Are the Red Sox the ‘Surprise’ AL East Team?

As opening day is finally upon us, just slightly later than expected, it’s time to take a deeper look at the Boston Red Sox and the AL East landscape. For much of the shortened free agency period, it felt like the Red Sox were just taking a back seat while their AL East competitors improved, significantly in some cases. The Red Sox appeared to be content with their roster until on March 20th it was announced they had reached an agreement with SS/2B Trevor Story. The addition is a significant one and solidifies the shift to a focus on improved team defense this year, while also adding some nice pop to the lineup. Let’s take a look at the Red Sox, who I believe are closer to being competitive in the AL East than others believe.

Roster In:

OF Jackie Bradley Jr.

SS/2B Trevor Story (FA)

RP Jake Diekman (FA)

RP Matt Strahm (FA)

RP Tyler Danish (FA)

RP Kutter Crawford (From minors)

SP Michael Wacha (FA)

SP Rich Hill (FA)

SP James Paxton (FA – 60-day IL)

Roster Out:

OF Hunter Renfroe

UTIL Marwin Gonzalez

OF Danny Santana

SS Jose Iglesias

SP Eduardo Rodriguez

SP Garrett Richards

SP Martin Perez

RP Adam Ottavino

RP Matt Andriese

What stands out to me when looking at the roster ins and outs over this offseason is just how stable the Red Sox lineup remained. In terms of the lineup, their biggest weakness in 2021 was defense. As much as fans liked Hunter Renfroe with his burst of power and occasional diving play in center, by almost all metrics he was a terrible defender. He was so bad in fact, that despite leading the league with 16 OF assists, and hitting 31 HRs he was ranked 181st (2nd to last) in WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in 2021 with a 2.4 and was ranked 172nd in defensive WAR with a -0.5 (i.e. an average defensive player would have been better defensively than he was). The addition of Jackie Bradley Jr. is surely a step down in offense, but that downgrade is compensated for by stellar defense. Jackie has the 24th highest active WAR in baseball and has proven in his career that despite being an extremely streaky hitter, his defense is consistently excellent and he’s a strong baserunner when he can find a way to get on.

In order to not see an offensive drop-off and continue to see defensive improvement this season, Chaim Bloom took a bold stance and signed SS/2B Trevor Story to a large contract. The addition immediately improves the defense at 2nd base (Story was 12th in defensive WAR in 2021) and adds a nice pop to the lineup offensively, not to mention legitimate speed on the bases. Story is a career .272 hitter with 158 HRs and 100 SBs in his 6 seasons with the Colorado Rockies (745 games). Even if there is a slight dip in production leaving the thin air of Denver, which I highly doubt will be significant, Story is coming to play in an almost perfectly-configured-for-his-swing Fenway Park for 81 games a season. No matter how you slice it, the defense and lineup improved over 2021.

The concern, as with most years in recent memory, is the pitching staff for the Red Sox. Do they have enough arms? Can the starting pitching compete with the other AL East lineups? Will Chris Sale ever be Chris Sale again? What does the backend of the bullpen look like? And so on.

There were some notable departures this offseason that definitely left a bit of a hole in the rotation. Eduardo Rodriguez left for the Detroit Tigers in search of a change of scenery and despite my constant frustration with him, he occasionally had stretches of solid pitching for the Red Sox. The Red Sox lost some additional backend of the rotation depth in Martin Perez and with the injury to Chris Sale, the rotation looks mighty thin to begin the season. It’s shaping up to have Nathan Eovaldi, Nick Pivetta, Tanner Houck, Michael Wacha, and Rich Hill, with Garrett Whitlock in a multi-inning relief role or a rotation sub. Overall, Houck should be getting better in now his 2nd full season in the majors, Wacha is pretty similar to Martin Perez but with more upside and Rich Hill with his sub-4 career ERA as your #5 starter isn’t terrible. Not to mention that Chris Sale and James Paxton should be returning from injuries around mid-season. Call me naïve, but I think there is a potential for this rotation to be more than serviceable barring additional injuries with the offense this team puts out there each and every day. In general, this lineup should produce 5+ runs a game (5.12/game last season), so all you need from your pitching staff is to allow 5 or fewer runs and you’ll win most nights.

