NASHVILLE – As the baseball world wheeled its suitcases out of the Gaylord Opryland Resort at the conclusion of the Winter Meetings on Thursday, the shape of the Red Sox’ roster for 2016 appears largely settled. But that doesn’t mean that it’s without questions.
The Red Sox have reinforced their pitching staff significantly. The offseason acquisitions of David Price at the front of the rotation and relievers Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith (along with Roenis Elias, an intriguing option as either a lefthanded reliever or depth starter) give the Red Sox the sort of potentially dominant arms that were in short supply a year ago.
Yet for a team that seemed comfortable to limit itself to tinkering with its positional group, its sole addition being fourth outfielder Chris Young after finishing fourth in the majors in runs scored, there is a surprising wealth of questions facing the offense.
Foremost, while leftfielder Rusney Castillo and centerfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. showed enough in bursts to convince the Sox to give them starting opportunities, neither has sustained impactful offense at the big league level beyond a relatively limited period.
Ian Browne of MLB.com writes that uncertainty hovers over Castillo, both in terms of his expected production and his ability to stay on the field.
Left field historically has been viewed as a spot for a middle-of-the-lineup producer. A year ago, the average American League left fielder hit .252/.313/.410 with 19 homers. Castillo hit .253/.288/.359. That’s not an insurmountable gap, but bridging it will require Castillo to achieve a level that he hasn’t yet in the big leagues.
Bradley’s overall production in 2015 suggested a player who, in tandem with his excellent defense, deserves a chance to start. Still, the fact that his only stretch as something other than a significantly below-average offensive player is limited to one month raises questions about his future production.
Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez are coming off career-worst years. Their track records and age suggest that both can rebound. Still, the health histories of both suggest there’s a chance they are in decline, raising at least a risk that they could prove offensive liabilities. Behind those two, Travis Shaw showed the possibility of offering solid offensive impact, but his big league performance exceeded his minor league track record to that point.
Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Blake Swihart all showed the possibility of delivering major offensive impact at their positions, with their early performances at young ages suggesting considerable upside, and Bogaerts and Betts already representing players on whom you’d bet as lineup cornerstones. Yet there have been players in recent years who seemingly had offensive breakouts that validated their top-prospect status – only to endure severe regression one year later. Former AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers and ex-Red Sox third baseman – and current free agent – Will Middlebrooks come to mind.
“Before the season, you can sit down earlier in the year, before the season, and say, ‘I’m going to project Miguel Cabrera to hit .330, hit 30 home runs, and knock in 110 runs – conservatively.’ That’s built on track record,” said president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski. “We don’t have that same type of track record with some of our players, but it doesn’t mean that you don’t have a good feel that they’re going to play well for you. But I don’t think that you have that same luxury to put that same number on a lot of them.
“They’re not established big leaguers at this point. In some cases, they’re young guys just coming up. They haven’t put up those numbers year-in and year-out. But we feel pretty good about it.”
In short, the Red Sox don’t have a single position occupied by a player who is a) in his prime years; b) possesses an established performance track record built over multiple years; and c) is coming off a year in which he performed to that level. David Ortiz is 40, trying to defy normal aging patterns for one last year. Dustin Pedroia and Ramirez are both in their early post-prime years. Bogaerts, Betts, and Swihart are building towards theirs, with only a limited amount of evidence of what their true talent level is in the big leagues. Bradley and Castillo have yet to define their performance levels over a sustained stretch.
That group represents one with considerable promise and the possibility of being one of the better offenses in the American League. But it’s a lineup that comes without guarantees, and perhaps a greater degree of the unknown than any other Red Sox Opening Day lineup in recent years.