The 2015 season was a failure for the Boston Red Sox. However, some young stars emerged and this past offseason was a success. Rick Rowand is here to bring the 2016 Boston Red Sox storylines to follow in a season that is sure to be better than the last.
Spring training competition officially kicked off last week with the Boston Red Sox playing their traditional home town rivals, Boston College and Northeastern University. Granted, they were just exhibition games, but we thought now would be a good time to start a new tradition here at Sons of Sam Horn – The Leap Year Lead Off! That’s right, we are going to let you, the reader, know in advance about some of the storylines that we’ll be following throughout the season. First up: The position players! We’ll talk about the pitchers later in the week.
Let’s start off with one storyline we won’t be pursuing: the weight of the Panda. We all know he’s a big man, perhaps not as large as he was coming into last season, but still rather large. His weight isn’t interesting. His performance is. We’ll leave the low-hanging fruit for sports talk radio. What we will be watching is his performance at the plate and on the field.
By all reports, he worked very hard in the offseason to improve his range of motion and quickness in order to recover the defensive skills that helped make him so valuable in San Francisco. And by everything we’ve been hearing out of Fort Myers, he is quicker and more flexible than he was last year. You be the judge:
We’ll also keep you up to date on how his revamped right-handed swing is doing against lefties.
Year Two of “Hanley, the Return,” will mark his second position change since signing as a free agent. The first, moving to left field, didn’t end well. His season started great on offense, hitting 10 home runs in April with a batting line of .293/.341/.659. It wasn’t until he slammed into the left field wall attempting to make a play on a fly ball and injured his shoulder that his offense started to match his defense, finishing the year hitting .249/.291/.426 with 19 homers.
He came into camp this year looking less like the newest addition to WWE, and he’s been putting in extra time working with infield coach Brian Butterfield on footwork and positioning at first base. From the videos that are out there, it looks like the transition is going pretty well and he should be able to hold his own. If he can play league-average defense and produce at his 2012-2014 levels on offense, the Sox and their fans will be quite happy.
What we, and everyone else, will be watching this season is whether Bogaerts’ improved plate discipline and confidence will translate into more home runs. Last season we ran a series of articles showing how he had revamped his swing to take away the low and away hole that every pitcher had been exploiting. Almost all of his offensive numbers improved from 2014 to 2015. The ones that went down were his home runs (12 to 7) and ISO (.123 to .101). The number that improved most dramatically was his BABIP. In 2014 it was .296, but in 2015 it jumped to .372. That number is unsustainable unless he’s somehow managed to channel Ty Cobb or Rogers Hornsby. It’s more likely that he’ll be closer to the .333/.334 that Steamer and ZIPS project for him as he begins to add power back into his repertoire
The other thing we’ll be watching closely is his hair. Apparently, he spent some time with Odell Beckham Jr.’s hair stylist this offseason and decided that the orange on top was a good look for him. We’ll make sure to keep you informed as the season progresses.
Last season was a disappointment for Pedroia. He was limited in the number of games he played by a hamstring injury that lasted much longer than the original disabled list stint he went on in late June. He came back from his first visit to the DL, performed poorly, and went back on the DL for another month. Except for the time between DL stints, Pedroia had an excellent season at the plate. The most noticeable change in his game was in the field.
It seemed like all season long he just didn’t have the range or the glove that have been the hallmarks of his game. So this year he too came to camp looking thinner after working out in the offseason to improve his quickness and range. Let’s hope that he can once again become the Laser Show we all know and love. The key for him will be staying on the field and not trying to come back from an injury too early.
This one is pretty easy. What can you say about a player who was excellent in his first full season in the majors on both offense and defense? There is room for improvement, especially for a player who is just 23. As he fills out, he should hit for more power, but he’s already doing quite well in that department: Last season, he hit 18 homers and 42 doubles with an ISO of .188. Oh, and he’s started to adopt more of a leadership role, inviting all the players on the 40 man roster plus the non roster invitees out to dinner last week… on him.
This is the season Castillo needs to live up to the potential that made the Red Sox offer him $72.5 million for seven years. He’s shown bits and pieces of that potential but hasn’t played a full season of baseball since he left Cuba in 2013. We’ll see if another spring training will help him get back to hitting like he did in Cuba.