The other pitching area of concern is the bullpen. The absolute freefall of Matt Barnes last year became a glaring problem at the closer spot. Supposedly, he found a mechanical issue that is being corrected this spring and if that’s true and he returns to form, that solidifies the backend of the bullpen. Losing Adam Ottavino hurts, but the additions of Jake Diekman as a lefty and a more experienced Garrett Whitlock in a longer-relief role (for now), should be stable. Home grown Kutter Crawford (2017 Red Sox draft pick) has emerged in Spring Training and will have a shot in the majors after just a cup of coffee last year. The addition of free agents Tyler Danish and Matt Strahm are added to the returnees Josh Taylor, Ryan Brasier, Hirokazu Sawamura, Austin Davis and Phillips Valdez (to start the year). It’s hard to evaluate a bullpen without seeing them in action and in what roles they will be used, but I think the Red Sox have enough arms in the majors and AAA to mix-and-match a solid group. They have more lefty support than in the past and I believe Sawamura in his 2nd year with the Red Sox will be more comfortable and hopefully cut back on the walks while maintaining a 3ish ERA. He could become a high-leverage reliever for Alex Cora. I’m not sure as a group they are better than last year as of today, but I don’t think they got significantly worse.

Overall, I feel like the defense and lineup improved over 2021 while the starting rotation and bullpen still leave much to be desired. That being said, I genuinely believe there is enough talent in the pitching pool to match or potentially exceed last year’s production if you’re willing to be patient and wait for it all to settle out as the season wears on. There are some young arms (Houck, Whitlock, Crawford) who hopefully will take the next step in development this year and a few new veteran faces (Hill, Wacha, Diekman) to help them along. Yes, others in the league made splashy moves and got better, but I think the Red Sox methodically and somewhat under-the-radar got better (besides the splashy Story signing). They were 2 games from the World Series last year with a fairly similar roster, so there wasn’t the pressure for Bloom to blow it up and start over (like some other teams felt). He addressed the defense and 2nd base need and time will tell if his pitching additions were smart or a bust. If they turn out to be smart, I can’t rule out another nice playoff run in 2022. If they turn out to be busts, the offense will only carry this team so far and they may be fighting for the 3rd Wild Card come September.

AL East Prediction

  1. Toronto Blue Jays – 91-71
  2. Boston Red Sox – 88-74
  3. New York Yankees – 87-75
  4. Tampa Bay Rays – 86-76
  5. Baltimore Orioles – 60-102

Overall, I think this is finally the year the Blue Jays sit atop the AL East. They are stacked top-to-bottom and as long as they stay healthy, their offense can compete with anyone while their starting rotation continues to look daunting. I also believe that this is the season the Tampa Bay Rays fall back a bit. They have been overachieving for so long, eventually their small budget will begin to show and they will settle down in the division. Ultimately though, I think the top 4 in the division will be within 5-8 games of each other, so a win here or there in April or May could make the difference down the stretch. With a 3rd Wild Card this year, it could be a race for 3 or even 4 AL East teams to get into the playoffs. The only thing I know for certain? The Baltimore Orioles will be out of contention by the All-Star break (if not long before).

A Pathetic and Embarrassing Performance By the Red Sox

Do the Boston Red Sox players know that they are playing for their playoff lives this last week of the season? If they do, they sure fooled me. Their performance against the 51-win Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday night was pathetic and embarrassing. Their defense let them down, again, and the offense looked completely lost and uninterested. Where is the leadership on this team? Do they even want to make the wild card game at this point or would they rather be golfing?

The situation seemed absolutely perfect for a big win on Tuesday. Chris Sale was on the mound following a rough weekend sweep by the Yankees and the Orioles are the worst team in baseball. That certainly should be enough for a W with this Red Sox offense. As it turns out, they couldn’t get more than 2 hits against the Orioles starter Bruce Zimmerman who was making his first MLB start since mid-June and mustered just 1 hit against the Orioles bullpen in 5 innings. Once again the defense made several critical mistakes, including 2 huge ones in the 8th inning with Rafael Devers‘ errant throw to first and Alex Verdugo‘s complete misplay of a ball in right leading to the Orioles 4th run.

