen will probably need some sorting out in spring training, and then into the season, with the loser of the fifth starter race joining the pen alongside lefty Fernando Abad and perhaps righty Heath Hembree, who’s out of options.
In a word: linchpins. The Red Sox are as strong up the middle as any team in the game, thanks to former MVP Dustin Pedroia at second and emerging star Xander Bogaerts at short. Pedroia authored one of the best seasons of his career, hitting .318 with an .825 OPS and finishing as a Gold Glove finalist. Bogaerts, meanwhile, mysteriously tailed off in the second half, but he still won his second straight Silver Slugger, and he’s steady enough defensively, especially if he regains his form of 2015, to nail down shortstop for years to come. The two could pair atop the order, or Bogaerts could drop down to give length and balance to the lineup in the Nos. 5 or 6 holes.
No one saw Hanley Ramirez coming, but he responded to questions about his commitment with a monster 30-100 season and acceptable defense at first base. He’ll get the lion’s share of the at-bats at DH this year, with Gold Glover Mitch Moreland starting at first against righties and Ramirez probably donning his glove against lefties. The real question comes across the diamond, where the decks have been cleared for underachieving veteran Pablo Sandoval to regain his starting job and erase the misery of his first two seasons in Boston. Whether Sandoval is up to the task remains to be seen, but he at least showed a commitment to weight loss in the offseason.
The Red Sox outfield is the envy of baseball. Right fielder Mookie Betts won a Gold Glove and finished second in the MVP voting during a breakout 2016. A 30-30 season feels almost inevitable. Center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. started the All-Star Game and erupted for 26 homers while slugging nearly .500. Then there’s youngster Andrew Benintendi, who many scouts believe could win a batting title with his scything swing from the left side. He’s also a center fielder by trade, which gives the Red Sox astounding outfield range and athleticism. We could be seeing a lot of Win, Dance, Repeat — the 20-something outfield’s selfie-pantomiming victory celebration — in 2017.
Here’s where things get tricky. Each of the three catchers on the roster comes with questions. Surprise 2016 starter Sandy Leon hit .458 over his first month and .204 over his last one. After hitting .238 in 10 minor-league seasons and .184 in four prior big-league seasons, can he really be counted on to continue producing in a full-time role? Christian Vazquez brings a tremendous arm and reputation for great defense, but his bat lags considerably. Youngster Blake Swihart is an athletic marvel, but the Red Sox are returning him to catching, where he was a work in progress, after a disastrous stint in the outfield produced a season-ending ankle injury last year. Look for Leon and Vazquez to open the season in the big leagues.
The Red Sox face a monumental task — replacing David Ortiz, who walked into the sunset with the greatest final season in history (.315-38-127). The bulk of his at-bats will likely go to Ramirez, who’s a lifetime .331 hitter with a 1.014 OPS at DH. The rest of the bench will get used, with outfielder Chris Young DHing against lefties when Ramirez plays first, super-sub Brock Holt serving as third base insurance should Sandoval struggle, and Rule 5 pick Josh Rutledge providing right-handed options at third and in the middle infield.
If you only read the Boston papers or listened to the airwaves without actually seeing the results, you’d assume Farrell was the worst manager in baseball. But his young team played hard all season, particularly during an 11-game winning streak in September that salted away the division. Does Farrell get in his own way at times late in games? Perhaps. But Dombrowski is on record that he views in-game strategy as far less essential to a manager’s job than the bigger-picture focus of keeping players pulling in the same direction over the course of 162 games, and on that count, Farrell delivers. As for Dombrowski, he has already proven that he will act decisively if the Red Sox need reinforcements in July, and he’s not afraid to trade prospects.
The Red Sox are all-in on 2017. Dombrowski has blown up the farm system to obtain All-Stars Kimbrel and Sale, and he won’t hesitate to move more young talent if the Red Sox develop an obvious need before the trade deadline. Everyone from Dombrowski to Farrell to Price to young stars Bogaerts and Betts will be feeling the heat as the Red Sox attempt to win it all for the fourth time since 2004. Anything short of a World Series berth will feel like a disappointment.