Way-Too-Early Overreaction for Red Sox

The first series of the year sets the tone for the season, sort of. It’s everyone’s first chance to see returning veterans, new free agent additions, and young talent getting their first taste of the big leagues. Everyone wants to put a ton of stock into the first series of the year (including me), but the Red Sox are notoriously meh early on. Last season, they got swept by the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park to open the year and they finished two wins from the World Series while the Orioles finished with 110 losses, 48 games back in the AL East. As a matter of fact, the Red Sox haven’t won an opening series since 2018 when they took 3/4 from the Tampa Bay Rays. All that aside, let’s join the masses and overreact to the first three games of the season.

Pitching Staff – B

Overall, while it wasn’t amazing, it wasn’t bad considering the opponent and location. The Red Sox staff allowed 13 runs in 27 innings against the Bronx bombers and mostly kept their offense away from big, runaway innings. In typical Yankees fashion, the majority of their runs came off the long ball and Anthony Rizzo and Giancarlo Stanton mashed 4 combined in the series. Other than the length of starts, which is expected to be shorter this early in the season with a compressed Spring Training, the rotation gave them a chance to win every game. Nathan Eovaldi allowed 3 runs in 5 innings, Nick Pivetta allowed 4 runs in 5.2 innings, and Tanner Houck allowed 3 runs in 3.1 innings. On most nights when the Red Sox offense is humming, 4 or fewer runs from your starter will be enough to win if the bullpen can hold up.

The bullpen overall was very solid to start the season despite some early question marks heading into the year. In 13 innings pitched as a group, they allowed just 3 runs, only 1 earned while striking out 15. In the first month or two of the season, the bullpen takes on an even more important role and if they can get the type of contributions they’re getting from Matt Strahm, Kutter Crawford, and Hansel Robles, this team will have a real chance to compete for the division. Of that group, Crawford had the most action on the bases behind him, allowing 5 hits in 2 innings and 1 run, but was able to work out of jams. Despite taking the loss in his first appearance (and just 2nd appearance in the big leagues), he rebounded to get the win in Sunday’s finale.

The biggest story in the bullpen coming out of the series is Jake Diekman. When the signing happened in mid-March I thought it was a great move and he could be an important piece. The veteran had a rocky Spring Training and his appearance on opening day was not ideal (0.1 innings, 1 run, 1 BB), but was as clutch as can be on Sunday to secure the save and first win for the Red Sox. As a lefty, he faced righties Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton followed by Joey Gallo and struck out the side in a 1-run game in the Bronx. All three guys can absolutely crush the baseball and Judge and Stanton feast off of lefties to the tune of .274 with a HR every 12.5 at-bats and .291 with a HR every 12.1 at-bats respectively. Oh yeah, and not to be forgotten, even as a lefty, Gallo hits a HR every 13.2 at-bats against lefty pitchers. That’s an enormously impressive outing for Diekman and puts him in line to perhaps take on more closing duties if Matt Barnes can’t figure it out.

The last thing I’ll say about the pitching staff is that I was impressed with the staff’s ability to work out of jams. They gave up quite a few walks and hits to a potent lineup, but were able to strand 26 Yankees runners over 3 games. While I’d prefer fewer baserunners to begin with, that says a lot about the ability for these pitchers to step-up in clutch situations and make the big pitch. There will be a LOT of scenarios throughout the year where there are runners on and they need to limit the damage. So far, so good.

Offense – C-

It’s early and generally offenses take a bit to get going in cold weather climates, but the offensive performance this weekend left something to be desired. In each game, the Red Sox offense jumped on the starting pitcher for the Yankees in the first or second inning and hung a 2 or 3 on them. It was nice to see a strong start for the offense, but then it seemed like they would settle into a dormant stretch for innings at a time. I’ll give some credit where it’s due, the Yankees pitching staff made adjustments and was able to settle in as the game wore on, but the Red Sox offense didn’t exactly help themselves. There were quite a few short, low-quality at-bats in situations where working a pitchers pitch count would be hugely beneficial. They missed a lot of opportunities throughout the series, leaving 21 runners on base in 3 games and grounding into 4 double-plays. They relied a bit on the long-ball, scoring 5 of their 11 runs on HRs.