The most egregious issue to me was the complete lack of plate discipline in the final stretch of the game when the team needed base runners and a spark on offense. According to Alex Speier on Twitter, from the 6th through the 8th inning, the Red Sox saw just 2.4 pitches per plate appearance including 5 plate appearances of 2 or fewer pitches seen. The impatience shows a lack of urgency and understanding the situation, not to mention the batters came across as listless and uninterested at times. Where was Alex Cora during that stretch? Clearly not reminding his players of the situation and approach.

I honestly just don’t understand Tuesday night’s performance. It feels like this team has not only lost its way, but is so far off the rails that no one can bring them back. At this point even if they make the playoffs, which has suddenly become a giant if, they have no chance at moving on unless something magical happens and they learn how to play defense, hit consistently, and pitch in clutch situations. This has been an epically embarrassing collapse.

The Crazy AL Wild Card Race

From 3-way ties to AL East dominance, the AL Wild Card race is proving to be high drama in 2021. As it sits on the morning of September 17th, it is a a battle between the Toronto Blue Jays (82-64), the Boston Red Sox (83-65) and the New York Yankees (82-65, 0.5 games back), with the Oakland Athletics (79-67, 3 games back) and the Seattle Mariners (78-68, 4 games back) hoping for a slip from the teams above. With between 14-16 games remaining for every team, the final 2 weeks are absolute must-watch baseball every night.

As a Red Sox fan, it’s frustrating that the team is even in this position fighting for a playoff spot. Putting that aside, let’s take a closer look at the race, see what the next few weeks will look like for the 3 AL East teams, and make some predictions on the outcome.

Toronto Blue Jays

Playoff Odds: 84.0%

The Blue Jays have the 2nd best run differential in the AL and 4th best in the MLB this season. They have been on an absolute tear the last month or so, going 16-3 over their last 19 games, including an 8-game winning streak and a 4-game sweep of the New York Yankees about a week ago to make this race even more interesting. Their surge has been marked by tremendous offensive production. In the 15 games so far in September (13-2), the Blue Jays have scored fewer than 5 runs just twice, and have scored 10+ runs in 5 games. If they continue scoring at this same level, it will be incredibly hard to see them not getting one of the 2 wild card spots in 2 weeks. They will also be a very difficult out in the wild card game if they can continue to score in bunches.

Their schedule going forward isn’t terribly difficult, but has a few potential hurdles. They face the 64-83, 5th place in the AL Central Minnesota Twins 7 times in the final 16 games, including a 4-game set on the road at Target Field and a 3-game set to end the season at home against the lowly Baltimore Orioles. They do have 3 games at Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay against the Rays and a huge 3-game set at home against the New York Yankees, but overall that’s a fairly light schedule for the highly potent Blue Jays offense. Overall, I think the remaining games are favorable for Toronto assuming they can beat the teams they are supposed to beat and not get swept by the Rays or Yankees. Their playoff odds have jumped a massive 42.5% in 30 days and it’s looking better and better for the team north of the border.

Boston Red Sox

Playoff Odds: 71%

The strange rollercoaster of a season continues in Boston. The most dominant and surprising team early on in the year is now in the mix to miss the playoffs all together with 2 weeks remaining. The Red Sox went from first place on July 30th to 8 games back tied for 2nd as of writing this, which is amazingly and improvement after spending 19 games in 3rd place in the end of August and into September. The September schedule for the Red Sox has been tough, with all but 3 of the 14 games against above .500 teams and the other 3 games were against Cleveland who are 71-73 and 2nd in the AL Central. The Red Sox went 8-6, which while not amazing, has kept them in the hunt for a wild card spot.

The good news for Red Sox fans is their schedule. They face the lowly Baltimore Orioles 6 times (3 at home, 3 on the road), the New York Mets 2 times at home, and the Washington Nationals for 3 on the road to end the season. The biggest three games in the middle are a homestand with the New York Yankees. If the Red Sox can win the majority of the games they are supposed to win against lesser opponents, they may have a chance to sink the Yankees chances with a series win at Fenway September 24-26. The Red Sox are 21-12 against their remaining opponents (they haven’t play the Nationals yet) and have the most favorable schedule of the 3 AL East teams fighting for the 2 wild card spots.

