Here begins our season previews, which we're unofficially calling the No, Really previews. Over the next 30 weekdays, we aim to reinforce the truest things about each team.
Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts represent both the future and the present of the Red Sox, and we’re about to watch them become the faces of the Red Sox in real-time.
For one more year, this team still belongs to David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia. After massive changes over the past two seasons—from the trade of fellow face-of-franchise Jon Lester to the firing of Ben Cherington to the exodus of Don Orsillo—Ortiz and Pedroia have remained two constants in Red Sox Nation. They are Boston’s Song of Ice and Fire, if you will, Ortiz chilling in his performance under pressure and Pedroia red-hot when he’s firing lasers off the Green Monster. Together, these two have fronted championship-caliber teams, basement-dwelling units and, on a few occasions, teams that have fallen somewhere in between.
But Ortiz is retiring after the 2016 season, and while Pedroia won’t be going anywhere for a while, his days as Boston’s best position player have already passed. Over the past two seasons the Red Sox have begun the process of transitioning away from their nearly decade-long run with these two at the core, and toward a future headed by Betts and Bogaerts. That transition could still go in one of two very different directions, and the upcoming season should give us a good hint as to which is more likely.
The Red Sox enter 2016 as one of the highest variance teams in the league. It’s easy to envision them being dominant and winning 95 games. It’s not all that farfetched to think they’ll fall short of 80 wins. PECOTA split the difference, projecting them to finish with 88 victories, though it should be noted that PECOTA is historically too optimistic when it comes to its Red Sox prognostications.
Such is life when you bank on hit-or-miss players like Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, Clay Buchholz and Rick Porcello. Expect those four—along with the soon-to-retire Ortiz—to steal most of the headlines this spring. People are already concerned about how many snacks Sandoval ate this offseason, Ramirez’s first-base mitt and Buchholz’s political motivations. It’s enough to almost make you miss chicken and beer jokes. Almost.
It’s possible that these players, and the traits they embody, will come to define this next era of Red Sox teams. Talented but inconsistent. One-dimensional. Old. Overpriced. Lord knows Dave Dombrowski’s teams have suffered from such a fate before.
But there is another way. Through its homegrown players—specifically through Bogaerts, Betts and Blake Swihart—the Red Sox could aspire to something more. They can be known as young, well-rounded, talented up the middle and teeming with upside.
That’s really what 2016 is all about for this team; determining if the strength of Boston’s young nucleus, and specifically the strengths of Betts and Bogaerts, can overcome the mistakes the team has made in free agency.
At this point, it’s hard to bet against them. Betts and Bogaerts are incredibly rare, two elite prospects born a week apart who took unique paths to the majors. Betts was a fifth-round pick in 2011, while Bogaerts was an under-the-radar signee out of Aruba in 2009. This isn’t like the Nationals lucking into Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg back-to-back years, or the Dodger signing every high-profile international asset; Betts and Bogaerts are more like gut-shot straight draws that hit, and each serves as a testament to the Red Sox’s player development personnel.
In Betts, the Red Sox have their new best all-around position player, and probably their second-best player on the team after David Price. After he produced 5.5 WARP in 2015, PECOTA sees Betts adding 4.2 WARP in 2016, stealing more bases and remaining a strong source of power for a leadoff hitter. His PECOTA comparisons include names like Grady Sizemore and Andrew McCutchen, and his ascension from High-A prospect to potential down-ballot MVP candidate in three years remains astonishing. He is the most physically gifted Red Sox talent since Jacoby Ellsbury.
Betts finished 14th in the majors in BWARP last season, nearly joining the 20-20 club with 18 homers and 21 steals as a 22-year-old. He seamlessly adjusted to life in center field just one season removed from playing second-base near full-time. He served a the leadoff man for the fourth-best offense in the league and got better as the season wore on. He has deceptive power, plus-plus athleticism and lightning-quick wrists, which are on display when pitchers challenge him inside. There’s probably something he can’t do on a baseball diamond, but he hasn’t shown us his limitations yet.