JBJ is the best defensive outfielder that the Red Sox and their fans have seen on the team in a long time. His speed, range, anticipation, and arm — oh that arm — make a combination that leaves scouts drooling.
Where he’s come up short is at the plate. Except for last August, when he had a .354 BA, he’s been below average at the plate. To help him out of the doldrums, he will be trying his hand at switch hitting. That will definitely be something we are going to track this season.
Young was brought in to be the 4th outfielder, and he is a pretty good choice to fill that role. He will be able to contribute in left and right as necessary and will be a good right-handed bat coming off the bench. Young will be platooning with JBJ to start the season and could move into a starting role if JBJ and/or Castillo falter at the plate as they have in the past.
The Catching Triumvirate
The 2015 starter, Christian Vazquez, had to undergo Tommy John surgery before the season began, so the starting duties fell to backup Ryan Hanigan. Vazquez is on track with his rehab to start throwing in game action soon. With his superior defensive abilities, he could become the primary catcher should either starter Blake Swihart or backup Ryan Hanigan falter or suffer injury.
Swihart was called up to become the starter last May after Hanigan’s throwing hand was injured when it was hit by a deflected pitch. Swihart performed remarkably well considering he wasn’t expected to show his face at Fenway until this season at the very earliest. He spent the first half of 2015 studying the pitchers and learning how to call a game. His offensive numbers reflected his defensive priorities, as he hit just .241 in the first half. His impressive batting average of .303 in the second half, together with his improved defense, showed people why he was deemed untouchable by the front office.
Hanigan is the type of player teams want as a backup catcher. He has the experience to know the the opposing players and the veteran presence to make the pitchers listen to him as they put a game plan together. While wanting to be the starter, he knows his role is to be the backup, and that part of his job is to teach the younger players how to be a major league catcher.
It will be interesting to see how it all works out. Vazquez, Swihart and Hanigan have different strengths and many teams would be happy to have any of them as their starter.
Holt! was good enough as a super utility player to be named to the American League All-Star team by manager Ned Yost not only due to his ability, but also because of his aura. The karmic gods paid Yost back many times over by allowing the Kansas City Royals to win the 2015 World Series.
Holt! played in more games than the Sox were hoping he would because of injuries and the offensive shortcomings of some of the starters. He had 509 plate appearances last season, and Farrell has already said that the goal will be for him to have fewer than 450 this year.
He has had a traumatic offseason, losing not only his number, but also his trademark hair. There is historical precedent for people to grow weak and lose some of their skills and strength when this happens. We’ll see how his haircut and his gracious gesture to give up his number so that the Sox could retire it to honor Wade Boggs affects his game.
Shaw came to Boston last season to replace the corpse of Mike Napoli at the plate and surprised everyone, hitting .274/.331/.491 with 13 homers in just 65 games. A competent first basemen, this year he is working out at third base and in the outfield to make himself more valuable to the team. After all, there are two rather large (no pun intended) question marks slated to start at the corners.
Fans, sportswriters, and opposing pitchers have been asking when will Ortiz retire for the last three to five years and they finally have their answer: 2016. The game will be worse off without him, but he’s going out the way he played the game and lived his life, on his terms. There aren’t many professional athletes who can say that.
He has been the face of the franchise (sorry, Dustin) for a while now because of what he’s done at the plate and because of his personality. That position was cast in stone when the Red Sox returned to Fenway for their first game after the Marathon Bombing in 2013, and he declared that “This is our fucking city and nobody is going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong.”
He is 27th on the all-time HR list with 503. If he stays healthy and continues hitting home runs at the same rate he has for the past couple of years, he will end up in the Top 20 in home runs, passing such all-time greats as Ted Williams and Frank Thomas, both with 521 homers . He could even pass Jimmie Foxx (534) and Mickey Mantle (536) and end his career at #17 on the all-time home run list.
The biggest question at this point is: Will the team be able to perform at the level necessary to make it to the postseason one last time for Big Papi? We need one more chance to see him perform in the fall!
Next up, the pitchers!
Rick Rowand has written about Boston’s young stars, David Ortiz’s career, Brock Holt’s aura, and a breakdown of a huge signing.
Follow Rick on Twitter @rrowand.
Stats courtesy of Fangraphs