New York Yankees

Playoff Odds: 36.4%

After an incredibly hot August, the Yankees are struggling in a big way in September. In August the Yankees went 21-8 and climbed as close as 4 games back in the division race and 2 games up in the top wild card spot on August 27th. Now 15 games into September, the Yankees have fallen to 9 games back in the division and are 0.5 games back of even the 2nd wild card spot. According to Baseball Reference, over the last 30 days the Yankees playoff odds have dropped 12%, which is a tough spot to be in with 2 weeks remaining. That being said, if they get hot and start rolling, they have a reasonable shot at the 2nd wild card position and even the top spot if Toronto and Boston falter.

The upcoming schedule is really tough for the Yankees. On one hand, they have the opportunity to face the Blue Jays and Red Sox head-to-head which could change the race dramatically, but on the other hand, they finish the season with 6 of 9 on the road and all 9 against teams in the division fighting for a playoff spot. This season, the Yankees have been outscored in games on the road (322-321) despite a 41-34 record and more importantly, they are 19-29 against the Rays, Blue Jays, and Red Sox combined. If the Yankees want to put themselves in a better position, they need to take care of business at home against the Cleveland Indians and Texas Rangers over the next 6 games. Both teams are under .500, although Cleveland just barely, and the Yankees have gone 6-2 against the 2 clubs so far this season. The wild card will likely be decided in games 154-159 on the road in Boston and Toronto.


Prediction

  • 1st Wild Card – Toronto Blue Jays
  • 2nd Wild Card – Boston Red Sox
  • Wild Card winner – Toronto Blue Jays

While I think this will be a battle until the bitter end, the Blue Jays and Red Sox have the advantage going into the final few weeks. The Yankees are more than capable of making a run and stealing a spot from one of the 2 teams, but the way they have been playing and their schedule will make it a tough task. When it comes to the actual Wild Card game, I give the advantage to the Blue Jays regardless of location, but an even more significant advantage if they are playing in the Rogers Centre. If the game were to be at Fenway, it would be a closer call for me, but I always favor the hotter team and it’s hard to find a team with more momentum (as of today) than the Blue Jays. With all that said, a LOT can happen in two weeks of baseball and the Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners are not going to sit back and watch the battle in front of them passively.

*All playoff odds are from Baseball Reference.

Orioles Just What the Doctor Ordered

The last three weeks have been brutal for the Boston Red Sox. From July 24 through Aug 12, the Red Sox went 6-13 and went from being tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for 1st in the AL East to 5 games back. Other than one 20-run outburst on August 11 against the Rays, the Red Sox bats went cold and the pitching staff was struggling to keep opponents off the scoreboard. Then the Baltimore Orioles came to town.

When a really good team is struggling, sometimes it takes a little spark, and a terrible opponent, to right the ship. In a 3-game set at home against the Orioles this past weekend, the offense exploded for 30 runs and the pitching staff held the lowly Orioles to just 5 total runs in the series. While the results are in no way surprising since the Os sit at 38-78 on the season, a whopping 24.5 games out of 4th place in the AL East, the course correction couldn’t have happened soon enough. The Red Sox are talented, but were struggling top to bottom this past month.

Hopefully seeing the bat hit the ball and the K’s pile up will instill confidence across the roster for a team that was overflowing with it the first half of the year. The return of ace SP Chris Sale on Friday for the first time in two years was definitely a moment for the team to step up and it caused an energizing jolt. Sale’s 5 IP and 2 ERs were a welcome sight and hopefully the beginning of a slow build to the postseason for him and consistent starts every five days. The official Red Sox debut of DH/OF/1B (maybe) Kyle Schwarber also provided an offensive kick with 2 BBs on Saturday and 2 doubles on Sunday. The long overdue move to put young SP Tanner Houck in the rotation permanently also helps to solidify a struggling group and moves a few decent arms into the bullpen where they are more likely to have success.

It’s just three games against the worst team in baseball, but the jolt in confidence will hopefully carry over going forward. The Red Sox schedule continues with a 3-games set in the Bronx against the New York Yankees beginning Monday, which will be hard-fought. Unfortunately for the Red Sox, they will have a tough time gaining ground in the AL East the next few weeks because the 1st place Rays are playing the Orioles 6 of their next 11 games.

