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2013 Preview: Boston Red Sox

Mar 26, 2013, 3:19 AM EDT

Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes Reuters

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Up next: The Boston Red Sox.

The Big Question: will the offseason spending spree prove worth it?

Coming off a disastrous season in which they lost 90 games for the first time since 1966, the Red Sox were among the winter’s biggest spenders, signing five of the game’s top 25 or so free agents:

DH David Ortiz – two years, $26 million-$30 million
OF Shane Victorino – three years, $39 million
1B Mike Napoli – three years, $39 million (revised to one year, $5 million + incentives)
SP Ryan Dempster – two years, $26.5 million
SS Stephen Drew – one year, $9.5 million

They didn’t stop there, either:

OF Jonny Gomes – two years, $10 million
RP Koji Uehara – one year, $4.25 million
C David Ross – two years, $6.2 million

That they limited themselves to rather short-term deals was a form of restraint. Not sure whether the Dodgers would be willing to bail them out again, the Red Sox wanted to leave themselves the ability to retool on the fly should their latest plan fail as spectacularly as the previous one did.

That strategy prevented the Red Sox from competing for the best of the best (Zack Greinke, Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton and others). And because the Red Sox wanted to protect their second-round draft pick (and, more importantly, the draft slot money that came with it), they limited themselves to pursuing free agents who failed to receive qualifying offers. Which makes one wonder if they really got the players they wanted or if there were compromises involved.

Because, really, it’s not hard to see how the Red Sox could have gotten more bang for their buck:

  • Victorino is coming off a down season in which he struggled to hit righties. He might be in decline at age 32. Upton, on the other hand, could still have his best days ahead of him.
  • Making his AL debut after being traded by the Cubs, Dempster posted a 5.09 ERA in 12 starts for Texas last year. Anibal Sanchez was better after his trade to the Tigers, and he’s far younger.
  • Napoli ended up receiving a much smaller deal after his physical revealed a hip condition. The Red Sox could have moved on from him and signed Adam LaRoche for three years instead, but he would have cost a pick.

For all of their signings, the Red Sox core remains unchanged since the Adrian Gonzalez megadeal: the team is centered around Dustin Pedroia, Ortiz, Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury and maybe Clay Buchholz. It also has an emerging regular at third in Will Middlebrooks and a very good prospect trio in shortstop Xander Bogaerts, right-hander Matt Barnes and outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr.

What we’ll find out over the next six months was whether the Red Sox were right to add $60 million in non-superstars to that group. If the team contends and keeps fans interested to the point at which soon-to-be-snapped Fenway Park sellout streak proves to be nothing more than a minor dip, GM Ben Cherington will be praised. But this looks to be more of an 80-85 win team as presently constructed, and if that holds up, the Red Sox will kick themselves for thinking more about 2013 than 2014-15.

What else is going on?

  • Lester and Buchholz currently rank 1st and 2nd, respectively, in the Grapefruit League in ERA. It might be worth writing off under normal circumstances, but perhaps the return of ex-pitching coach John Farrell as Boston’s new manager shouldn’t be underestimated here. Farrell was instrumental in the development of both pitchers during his first stint with the Red Sox, and at least half of the reason the Red Sox wanted him back this winter was for his ability to work with the team’s pitchers.
  • Bradley has been the shining star of camp, hitting .444/.523/.667 with two homers, 11 RBI and as many walks (eight) as strikeouts in 54 at-bats. Ortiz’s Achilles’ tendon setback has opened the door for the 22-year-old to make the team as a left fielder, with Gomes moving to DH.
  • Since Bradley is a natural center fielder, Ellsbury’s status as a free agent to be will be a frequent topic of discussion all year. Regardless of whether he returns to his near-MVP form of 2012, Ellsbury might be too expensive to keep next year, particularly since he’d likely be facing a move to left field. He’ll be a candidate to be traded this summer.
  • New closer Joel Hanrahan appears to be finding his footing now after struggling mightily the first half of camp. The Red Sox also have Andrew Bailey throwing well after an injury-ruined campaign, giving them a fallback in case Hanrahan struggles and potential trade bait come June or July.

Prediction: Fourth place, American League East.

  1. baseballisboring - Mar 26, 2013 at 3:49 AM

    I believe you meant to say 2011 about Ellsbury, not 2012. But I agree with everything you said pretty much. If Lester can return to his pre 2012 form, Buchholz can stay healthy and the last 3 spots can avoid falling apart I think we’d be somewhat dangerous. They’re gonna score runs and the bullpen looks pretty lights out. The core group of starters just doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence and there’s not a lot of depth behind them. I think we’ll crack .500, probably not much more. But hell, the Orioles made it to the ALDS last year, so now’s no time to give up hope.

