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.
Coming into a season as an alleged “super prospect” does not always work well for a major league ballplayer. Xander Bogaerts would know all about it, as he has been either at or near the top of prospect lists for the past few seasons. His performance in the 2013 postseason reinforced his star prospect status, and much was expected of him in 2014. There could be a fair argument that too much was expected of a 21-year-old shortstop with only about a month and a half’s worth of major league experience, and needless to say Bogaerts has performed well below expectation in 2014. Until now. Since the beginning of September, Bogaerts has been a complete house on fire, and is (again) giving both the Red Sox and their fans reason to hope for big things in 2015.
Bogaerts has had an uneven season, to say the least. Before the completely unnecessary Stephen Drew signing in mid-May, Bogaerts was having a solid season. From the beginning of the season up until Drew’s signing on May 20, Bogaerts put together a respectable .270/.372/.378 line, with a .341 wOBA and 115 wRC+. Now this obviously does not come in a huge sample size (172 plate appearances), but a season’s worth of production at that level would at least have a player in the conversation for the Rookie of the Year Award. But as Red Sox fans are well aware, the subsequent move to third base (again unnecessary) seemed to unravel Bogaerts entirely. From that point until the end of August, he struggled to a .201/.252/.313 line, exhibiting shaky (at best) shortstop defense. But perhaps the midseason dump of Drew to the Yankees (who better) was the motivation needed for Bogaerts to find his stroke. There is something to be said for job security, and moving back to a more natural defensive position could have been the spark to Bogaerts’ recent revival.
At the time of the deadline deal with St. Louis involving John Lackey, Allen Craig was a complete mystery. After posting a weighted runs created of at least 134 in each of the previous two seasons, Craig was slumping badly in 2014 to the point where the Cardinals deemed him expendable. The Red Sox had interest in him as a buy-low candidate that could potentially add some thump to the lineup. The only problem so far is that Craig has been much worse in Boston than he was in St. Louis. Much (.100/.250/.200), much (36.7 K%, .148 BABIP) worse (.278 wOBA, 74 wRC+). So what exactly is going on with Allen Craig, and can the Red Sox ever expect him to get back to being the middle of the lineup force he was with the Cardinals?
One of the anomalies of Craig’s struggles is that his batted-ball profile has very little year over year variation. Craig’s linedrive (21.4%), groundball (46.4%), and flyball rates (32.1%) with the Red Sox are almost identical to his career rates (22.8%, 46.6 %, and 30.6% career, respectively), so there is really nothing there to be concerned with. As mentioned above, his BABIP and strikeout rate with the Red Sox are abysmal, and this could be playing a role in the off year. During his productive years with the Cardinals, Craig posted unusually high BABIPs (.334, .368), so some regression should have been expected. However, there has to be something else at play here than just a ridiculously low batting average on balls in play.