48+ Hours of Crazy in the AL East – Grading the Moves

With the exception of the Baltimore Orioles, AL East teams were all active participants in one of the craziest trade deadlines in history. The race for the division is now tighter than even the standings show, with 4 teams vying for the division title with around 57 or 58 games to play. Let’s review the moves and rate the success as the sprint to the playoffs begins…

Red Sox – C

In: OF Kyle Schwarber, P Hansel Robles, P Austin Davis

Out: INF/OF Michael Chavis, P Alex Scherff, P Aldo Ramirez

Currently hanging on by a thread as the 1st place team in the division, the Red Sox had a disappointing deadline. In need of a 1B and a SP or RP to bolster their chances, they filled 1/2 of one of their needs and got a few mediocre arms that may or may not fit into the picture. The addition of Kyle Schwarber is strong and the only reason they got a C-. If he can recover quickly from his hamstring issue then he can be an asset, but when put in the context of needs and what the rest of the division did, it’s not good enough.

That being said, the prospect price for bigger names was sky-high this year and Chaim Bloom stuck to his guns of not giving up the farm to contend this year. He didn’t want to hurt the system he is building for the future, a stark contrast to Dave Dombrowski’s approach. By continuing to build and grow the system, the Red Sox will be able to compete each and every year, although I don’t think they have the pitching to contend in 2021.

Rays – C+

In: OF/DH Nelson Cruz, P JT Chargois, 3B Austin Shenton, OF Jordan Luplow, P DJ Johnson

Out: P Rich Hill, P Diego Castillo, P Peyton Battenfield

The Rays had a bit of a puzzling week before the trade deadline. They brought in notorious Red Sox killer Nelson Cruz, who will help when the two teams face off 13 times the remainder of the season. Then they traded away veteran starter Rich Hill which seemed like the beginning of a flurry of moves, and then they didn’t do a whole lot. They traded away P Diego Castillo and brought in a handful of prospects, but other than Cruz, they didn’t get much better.

The Rays are in a strong position to fight for the division title and didn’t need to do a lot at the deadline. I’m surprised they didn’t add another piece or two, but I’m also not sure they needed to add.

Yankees – B

In: OF Joey Gallo, 1B Anthony Rizzo, P Andrew Heaney, P Joely Rodriguez

Out: P Glenn Otto, 2B Josh Smith, SS Ezequiel Duran, 2B Trevor Hauver, P Alexander Vizcaino, OF Kevin Alcantara, P Janson Junk, P Elvis Peguero

Like the Red Sox, the Yankees failed to seriously address one need: starting pitching. However, they did address a major need for left-handed power in the lineup by bringing in two big-power guys in OF Joey Gallo and 1B Anthony Rizzo. It’s unclear whether they really needed Rizzo or were just adamant about keeping him away from the Red Sox, but he will certainly improve the Yankees lineup. Rodriguez and Heaney don’t move the needle much, if at all.

The amount and level of prospects traded is significant for the Yankees, including their #7 (Alcantara), #8 (Duran), #11 (Vizcaino), #19 (Smith), #29 (Hauver), and #37 (Otto) according to the FanGraphs in February. The Red Sox don’t have the luxury of trading that level of prospects for some rental players.

Blue Jays – A-

In: P Jose Berrios, P Brad Hand, P Joakim Soria, P Shawn Armstrong

Out: SS Austin Martin, P Simeon Woods Richardson, C Riley Adams, P T.J. Zeuch

The addition of Jose Berrios and Brad Hand were big get for the Jays. Their pitching staff was very strong and now is undoubtedly the best in the division. Between starters Hyun Jun Ryu, Robbie Ray, Ross Stripling, and reliever Jordan Romano added to the new additions, they are potent. The biggest issue for the Jays is the traffic in front of them as they sit in 4th in the division and back a bit in the wild card race.

With the bolstering of the pitching staff and an already strong lineup, the Yankees better watch their back over the final stretch. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Jays grab a wild card spot or pressure the Red Sox and Rays for the division lead.

Orioles – N/A

In: P Tyler Burch

Out: SS Freddy Galvis, P Shawn Armstrong

What can I say? The Orioles are terrible and didn’t do anything to improve and why would they? They sent Freddy Galvis to the Phillies and Shawn Armstrong to the Rays and they will still finish last in the division by 30+ games. I can’t in good conscience give the Orioles a grade, because it’s just not fair, or worth it.