  2. roverboy1949 - Mar 26, 2013 at 5:32 AM

    As one who remebers the “glory days” of Don Buddin and Jackie Jensen, I have been very happy with the Red Sox over the last decade. There is nothing wrong with not winning a championship, as long as the TEAM does all their best to win. Last year it was obvious to all that the team was far from competative, due to their lack of comraderie. One might even say that many on the team hated each other. They were not fun to watch, even when they one (a few games). I would have prefered to go back to the old dayys and watch them lose as a TEAM, as they did so successfully in the ’50s and early ’60s. I look forward to a much better group of spirited players, who will give their all to bring success to Boston.

    • roverboy1949 - Mar 26, 2013 at 5:34 AM

      They were not fun to watch, even when the WON. Sorry for the typo.

      • proudlycanadian - Mar 26, 2013 at 8:59 AM

        As a Jays fan, I thought that they were fun to watch last season.

      • bobwsc - Mar 26, 2013 at 9:44 AM

        the Jays won a few more games than the Sox last year, so they were similarly bad. prediction: you’ll blame Farrell for the Jays woes. pennants aren’t won in the offseason, so don’t mark your Jays parade spot just yet.

      • proudlycanadian - Mar 26, 2013 at 10:01 AM

        As far as Farrell is concerned, nobody knows if he is a good manager. He looks the part, but is still unproven. He has to be better than Bobby V. The Jays were done in by injuries last season. Losing 3 starting pitchers in a week as well as losing the best home run hitter in baseball had a lot to do with Toronto’s performance last season.

  3. 18thstreet - Mar 26, 2013 at 7:32 AM

    Given that they only won 69 games last year, it would have been irresponsible for the front office to think a 95-win team was just over the horizon. (Even the 69 wins were buttressed by the (gastly, expensive) .500 team they were from before the Nick Punto trade.)

    I like Cherington’s formulation — figuring out who is part of the ‘next great Red Sox team.’ A few 2-year deals for guys like Dempster do nothing to tie anyone’s hands for a more valuable free agent after the 2014 season. (Keeping Ortiz around sort of fits this bill, too.) Plus, as presently constructed, it’s not impossible to imagine the team competing for a wild card into August. Are they a championship team? No. No, no, no. But they’re okay. And there’s a plan in place to be one by 2015. There’s good players on the farm and a couple of cornerstones in the majors.

  4. skeleteeth - Mar 26, 2013 at 7:51 AM

    “That strategy prevented the Red Sox from competing for the best of the best (Zack Greinke, Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton and others)”

    You harp on them for over-reaching last couple years and then point to 3 even higher risk players wanting long years this off-season as having been missed opportunities?

    • uyf1950 - Mar 26, 2013 at 8:15 AM

      I might agree with you about Greinke and Hamilton but NOT about BJ Upton. For a few more dollars per year and 2 additional years they should have signed Upton over Victorino. Upton is 4 years younger, more athletic, far more upside and he’s better than Victorino right now..

      • adowding3 - Mar 26, 2013 at 8:52 AM

        I agree with everything said here. I just feel like coming off the Crawford debacle, even a 5 year deal was enough to give them pause. Upton over Victorino is a no brainer, but throwing out another long term (ish) deal to BJ would have made it appear the front office didn’t learn its lesson the last time around.

      • skeleteeth - Mar 26, 2013 at 9:00 AM

        Upton is more of a fitment issue before you even get to the years/contract as far as Boston is concerned but I will concede his value being greater than Victorino’s.

        I don’t really like any of their signings this off-season and although Napoli for 5 mil is better than 3/39 I would have rather seen LaRoche at 1B.

      • 18thstreet - Mar 26, 2013 at 11:04 AM

        After the 2008 playoffs, I was sure Upton was going to be a great player. As it happened, that was really the peak of his career. He never walked that much again (15 percent) or struck out that little (20 percent). That was the second straight year he got on base 38 percent of the time. Since then, he’s become a .300 OBP guy (ZIPS projects him at .324, but his OBP last year was .298). Still a very good baserunner, but not that good a fielder. Stays healthy, though playing for his entire career on astroturf is something of a warning sign to me. (I wonder if the appeal of playing with his brother would have made him more expensive for teams other than the Braves, but there’s no way of knowing that.)

        I’m fine with the fact that the Sox passed on Upton. That’s different than saying I like the Victorino signing. I’m not keen-o on Victorino.