In Bogaerts, the Red Sox have their hitter with the highest upside. After proving he could play shortstop and hit major-league pitching last season, Bogaerts will now look to unleash his natural power. PECOTA isn’t terribly optimistic he’ll be able to do so while retaining his .320 average, and forecasts a drop from 3.5 WARP in 2015 to 2.5 WARP for the upcoming year. Still, his comps include Troy Tulowitzki and Ramirez, and there’s a real chance this is the year Bogaerts emerges as a 20-homer shortstop who can anchor a lineup and who can really play shortstop.
Bogaerts changed his swing last season, spraying line-drives all over the field instead of pulling the ball with power. The result was odd given his prospect profile, but Bogaerts’ transformation from power-hitting wannabee to line-drive master was incredibly smooth. Is he likely to benefit from a .372 BABIP again? Almost certainly not. But when you see the ease with which Bogaerts generates loft when he swings, it’s easy to imagine him tapping into 60-grade game power without needing to sacrifice much average. Bogaerts needs to learn to be more selectively aggressive, but he doesn’t need to dramatically change his swing to have balls start leaving the yard.
Even if Betts and Bogaerts take a small step back as PECOTA suggests they will, it’s incredible that they’re both productive in the majors at their age. Teams formulate years-long strategies around trying to obtain one asset like Betts or Bogaerts. The Red Sox have both of them at the same time, and they’ll have both of them relatively cheap for at least the next four seasons. If you include the next man on this list, the Sox can set and forget shortstop, center field and catcher—arguably the three most important positions—until 2020. That gives them a tremendous margin of error when rounding out the roster.
That leads us to Swihart. It’s difficult for a potential role-60 catcher to be underrated in a big market like Boston, but there’s no doubt that Swihart has been overshadowed by Betts and Bogaerts. After struggling initially in his rushed debut last year, Swihart rebounded quite nicely in the second half of the season, showing he has the chops to hit major-league pitching. His glove needs to take a step forward, but PECOTA counts his as a positive contributor for 2016, netting 1.1 WARP in 484 PA.
That’s 7.8 WARP from three up-the-middle players who are entering their age 24 or 23 seasons, and that’s with PECOTA anticipating some regression from Betts and Bogaerts. If PECOTA is selling this trio short, we could be looking at 10-plus wins and the makings of a young core that few others teams—probably just the Astros, Pirates, Nationals, Marlins, Mets and Cubs—possess. And while these three assets are in a class of their own in the Red Sox’s organization, other under-25 players Eduardo Rodriguez, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Henry Owens are poised to contribute, too, with Yoan Moncada and Andrew Benintendi potentially joining the party at some point in 2017.
The good news is PECOTA doesn’t think this trio will have to do all that much to help the Red Sox have an excellent offense in 2016. PECOTA rates Boston’s lineup as tied for the second best in baseball by TAv, right in step with the Dodgers and Cubs and trailing only the Blue Jays. But in the years to come, as Sandoval and Ramirez continue to move past their primes, as Pedroia moves to a down-the-order bat and as Ortiz enjoys retirement, the burden on Betts, Bogearts and Swihart will grow. That will be doubly true if role players like Bradley Jr. and Rusney Castillo can’t prove up to their tasks.
There’s no such thing as rebuilding year in Boston, and Dombrowski showed that he understands that when he brought in a new Alpha and Omega for the pitching staff this offseason. Thanks to his moves the 2016 Red Sox are poised to be competitive, and they will most certainly try to rally for one more playoff push with Ortiz at their center. Yet it’s the development of Boston’s young core that matters more than anything else this season, more than Sandoval’s weight and Hanley’s glove and Porcello’s performance combined. If Betts, Bogearts and Swihart all hit their stride, the Red Sox will be able to overcome their past sins. If that trio fails, this will be a team stuck in baseball purgatory, too talented to tank but not good enough to win.
Either way, Boston’s Song of Ice and Fire will come to an end after 2016. Whether it’s replaced by a sweeter medley or angry talk radio rests on the shoulders of three capable but untested assets.
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