By Matt Straub
Yesterday we looked at the New York Yankees and nitpicked a few things which could prevent the team from being the juggernaut everyone expects in 2018. Some people thought this meant we were implying their bitter rivals, the Boston Red Sox, were in great position to win a third consecutive A.L. East title. While they certainly might be, the Red Sox have their own obstacles to overcome if they’re going to make another run in 2018. Not only will holding off the Yankees be harder than it was last year, but Boston will have plenty of its own questions to answer beginning today. There’s a lot to like about the Red Sox, who have a potentially dominant rotation and an offense capable of putting together rallies. There are also, however, a number of reasons to believe the 2018 Red Sox are about to take a big step backwards. Let’s look at the questions which could plague Boston this summer.
Can Alex Cora manage?
One of the things we didn’t talk about in our look at the Yankees was the effect of rookie manager Aaron Boone. A large reason for the omission was because the Yankees very openly hired him to be a conduit between the front office and the field. Boone will run the games, but he’s there to do the bidding of GM Brian Cashman and the rest of the New York front office. Boston has its own young manager, but Alex Cora seems to have much more autonomy, and he seems as though he’s going to use it. We’ll have to see what he actually does when the games matter, but he has teased a number of departures from the norm this year. He has said he doesn’t care about matchups for his lineup, indicating he would be fine stacking all his right-handed hitters together. This worked in Houston, where he was the bench coach last year, but it’s much easier to make a batting order when you have the likes of Altuve, Correa and Springer to pick from. Boston, which has a bunch of really good players but only one I believe can be a superstar in Mookie Betts, should set itself up to avoid bad matchups in the late innings. Cora would be better served forcing, for example, the Yankees to burn their bullpen arms instead of stacking righties and letting teams use one reliever per inning late in the game. Cora has also threatened to use his closer, Craig Kimbrel, who happens to be one of the best ninth-inning men in the sport, at various points throughout the game. This logic, pushed by stat geeks who never played for years, says you use your closer to get a big out in the seventh, for example, and worry about the ninth later. The 2003 Red Sox tried this, and it lasted about a week. I don’t blame the stat guys, but Cora should know better. Baseball is a mental game, and it takes a special mindset to work the ninth inning. Besides, Boston doesn’t have a great second option, even if someone like Joe Kelly is mentally tough enough to do it. The final problem for Cora is his desire to “change the culture” in Boston. He wants to make everything fun for a team which needs to be pressed. John Farrell, the man Cora replaced, wasn’t nearly as tough on the team late in his tenure, a departure from the style he used early in his run. Letting this group do whatever it wants is a recipe for disaster. If Boston is healthy and struggles, Cora will be the one who ruins the season.
Can the kids bounce back?
If a 93-win team can have a problem, the 2017 Red Sox were hindered by under-performances from some key players. Betts and Xander Bogaerts in particular hurt Boston’s offense last year by regressing. One good move Cora has made this spring is putting Betts back to the leadoff spot, where he can become the Rickey Henderson-like player he’s meant to be, and where he’ll get his confidence going. If Bogaerts can return to form he can help give balance to a lineup which should be great at the top. Rafael Devers needs to avoid a sophomore slump, and getting any kind of offensive consistency from Jackie Bradley Jr. would be a season-changer. It’s a lot to ask to have all of those guys step up, but it was a shock to see so many of them struggle a year ago. With the addition of J.D. Martinez in the middle of the order, many of the younger players will benefit from being able to take on supporting roles as opposed to being asked to be stars. And when Dustin Pedroia comes back this summer, assuming he’s healthy, New York won’t have the only scary lineup in the division. Boston won’t mash you to death, but it could have a lengthy lineup which can beat teams with depth.
Will the stars have enough help?
If everyone is healthy, Boston has as good a rotation as anyone. It’s the health part which is the problem. Can David Price get through a whole season? Can Boston figure out a way to help Chris Sale fight off his annual late-season fatigue? Can Eddie Rodriguez and Drew Pomeranz be the back-end stalwarts they’re capable of being once they come back from their injuries in a couple of weeks? If the answers to most of these questions is yes, Boston is a lock for over 90 wins. If not, none of the rest of thing things we’re going to talk about here matter. Even if the rotation is at its best, the difference between just over 90 wins and the 95-98 wins which will be required to win the division will be the bullpen and the bench. Problem one is Boston’s mediocre bullpen, one which is atrocious when compared to New York’s. Kimbrel might struggle in April after missing a big chunk of spring training while tending to his daughter’s illness. Even if he’s on his game right away, there are more questions than standouts behind him. While New York has a phenomenal bullpen, Boston has a host of decent-at-best arms after Kimbrel. The good news is they can use any of them just about anywhere, but that’s because they’re all about equal. Finally getting something out of Carson Smith would be great, and a couple of other guys are going to have to find a way to instill confidence in Red Sox Nation before Boston can be considered a contender with the Yankees. Boston has a huge advantage in the rotation, but if the games between the teams are close late, the Yankees will be in control. Boston has a similar issue on offense, where the lineup has a chance to be good, but the bench is an absolute mess. Cora made a good decision in letting Hanley Ramirez play every day, which will keep him motivated in what is essentially a contract year, which puts Mitch Moreland on the bench. The doubles machine can play when Martinez or Ramirez needs a day off, and gives Boston a good option off the bench against righties. After Moreland, things get shaky. Brock Holt is a former All-Star and can play seven positions, but he also hasn’t been healthy in two years. If he’s back, it’s a big bonus. If not, the Red Sox will be carrying a useless player on the bench, of which they already have a couple. The biggest waste of a roster spot is Blake Swihart, who Boston is obsessed with keeping because he’s out of options and can’t be sent down without being exposed to waivers. Why Boston cares about losing Swihart is beyond me. He’s a third catcher who wasn’t able to learn a new position this spring, making him nothing more than a pinch-hitter or runner. He won’t play behind the plate, and even if he did make himself an infielder, there are so many players ahead of him he’d hardly see the field. And if they ever made him their backup catcher, it would come at the expense of Sandy Leon, who is Sale’s personal catcher. Angering your ace, especially one who is as emotional as Sale, is a bad idea. While he’s helpful, Boston never should have brought Moreland back if they were adding Martinez, and Swihart should have been traded months ago. When Pedroia comes back, Nunez becomes a utility man, making Holt redundant even if he’s playing well. It’s a poorly constructed bench with too many questions and guys who don’t fit their current roles. Boston’s offense might be good enough to make this irrelevant, or it could be another big problem late in games. Come playoff time, when the end of the game is paramount, Boston might be outmanned.