Close Games Continue to Hurt Red Sox

AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

Last night’s pitcher’s duel between David Price and Chris Tillman lived up to the hype. Both starters looked a little vulnerable early on, then settled in nicely with shutdown stuff. Unfortunately for Price, of the 5 hits he allowed, 2 were HRs leading to a 3-2 loss. This was the 14th game this year the Red Sox have played with the final score being a 1-run differential and they are 5-9 in those contests.

For me, close game records say a lot about a team. They give a glimpse into the team’s ability to pull together and rally. In last night’s game, the Red Sox bullpen was strong (only Craig Kimbrel for 1 inning), but their offense could not produce the big hit when needed. Earlier in the game, there were chances with runners on base and less than 2 outs that resulted in nothing.

The once over-powering offense top to bottom now has more holes than swiss cheese. Hanley Ramirez and Travis Shaw both had hits last night, but have been struggling mightily as of late. Christian Vazquez is what he is: a top tier defensive catcher who will hit in the low .200s. Jackie Bradley Jr. is coming back to earth with his average dropping from .350 on May 25th to .310 on June 15th. On their own, none of these things are season-changers, but all together it amounts to some serious struggle.

In June, the Red Sox have a 4-7 record and are 0-3 in 1-run games. Overall they are 15-17 against AL East opponents. Things are trending in the wrong direction.

Are the Red Sox a Legitimate Contender?

The short answer: No.

The longer answer begins with looking at the first 62 games of the season. On their third off-day in a week, the Red Sox sit at 36-26, tied for 1st place in the AL East with the Baltimore Orioles. On the surface, that’s a strong place to be 1/3 of the way through the year. Sitting atop a perennially great division while tied for the 2nd best record in the AL is reason to get excited, but the Red Sox roster still has several concerning holes.

We all know the Red Sox offense can score runs in bunches. They have scored 6+ runs in 30 games this year and eclipsed the double-digit mark 8 times, including 4 straight 10+ run games in early May. The bats have leveled off a little in June, but the lineup is potent top to bottom with different guys who can come up big on any given day. If everyone can stay healthy and no one dives into a deep slump (besides Travis Shaw’s current landslide) this offense is good enough to make a deep playoff run. The bigger concern is the pitching staff.

I know it’s been said 1,348,484 times this season already, but it’s still true: The Red Sox desperately need a top-tier starting pitcher. David Price has begun to look better as of late and hopefully is rounding into his ace self. Steven Wright has pitched like an ace, but we all know how finicky the knuckleball can be, especially over long periods of time. Rick Porcello has had some early success, but has allowed 3+ earned runs in 9 of his 13 starts and has been knocked out of the game before the 7th inning in 4 of his last 6 starts. After that, it’s a jumble of crap.

Eduardo Rodriguez has the potential to be great, but after coming back from his spring training injury, has not been the savior Red Sox nation had hoped. Clay Buchholz is in the bullpen because he is terrible, Joe Kelly is back in Pawtucket for the same reason, and the Red Sox have yet to name a 5th starter for this week because there is no obvious choice waiting in the wing.

The bullpen has been decent this year, but incredibly overtaxed. John Farrell is putting 41-year old Koji Uehara on the mound significantly more than he would like and placing Matt Barnes in high-leverage situations because he has no other choice. Craig Kimbrel has been very good this year, collecting 14 saves, but deep into the season and postseason, who bridges the gap to him? Will Koji and Tazawa have anything left in the tank? With the loss of Carson Smith, the Red Sox also need a late-innings bullpen arm to relieve the pressure.

All of this amounts to trouble the remainder of the season and certainly in the postseason unless some moves are made by the deadline. A common refrain is pitching wins championships and it tends to be true. Hitting can cover-up for mediocre pitching during the regular season, but the postseason exposes those weaknesses. 

In order to win a divisional series you need a strong 1-2 with a solid late-inning bullpen, but to win a championship series or World Series you need 3 strong starters and a deep, strong bullpen. The Red Sox have holes in both the rotation and bullpen. They have a ways to go before I declare them a legitimate contender.