Between now and Opening Day, we'll be previewing each team with a focus on answering the question: "How will this team be remembered?" For the full archive of each 2017 team preview, click here.
The 2016 Red Sox had about as successful a season as any non-World Series team could hope for. Mookie Betts emerged as an MVP-level talent. Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley, and (sort of) Eduardo Rodriguez cemented themselves as legitimate roster cornerstones. Andrew Benintendi blossomed into one of the game’s best prospects. Steven Wright was an All-Star. Rick Porcello and Hanley Ramirez rebounded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. Dustin Pedroia stayed healthy. And David Ortiz enjoyed the most successful walk-off season we’ve seen in quite some time.
Sure, we could nitpick by recalling Blake Swihart’s ankle, Carson Smith’s elbow, David Price’s ERA, or Pablo Sandoval’s stomach. But by and large, the Red Sox’s future looked quite bright despite their loss to Cleveland in the ALDS. Dave Dombrowski and company just needed to replace some of Ortiz’s offensive production and add some rotation depth as the likes of Yoan Moncada, Rafael Devers, Michael Kopech, and Benintendi got some polish in the upper minors.
But that’s not what happened, of course. Instead, the Red Sox gutted much of their farm system to add Chris Sale and Tyler Thornburg, because this is Dave Dombrowski we’re talking about. And so the 2017 Red Sox will be remembered largely as the team that embodies a shift in identity from one David to another, because make no mistake about it, this is now very much a Dave Dombrowski team and a Dave Dombrowski organization.
Per PECOTA, in Sale (4.2), Thornburg (0.6) and Mitch Moreland (0.1), the Red Sox added 4.9 WARP to their 2017 roster. They lost about half of that by trading Travis Shaw (2.0) and Clay Buchholz (0.6), but even if you buy PECOTA’s extreme pessimism around Moreland and optimism regarding Shaw (and there’s good reason not to), the Red Sox improved about as much as you could expect them to this winter, given that they couldn’t talk Ortiz out of retirement.
Now for the million-dollar question we’ve seen bounced around the interwebs since the Sale trade: did the Red Sox get so much better in the short term that it was worth the incredible amount of long-term talent they jettisoned? Yoan Moncada is one of the game’s premier prospects, Michael Kopech and Luis Alexander Basabe are both top 101 names, and Mauricio Dubon is a top-200 type. They’re all gone now, even if Sale and Thornburg are here.
On one hand, if this team stays healthy over the next two or three years they’ll be legitimate World Series contenders. The young trio of Betts, Bogaerts, and Bradley is among the best in the game, and Benintendi could join their ranks with a Rookie of the Year-caliber 2017. Sale, Price, and Porcello compose arguably the best Big Three in the majors. Pedroia and Ramirez add depth to the lineup, and the back of the bullpen houses Thornburg, Craig Kimbrel, and eventually Carson Smith. That’s to say nothing of two pitchers who were All-Stars last season (Wright and Drew Pomeranz), a newly fit Sandoval, and young guns like Swihart and Rodriguez. There is a boatload of talent on this roster and nearly all of it will be in a Red Sox uniform through at least 2019.
Another overlooked part of Boston’s offseason: they got better on the field while managing to stay under the luxury tax threshold for 2017. That should give them more financial flexibility moving forward, as they can reset after surpassing the threshold in 2015 and 2016. If you’re looking for the no. 1 reason why they didn’t sign Edwin Encarnacion as a one-for-one Ortiz replacement, there it is.
Now for the bad news. By trading Moncada, Kopech, Basabe, and Dubon, the Sox gave up 24-plus years of team control for seven combined years of Sale and Thornburg in a pair of moves that likely had Ben Cherington falling to the ground and clutching his heart a la Yoda after Order 66. And remember, this is coming off a 2016 season/offseason that saw Dombrowski jettison Manny Margot and Anderson Espinoza for Kimbrel and Pomeranz.
As such, there is no denying that the Red Sox have lost a tremendous amount of depth. If injuries and underperformance strike in numbers, Dombrowski may be hard-pressed to find upgrades without shredding what little remains of his farm system. Yes, Benintendi, Rafael Devers, and Jason Groome are top-50 names, but the system falls of a cliff after that. Can Dombrowski make a move for a difference-maker with a package headlined by Sam Travis or Brian Johnson? It’s unlikely, and there’s little behind them that will be of much interest to rebuilding teams. For a team that’s likely to start the season with Price, Thornburg, and maybe Pomeranz on the disabled list, lack of depth is a big concern.
Fans are quick to cite poor bullpens as the reason for the demise of many of Dombrowski's excellent late-2000s/early-2010s Tigers teams, but the shallowness of those rosters was an issue as well. The 2011 Tigers, who won 95 games on the backs of talents like Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer, and Victor Martinez, also gave a ton of time to scrubs like late-career Brandon Inge, Ramon Santiago, Ryan Raburn, and Brad Penny. The 2013 iteration of the Tigers—the imposing team the Red Sox beat in the ALCS—gave starter-level playing time to Andy Dirks and Omar Infante.
No team features 25 All-Stars, of course, but Dombrowski’s Tigers were noticeably thin. The 2017 Red Sox could befall a similar fate, as they have little in the way of backup plans at third base or in the starting rotation. You can certainly argue that’s nitpicking, but if the Red Sox must turn to, say, Josh Rutledge, Steve Selsky, and Kyle Kendrick instead of Moncada, Margot, and Kopech at some point this season, the Twitter eggs will feast.
As jarring as the change from the Cherington era to the Dombrowski era has been, there’s reason to believe this stars-and-scrubs approach works. Dombrowski’s Tigers were wildly successful for many years, and the more balanced method Cherington employed netted plenty of lows along with the highest of highs. If the Red Sox win a ring on the back of Sale’s left arm, no one* will complain about Moncada crushing Triple-A, but this is still a stark departure from the norm for a city that hugs its prospects very tight.
So while Betts may be the new face of the franchise as Pedroia enters his decline phase and Ortiz watches from home, the new-look Red Sox are as much a product of Dombrowski’s philosophy as they are the homegrown talent that Cherington and Theo Epstein acquired. That’s what we’ll remember the 2017 Red Sox for: the shift from the “Player Development Machine” that Epstein once championed to the win-now approach for which Dombrowski is heralded.
Whether Red Sox fans end up preferring the former or the latter will depend entirely on how many rings they get to brag about in the next three years.
*Of course people will still complain. It’s Boston.
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