      • uyf1950 - Mar 26, 2013 at 11:06 AM

        adowding, I’m not sure it’s a fare comparison but I can to a degree understand why the Sox might be skittish of the deal. But BJ Upton would have as it turns out only cost a team about 1/2 of what the Sox paid for Crawford in total dollars and still a year younger at the time of free agency. Personally I don’t think how the Crawford deal turned out for the Sox was the deciding factor in NOT going after Upton. I think it was and is that the Sox are married to keeping that 2nd round pick. That seemed fairly obvious.

      • 18thstreet - Mar 26, 2013 at 11:06 AM

        One other thought: BJ Upton through age 27 is worse than Carl Crawford was at that age.,1201

      • skeleteeth - Mar 26, 2013 at 11:35 AM

        Atlanta paid 72.25 for Upton. Boston surely would have been asked to dig deeper I would think, especially after shedding those millions last year. The point is the years. Red Sox refused to give more than 4 years to anyone not too long ago and hopefully this is a sign of this practice making a reprise.

      • uyf1950 - Mar 26, 2013 at 11:39 AM

        18thstreet, are you willing to go on record now and say that BJ Upton won’t have superior numbers in total from say the ages 28 through 32 than Crawford? Because that’s really what it’s about if you want to compare the 2 players. My earlier point was that Upton was and is a better investment than Victorino and let’s be honest that’s a hard point to disagree with.

      • uyf1950 - Mar 26, 2013 at 11:42 AM

        skeleteeth, the 2nd sentence in your most recent comment is pure supposition. You don’t know that to be true. Heck since we are guessing why not guess that they might have gotten him for less if they went after him sooner. We can only go on what we know to be true that’s that he signed for 5 years / $75.25MM.

      • skeleteeth - Mar 26, 2013 at 1:00 PM

        Yeah, it is. Point is the years.

      • rjostewart - Mar 26, 2013 at 5:23 PM

        Not to pick on you specifically, because everyone does this, but the player himself gets a say in all of this, and, frankly, if I was Upton or Hamilton, I would have hesitated before even taking a visit with Cherington and company, all things considered.

  5. aceshigh11 - Mar 26, 2013 at 8:06 AM

    Fourth or fifth sounds about right.

    Hard to see everything aligning perfectly for the Orioles again…they’re a good team but I can see some regression setting in.

    That said, the Sox will have to work their asses off to avoid a second-straight last-place finish.

    • proudlycanadian - Mar 26, 2013 at 9:02 AM

      They should be better this year than last season even though I think that they overpaid for some free agents. The big news is that Bobby V is gone.

      • uyf1950 - Mar 26, 2013 at 11:09 AM

        proudly, I’m trying to be a kinder, gentler UYF towards the Red Sox at least for the time being. But let’s be honest how could the Red Sox not be better this year than last year.

  6. tfbuckfutter - Mar 26, 2013 at 8:54 AM

  7. buggieowens - Mar 26, 2013 at 9:17 AM

    This preview is completely biased and way off base. There is no way the Red Sox will finish in 4th place. I am fully confident they could tie for 3rd place. (sarcasm font)

  8. devouredbychaos - Mar 26, 2013 at 9:55 AM

    Jays finish 4th, Sox finish in 2nd. Mark that down now before I say “told you so”. The Jays pitching makes me laugh. I’ll take Lester and Buccholz any day over Dickey, Morrow, and Johnson. It’s gonna be fun to watch the all hype team struggle to get wins.

    • proudlycanadian - Mar 26, 2013 at 10:05 AM

      Your sweet dreams are more likely to turn into a nightmare.

  9. turdfurgerson68 - Mar 26, 2013 at 9:57 AM

    4th place? Nah, that’s too low. The Sox can rake, even did so last year, and the pitching will be vastly better.

    And, importantly, the culture in the clubhouse will be greatly improved as well. Guys like Victorino, Gomes, etc where brought in, partly, to improve the atmosphere. Farrell WILL NOT be the circus that was Bobby Valentine.

    No need to take a chance on Upton when there’s a boatload of talent in the minors a season or two off.

    Toronto has the talent now to take the division…everyone else hasn’t done much or won’t be as lucky as last season:

    1. Toronto
    2. Boston
    3. Tampa Bay
    4. New York
    5. Baltimore

    • proudlycanadian - Mar 26, 2013 at 10:14 AM

      “The Sox can rake”? Isn’t that the job of the grounds keepers? The union might not approve. As far as the second place prediction is concerned, all I can say is that it is still pre-season and “Hope Springs Eternal”. I do agree with your prediction for first place.