As I said in my season preview, if the offense can do what they did in 2021 and score 5+ runs per game, they will win most nights. In this series, they would have taken 2 out of 3 if they scored 5 runs in each game, the only loss would have been the 11-inning 6-5 loss in the opener. Instead, the team put up just 3.67 runs per game and fell short in 2 of 3. Like I said, it’s early and in the cold air in the northeast it can take a bit for bats to heat up, but I was hoping for just a little more from the offense in this opening series. If as a team they want to have success, they need to jump on pitchers like they have been early, but then keep applying the pressure. Getting a starter to throw 20+ pitches and give up a few runs in the first inning is great, but what crushes other teams is then forcing him to throw another 20+ in the second inning. Sustained pressure will make it extremely difficult for opposing pitchers to have success and will in turn force them into situations where mistakes happen and the opposing manager needs to dig into the bullpen earlier than expected.

The surprise bright spot early on is Alex Verdugo. It feels like he’s on a mission in 2022 to be the best player possible and has put in the work to get there. On top of a few really impressive defensive plays in left field, he’s hitting 5 for 11 (.455) to begin the season with a HR, 3 RBIs and 2 BBs. He’s locked in early and if he can sustain success throughout the season (obviously not at a .455 clip) then this lineup gets even more impressive and powerful than anticipated.

Defense – C+

A large investment this offseason was defense and so far its been just OK. The team came out of the gate with 2 errors on opening day, one for Nathan Eovaldi and one for Xander Bogaerts which was disappointing although neither from the new defensive additions. The other thing that frustrated me a bit, although completely explainable, was watching Christian Arroyo in right field on Sunday night. There were at least 2 plays that he couldn’t make that I think Jackie Bradley Jr. would have likely made that led to Yankees hits. While Jackie’s offense prohibits him from being in the lineup against the lefty starter, the defensive gap was glaring. The need for a 4th outfielder to round out the group that was talked about ad nauseum this offseason reared it’s head this weekend. While Arroyo is serviceable, a right-handed 4th outfielder to platoon with JBJ would have been useful.

On the positive end, Verdugo looked really solid in left with a few really nice diving plays and if his defense improves a bit over last year, that’s a bonus. I’m also excited about the addition of Trevor Story at second base, but we only saw him in 2 games due to a flu-like illness, so it’s a REALLY small sample size. Time will tell if the defense is really improved over 2021.

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).

Red Sox Add Top Bullpen Arm

With free agency hitting it’s stride, the Red Sox have jumped into action by adding some much needed arms to the bullpen. After making a depth signing of L Matt Strahm to a 1-year deal on Sunday morning (according to Robert Murray of FanSided), Chaim Bloom made a bigger splash by signing one of the top arms on the market, L Jake Diekman, to a multi-year deal (reported by Chris Cotillo of MassLive.com). The 35-year old had a solid 2021 season, appearing in 67 games and finishing with a 3.86 ERA and 83 Ks. He was absolutely electric in 2020, finishing the shortened season with a 0.42 ERA and 31 Ks in 21.1 innings. He is consistently a big strikeout reliever, which should be music to Red Sox fans’ ears. It feels like it’s been a while since the Red Sox had a K-heavy lefty reliever who can hopefully pitch in late-game, high-leverage situations.

While nothing is guaranteed, it’s nice to see Bloom jump into the top of the reliever market and not just shop in the bargain bin. You can never have too many bullpen arms and to bring in a player who could potentially be a consistent late-game guy with high strikeout numbers is significant. If the Red Sox decide to keep Garrett Whitlock in the reliever role, the compliment of lefty Diekman and rightly Whitlock will really help in late-game matchup situations. While Diekman does not have a ton of experience as a closer per se, he ended last year with 7 saves and could be additional insurance in that role if Matt Barnes were to falter or land on the IL.

Diekman isn’t a slam dunk reliever (which are extremely rare), but he’s definitely one of the best available in free agency. If I were Bloom, I’d keep shopping for more arms, because, I’ll say it again, you can never have too many relievers.