Why the Boston Red Sox Are World Series Contenders
The 2015 season did not go as planned for the Boston Red Sox.
In one of the busiest offseasons of any team after the 2014 season, the Red Sox decided to add the two best bats on the free agent market, almost completely ignoring important details, like, what position would certain players play?
They signed Pablo Sandoval from the Giants, and he proceeded to give them a season of -2.0 Wins Above Replacement. Hanley Ramirez, the shortstop they decided to throw into left field, was almost as bad, totaling -1.8 fWAR last year.
In other words, their two biggest free agent signings cost them nearly four wins in 2015. If the Sox had employed two guys from their Triple-A team in their positions last year, they would have been four wins better.
That's less than ideal.
Not only that, they failed to re-sign Jon Lester, losing him to the Cubs in free agency. They tried to patch with mid-rotation starters like Rick Porcello, Clay Buchholz, Wade Miley and Joe Kelly, all of whom are decent starters, but none of whom are aces.
The end result was a disappointing 78-84, last place finish in the competitive American League East.
So what is going to be different this year? Why will the Red Sox be World Series contenders in 2016?
The Sox Get An Ace
Well for starters, Boston got themselves an ace starter, adding David Price to the top of a rotation that now allows everyone else to slide down a spot and gives the Red Sox the rotation depth they did not have last year. And make no mistake, this is now a rotation that can compete in the AL East.
The Sox essentially added about six and a half wins to their total from last year, putting them at 84-85 wins, with the addition of Price. It also has the added benefit of taking wins away from the Toronto Blue Jays, who had acquired Price at the trade deadline last year.
And when you look at the ERA-FIP differences among a number of the Boston starters this year, it appears as if Buchholz, Porcello and Kelly all deserved better fates than their ERAs ended up showing. One would expect Rodriguez, who dealt with issues of pitch-tipping last year, would improve in his second season as well.
Given the rotation question marks surrounding the Yankees, Orioles, Rays and Blue Jays, the Red Sox appear to have the best rotation in the division.
Pablo and Hanley Can't Be That Bad Again
When I say Sandoval and Ramirez were bad last year, it's hard to put it into words. So I'll let the numbers do the talking.
Here are two players who, in their careers, have been worth 18 and 38 wins above replacement. But Sandoval came into camp out of shape and unmotivated after winning a title with the Giants, and Ramirez was completely lost playing in left field last year. He also suffered from injury issues.
But these are both professional hitters who should bounce back. Sandoval is said to be in better shape this year, and the Red Sox are going to move Ramirez to first base, where they hope he'll do less damage and let his bat do the talking. The defense will still be an issue, but they hope not as grisly as dealing with the Green Monster.
Steamer projects Ramirez to be worth 2.0 fWAR in 2016 and Sandoval to be worth 1.6. That would be a six-win swing and, when taken with the addition of Price, would put the Sox at the 90-91 win mark.
An Improved Bullpen
It would be darn near impossible to put together a bullpen as good as the ones in New York or Kansas City. But Boston has themselves a terrific pen featuring three late-inning relievers who should make many of their games seven inning affairs.
They traded for Craig Kimbrel to be their new closer this offseason. He had a "down" 2015 for the Padres but only when compared to his previous four seasons in which he failed to yield an ERA in the twos. Last year, it was 2.58 with a FIP of 2.68, and he maintained an insane strikeout rate of 13.20 batters per nine last year.
Kimbrel is joined by Carson Smith, brought aboard thanks to a little-talked-about trade that could be huge for the Red Sox this season. Acquired from the Seattle Mariners, Smith had a 2.31 ERA, a FIP of 2.12 and a K/9 of 11.83 in 70 innings for the M's. The incumbent closer, Koji Uehara, will also be around in the later innings. He had an ERA of 2.23 and a FIP of 2.44 for the Red Sox last season, striking out 10.49 batters per nine.
That's a lot of missed bats in the last two or three innings of most ballgames.
Kimbrel was worth 1.5 fWAR and Carson was worth 2.1. That's another 3.6 wins above replacement they didn't have last year, putting them at around 93-94 wins in 2016.
Youth & Experience
Betts was worth a team-high 4.9 fWAR last year, while Bogaerts was second at 4.3. They may not generate a whole lot more production than that, but the potential is there.
One potential breakout candidate is Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo, who only got 289 plate appearances last year and hit .253/.288/.359 with a wRC+ of 72 and an fWAR of 0.4. I would expect him to do even better with more playing time, which could push the win total up by one or two.
At the end of the day, it sure looks like the Red Sox could be a team that sees their win total jump quite a bit. PECOTA is projecting an 88-win season for the Red Sox, a second place finish behind the 91-win Tampa Bay Rays. And Fangraphs has the Sox at 91 wins.
They would appear to be the favorites to win the AL East. And as we all know, once you get into the postseason, you're already a World Series contender.