      • turdfurgerson68 - Mar 26, 2013 at 11:21 AM

        Ha ha, that’s true.

        If the Sox payed on that plastic rug like the Jays, I guess I would have said ‘They could vacuum’? or ‘They could ‘power wash’?

        Seriously, glad to see the Blue Jays back in serious contention. It’s been way to long. Just hope their pitching staff can hold up.

      • spudchukar - Mar 26, 2013 at 1:45 PM

        The vacuuming on the Tampa Bay turf, should be reserved for the Red Sox remains. Glad to hear the Sox can rake though, cause come October they will have something to do in New England.

  10. markdaniel250 - Mar 26, 2013 at 10:08 AM

    They had 69 wins last year in a season that was a total disaster due to injuries, Bobby V and inexplicably ineffective pitching from Lester, Buchholz and Beckett. This year I think Lester and Buchholz will be much better, and if all else stays the same (production-wise) that would put them at 79-81 wins or so. Then it all depends on how effective the bullpen is, and how well the veteran “character guys’ like Victorino, Napoli and Gomes do. If they produce at career norms or close to it, they could bump their win total into the mid-80s or more. With the screwy way the playoffs are these days, that puts the Red Sox in playoff contention well into September.

  11. hitdog042 - Mar 26, 2013 at 10:23 AM

    I’ll chime in. First they no longer have to deal with Beckett throwing a half a** game. Lester will be back to Lester I’m fully confident. The biggest thing is health. Ortiz has to make it through most of the year. Pedroia needs to have his normal season. And it would be a boon if Ellsbury returns to a .300-25hr-50sb guy. If all that happens they could be very good. But if Ortiz heel gives him trouble and Ellsbury doesn’t perform as he’s capable of it can go south pretty quick. They do have Bradley. The problem there is finding a place for him once Ortiz is off the DL. I have no worries about the pitching as it stands. They have Webster and Barnes as depth as well as DeLaRosa. If Lackey wasn’t there Webster would be the 5 right now.

  12. hisgirlgotburrelled - Mar 26, 2013 at 10:35 AM

    “and, more importantly, the draft slot money that came with it”

    How is this more important? I’m asking an honest question. People have brought up losing the slot money before on here like this is a big deal … I looked for a lot of players and have yet to find a single one in the first 2 rounds that signed for less than the slotted value. For these first 2 rounds of picks, if you lose the pick then what does it matter if you lose the slot money? Every dime of it was going to that pick anyway.

    This is the only benefit I can think of: you can go over the bonus pool amount by 5%, which costs 75% of the excess amount. To stay under that a team with a bonus pool of $8 million has $400k they could spend. Without the 2nd round pick, guessing for Boston it is #40 with a slot value of about $1.3 million, then they have $6.7 million allowed and $335k excess… Is $65k that important?

    • Ari Collins - Mar 26, 2013 at 11:26 AM

      You didn’t look very hard. PLENTY of players signed for below slot, including the very first pick, who saved the Astros $2.4MM in bonus pool money. The second and third picks as well. The fourth pick signed for slightly above-slot, but the Orioles actually ended up slightly under their target budget overall by going under-slot elsewhere.

      The Red Sox, in fact, had two extra picks before the second round, and, going underslot on some of their picks, used that extra slot money to pay bigger bonuses and land Deven Marrerro and Ty Buttrey.

      • hisgirlgotburrelled - Mar 26, 2013 at 2:43 PM

        I didnt check the top 5 picks because those are protected and the slot value is already really high. 31-42, all but two were at or above slot. I checked a bunch the last time someone brought it up and not many weren’t at or above slot.

        Unless you’re intentionally drafting guys below that slot value you can’t bank on saving money with a 2nd round pick.

      • Ari Collins - Mar 26, 2013 at 3:33 PM

        First, quite a few teams went underslot on their second-round picks in order to save money for other picks.

        More importantly, you seem to be missing the point. Having that extra $1.2MM or so to spend by not giving up the 44th overall pick means that you can get an extra pretty good player. Or you could, as some teams did, sign way underslot college seniors with no leverage with your mid-round picks and use that extra money to sign a guy who might fall to you due to signability.

        The bottom line is, Boston has an extra $1.2MM to spend on the draft because they didn’t give up that pick, and they can either get another $1.2MM draftee or use that money to go overslot on someone else.

        If you think that teams didn’t go overslot or underslot on specific players in order to get other players, you weren’t following the draft that closely. (Which, okay, quite defensible!)

