What can we expect from the Red Sox in 2023? Nobody knows.
On one hand, chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom says, “It’s going to be awesome” when the Sox put it together. He believes the team is on a path back to the postseason.
On the outside, few expect it will be this season. The Sox patched the holes on their roster with veteran free agents, and expectations are as low as they’ve been in years.
Which way will it go? Globe baseball columnists Peter Abraham and Alex Speier offer different scenarios for the coming season.
FORT MYERS, Fla. — Each baseball season arrives with a sense of possibility. But some come with more possibility than others.
Preseason projections do not look kindly upon the 2023 Red Sox. Fangraphs pegs them as an 80.8-win team with a roughly 30 percent chance of making the playoffs. Baseball Prospectus sees them as an 80-win team with a 20 percent chance of playing in the postseason.
“We still are the quote-unquote worst team in the division,” manager Alex Cora said of such prognostications.
Not quite. The Sox are projected to finish ahead of the Orioles. Still, an 80-81-win projection represents a considerable drop from a year ago, when both systems projected an 86-win season for the Sox and placed their chances of reaching the playoffs above 50 percent.
Of course, the fact that the Sox went 78-84 and missed the playoffs in 2022 also offers a reminder of the limitations of projection systems — and in some ways, their irrelevance.
“I don’t think it’s productive to start litigating projections. That doesn’t mean I would sit here and tell you they’re wrong. Instead, I would sit here and tell you that I don’t think right now they matter,” said Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. “What matters is what we do.
“We can pop the hood and say, ‘Well, we agree with this, we disagree with that.’ Ultimately, I don’t think it matters. We feel a lot more optimistic than what’s out there. And hopefully we’re right, but how we dissect it right now is not going to make any difference and really is going to distract from what’s important.”
Still, it’s worth asking: Why is it that the projections for the Red Sox are as low as they’ve ever been over the last two decades?
The Sox project to have a relatively strong offense. Even with Trevor Story playing less than half a season, Fangraphs forecasts 4.55 runs per game — almost identical to what the team delivered in 2022 (4.54), a projected mark that ranks seventh in baseball and fourth in the American League. Prospectus projects 4.49 runs per game (eighth in MLB, fourth in AL).
Despite the departures of Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez, as well as the injury to Story, Justin Turner is projected to have better numbers than Martinez, while Masataka Yoshida is pegged as capable of a Xanderian offensive performance (Fangraphs sees a .305/.372/.489 line).
Overall, the Red Sox seem optimistic about their hitters, believing that Triston Casas has a chance to exceed the relatively modest expectations that come with a player in his first full year, that Alex Verdugo may be ready to take a step forward as a consistent contributor, and that greater plate discipline may allow the club to have a more consistent lineup than last year.
“The more I see the team, the more I like it, especially offensively,” said Cora. “The line is going to move. We’re going to score runs.”
Forecasts for the pitching staff are less hopeful. Fangraphs projects an allowance of 4.43 runs per game, 20th in the big leagues. Prospectus projects 4.49 runs per game, 23rd in the big leagues and third worst in the AL.
There are some large “howevers” within those forecasts that illuminate a path by which the Red Sox can exceed projections. Prospectus gives a 50th percentile outcome of 118 innings for Chris Sale after the lefthander barely pitched over the last three years; it projects 78 innings for Brayan Bello, 86 for Garrett Whitlock, and 94 for Tanner Houck.
If that quartet — each member of which is unproven in different ways — accounts for 376 innings, the Sox probably won’t be very good. But what if those pitchers — each of whom is projected to deliver above-league-average performance — account for, say, 500 innings? The pitching outlook for the Sox would immediately improve considerably.
Meanwhile, if any of those pitchers excels — if Sale looks like a front-of-the-rotation contributor, or Bello or Whitlock are more than just slightly above average in their first cracks at the rotation — then the Sox could likewise alter their trajectory.
“With any of these projections, there’s a huge amount of variance around what happens in real life. There’s a lot of reasons for deviations from win projections,” said GM Brian O’Halloran. “Probably the biggest one is health of the team. But there are all kinds of other factors: how the team comes together in the clubhouse, how your manager and staff cultivates an environment, that are not measured in those projections.”
That said, there’s a reason why the innings expectations are so low for all four pitchers given that three (Sale, Whitlock, and Houck) saw their 2022 seasons end early because of surgeries, and the other (Bello) was slowed this spring by minor forearm soreness.
Even with Sale and Houck healthy and in the rotation, and with Bello and Whitlock now healthy and appearing likely to join the big league staff by mid-April, the availability of the quartet for any length can’t be taken for granted.
That fact helps explain why the Sox are lumped with the Orioles as the bottom teams in the division, clearly behind three teams (the Yankees, Blue Jays, and Rays) that are generally expected to be among the best in baseball.
“Obviously, somebody has to be the favorite and somebody has to be the underdog. And right now, we’re not the favorites,” shrugged Cora. “At the end, projections are projections.”