The Red Sox offseason seems to be developing a trend early on in the process. Ben Cherington appears to possess a great deal of flexibility with his current roster, and the outfield is a major source of it. There are currently at least seven outfielders in the mix for outfield playing time in 2015 (not including super-utility guy Brock Holt), with several moves likely coming out of that group. The good news for the Red Sox is that many of these players are starting caliber, so there is a good deal of quality depth in the Red Sox’ current outfield.
Victorino could provide a spark in 2015
At the conclusion of the 2014 season, the Red Sox managed to be missing every single one of the outfielders that were on the field for the final out of their 2013 World Series championship; Jonny Gomes and Jacoby Ellsbury departed to other pastures with Shane Victorino still stuck on the Disabled List. Victorino figures to be back in the mix for 2015, and could provide a strong veteran presence, assuming he can stay on the field. After a season of questionable outfield defense for the most part, it will be refreshing to have Victorino’s golden glove back in right field in 2015. Victorino could also play centerfield in a pinch, but this would not be ideal. Daniel Nava could also see some time in right, though he will likely be a fill-in at every outfield spot in 2015 (in addition to some first base), where his value can be maximized through platoon (career .585 OPS vs. lefthanders, .813 vs. righties). Allen Craig might play some right field in 2015, though his defensive shortcomings might be best deployed in left field (or, ideally, first base). However if Craig shows any of his previous offensive skill from his time with the Cardinals (.794 OPS), the Red Sox will probably be glad to trade worse defense for better offensive production.
The infield should be a major strength for the 2015 Boston Red Sox, if for no reason other than there are options aplenty. There will be the usual locks, like Dustin Pedroia and Mike Napoli, but there should be competition in spots for playing time that will benefit the entire lineup. There are rumblings that the Red Sox could be looking to upgrade their infield in free agency, and if that happens it will likely be a singular, high-impact event. There is lots of returning stability in the infield, but there is also room for improvement.
Pedroia is the gold standard at the keystone
The Red Sox are fortunate enough to have their middle infield locked in for 2015. Pedroia is automatic to start virtually every game, and he is the best second baseman in the game when healthy (and sometimes when he isn’t). We are also operating under the assumption that Xander Bogaerts will not be impeded from starting at shortstop (we learned our lesson last season), because he flashed his considerable potential in September (.313/.317/.490). Brock Holt will likely be the Red Sox super utility guy in 2015, but he now has experience at every single infield position, which will be immensely valuable to the Red Sox. The best move here is to allow Bogaerts the time to continue his development at short, while Pedroia sets the tone for the entire infield. There is room for improvement for Bogaerts, but playing next to the Red Sox’ best defender will help make up for the learning curve.
Vazquez is a rock behind the plate
The Red Sox find themselves in an enviable position this offseason; for the first time in several years they can honestly say that their catching situation is already taken care of. Christian Vazquez is the clear starter and workhorse behind the plate, and he also leads very respectable organizational depth at the position. Aside from the decision of whether or not to bring back David Ross to backup Vazquez, there is very little consideration the Red Sox need to give their catching corp this offseason.
There is really no argument to be made against Vazquez getting the vast majority of the playing time behind the dish in 2015. Even though he only managed a .277 wOBA and a 71 wRC+ in 55 major league games in 2014, Vazquez showed why he was considered an elite prospect for so many years: he can seriously flash the leather. In that relatively limited sample size, he allowed only 8 passed balls and caught 52% of runners attempting to steal off of him. Add in his penchant for throwing to bases in an attempt to pick off runners, and he was worth 7.8 wins above the average major league catcher from his defense alone. Vazquez reminds the Red Sox and their fans of the days when Jason Varitek controlled the game from behind the plate, which is a welcome comparison for all.
Will Badenhop return to lockdown the middle innings?
The Red Sox bullpen was somewhat mysterious in 2014, not a major strength but not a catastrophic weakness. There were pitchers that excelled (Andrew Miller, Burke Badenhop), and pitchers who could have been better (Edward Mujica, Craig Breslow, and to some extent Koji Uehara). The sum of these conflicting performances led to a roughly average bullpen for the Red Sox (12th in baseball with a 3.33 ERA), and leaves room for improvement heading into the offseason. GM Ben Cherington has several decisions to make on in-house free agents like Badenhop and Uehara, and could potentially look to bring Miller back into the fold after his brief stint in Baltimore. As with the starting rotation, options abound for the Red Sox to address their bullpen over the coming offseason.
The first item on Cherington’s list should be to decide who will be closing games come Opening Day. Uehara will be a free agent, and there is legitimate reason to wonder if he should be brought back in 2015. Koji showed that he cannot physically handle a heavy workload at this stage of his career, so it would probably be unwise to place high expectations on Uehara going forward. That being said, he could potentially be a valuable setup piece if handled correctly, and could provide quality innings in the middle of games. Badenhop excelled in this role in 2014, becoming a dependable weapon for John Farrell to use in a crucial point of the game. As stated above, Badenhop will be a free agent, and the Red Sox might end up being more comfortable letting some other team overpay for him, rather than lock themselves into a long-term commitment for a middle reliever. Each free agent could be an excellent middle relief candidate for the Red Sox in 2015.
Kelly could be a sleeper breakout candidate in 2015
The starting rotation was a source of major turnover for the Red Sox in 2014. By the first day of August the team had already lost 80% of its opening day rotation, and the future was well on the way. In fact, the team turned to a six-man rotation in September, in order to get a more accurate looks at the abundance of pitching prospects from Pawtucket. Those same prospects should be in the mix for rotation jobs in spring training, but the starting rotation is an area that the Red Sox plan to aggressively upgrade over the course of the offseason through both the free agent and trade markets.
Internally, the Red Sox have several candidates who seem to be locked into rotation spots for 2015. Clay Buchholz is under contract and the Red Sox have shown absolutely no willingness to move him to the bullpen, plus Buchholz flashed plus stuff as recently as 2013. These factors, along with the fact that his recent performance makes him very difficult to trade, make it a near certainty that Buchholz will open the 2015 season in the rotation. Joe Kelly also represents a likely incumbent rotation candidate. While his numbers in Boston were not spectacular (6.02 K/9, 4.70 BB/9, 4.11 ERA, 4.41 xFIP in 10 starts), they were still solid for a mid-rotation pitcher. Kelly displayed plus stuff at times, and after adjusting to the American League over the final two months of the season, his rotation spot should be virtually guaranteed as well.
The DH can completely change a lineup
Baseball has been around for a very long time. One of the great things about baseball, however, is that over time it has been receptive to change and evolution in the interest of making the game better. A good example of this change came in 1973, when the American League decided to adopt the Designated Hitter for the good of the game, something that the National League has refused to do to this day. The time has come to change that. There is a window of opportunity for that to happen, as Rob Manfred will be replacing Bud Selig as Commissioner in the offseason and can impose a new vision on the game. There needs to be one rule for both leagues, and it needs to include a DH.
Last night’s Red Sox-Pirates game in Pittsburgh clearly highlighted the need for a universal DH. Due to the host being a National League ballpark, and therefore playing without the DH, David Ortiz was left out of the starting lineup entirely. This led to Daniel Nava hitting third (Daniel Nava!!!!!!!) and the lineup predictably suffered, failing to score a run or put up really a credible threat or rally. In addition, starter Anthony Ranaudo was forced to go up and flail at three pitches every few innings as the price he had to pay to stay in the game. Unfortunately Red Sox fans should get used to such a phenomenon, because it will need to happen for the remainder of the current series in Pittsburgh.