  13. soxfan34110 - Mar 26, 2013 at 10:48 AM

    Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa are more advanced at this stage than Barnes. I think the Sox acquired veteran trade bait to use in order to reload their farm system. Wouldn’t be surprised to see them trade one or two of their recent signings later this summer (a la Oakland) in addition to Ellsbury. They are thinking about 2014 and beyond already. Total bridge year.

    • 18thstreet - Mar 26, 2013 at 11:41 AM

      I’m about to write something stupid. Not RandyG stupid, but stupid nevertheless.

      I’ve tried, over the years, at getting guys who I would make good trade bait in fantasy baseball. It never, ever works.

    • ch0psuey - Mar 26, 2013 at 12:24 PM

      “Previewing the RedSox = biggest waste of time ever!” Changed it for you.

  14. Ari Collins - Mar 26, 2013 at 11:13 AM

    Sounds about right to me. 80-85 wins generally. A few things break bad, they’re a 75-win team; a few things break good, they’re a 90-win team.

  15. unclemosesgreen - Mar 26, 2013 at 11:23 AM

    I like how Cherington spent the money because he did it without harming the future of the team. Jackie Bradley Jr.’s performance this spring all by itself justifies not signing BJ Upton. Furthermore I would like to amplify what several commenters have already mentioned, that BJ Upton might just be a bad fit for the city of Boston. As soon as any non-white player in Boston with a large contract has an on-field brain fart or doesn’t “hustle” the way the fans would like … let’s just say that history has shown that Red Sox fans can be unkind under those specific circumstances.

    I would also argue that Greinke and Hamilton would have been spectacularly unsuited to dealing with the Boston media. There are specific Boston-related challenges that simply have to be taken into consideration when selecting players and managers.

  16. Matt Aromando - Mar 26, 2013 at 12:00 PM

    I think you underestimate their chances a bit and are undervaluing Farrell’s contributions. PECOTA projects the Red Sox to win 84 games and tie for 3rd in the AL East. While that might be a generous prediction to some (I remind those people that PECOTA boldly predicted the Rays 2008 season as well), it is based on the Red Sox being a strong hitting team but weak on run prevention. I’m a believer in Farrell and if he really does get more out of Lester, Buchholz, et al. then run prevention could look a lot better.

  17. paint771 - Mar 26, 2013 at 12:44 PM

    I’m a Jays fan, but I think people overlook the Red Sox at their peril. This is a team for whom the term “regression to the mean” was invented. Yeah they lost 90 games last season – but they won 90 games the season before with basically the same core group (who usually clock in at 85 wins with their eyes closed).

    I also think the Sox had one of the most underrated offseasons in baseball this year. I often get on teams for not going into rebuild mode until say two years after they probably should have (I’m looking at you Phillies), but if you’re going to put that off, the Sox are doing it the right way. Bring up new talent (I would bet on a breakout year from Middlebrooks and there are some strong nearly-MLB-ready guys right behind him), ask early.middle career guys to start stepping up and taking leadership of “their” team (Ellsbury is going to be huge for the Sox this year; really his season will be a good barometer of the team), transition your aging stars gracefully (Ortiz and Pedroia have a lot of good baseball left), and surround them with solid veterans just happy for the opportunity to be playing and without either prima donna expectations or having to carry the weight of the team on their shoulders. And, of course, give yourself flexibility to still rebuild around a new core if that isn’t working by midseason.

    I think the Red Sox pitchers generally suck and are sniveling twits to boot, but they can’t be any worse this year, and honestly I think the entire team will be playing with a different energy this year. Yeah yeah don’t bet on intangibles, but I think at this point the expectations and pressure on them are mostly gone and they can finally start putting the end of 2011 behind them with new leadership, new clubhouse, and a different kind of expectation horizon. I think your Lesters etc are finally ready to just go out there and pitch.

    So yeah, I’m a bit bullish on this team compared to expectations. I think they’ll be in contention surprisingly late with the Rays and the Jays. I’d ultimately put them finishing in the 85-90 range either second or third.

    • hisgirlgotburrelled - Mar 26, 2013 at 3:09 PM

      “I often get on teams for not going into rebuild mode until say two years after they probably should have (I’m looking at you Phillies)”

      2 years too late suggests having started rebuilding instead of winning 102 games.

      • paint771 - Mar 26, 2013 at 4:23 PM

        Sorry, I’m already counting the 2013 season.

  18. soxfan34110 - Mar 26, 2013 at 1:59 PM

    Hey Chop-Chop; except that people actually care about the Sox and don’t give a crap about the Padres.

    • ch0psuey - Mar 27, 2013 at 12:02 AM

      Whatever makes you sleep better at night.

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