Boston Red Sox: ALCS or Bust?

Forget simply winning the American League East — 2017’s version of the Boston Red Sox on paper are bound to establish a precedent and lofty expectation un-paralleled by any other AL club on Opening Day, even the defending AL champion Indians.

When Boston acquired former ChiSox ace Chris Sale on December 6, things took a dark twist in the AL East for the likes of the Blue Jays, Yankees and Orioles — three divisional rivals hoping to build on worthwhile 2016 campaigns.

Not since 1946 have the Red Sox won a hundred games in the regular season. While Boston sure would love to have Ted Williams‘ ’46 bat in the lineup to offset the departure of David Ortiz‘s ’16 bat, the BoSox will be a far ways off from being shy of exceptional talent across the diamond this season. 100 wins should be the benchmark for this roster if it’s fully healthy when the calendar turns to April.

Sale will join David Price and last year’s Cy Young winner, Rick Porcello, in the rotation. The final two spots will likely feature some combination of knuckleballer Steven Wright, Eduardo Rodriguez, Drew Pomeranz or possibly Joe Kelly.

Any way you slice it filling out the rotation, Boston’s staff of starters has never looked this daunting to the opposition. 2004’s World Series winning squad, headlined by Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez who went a combined 37-15 that season, might come close, but not really.

After the Blue Jays (15.3), Boston’s starters posted the second highest combined fWAR at 13.9 among AL rotations in 2016. Tack on Sale’s AL leading 5.2 (tying Porcello and Justin Verlander), and you are looking at scary efficiency levels for a rotation whose aging arm will be only 31 years young in Price.

From the bullpen, Craig Kimbrel had a disappointing season. With his track record, age (28) and peripheral numbers from 2016 (14.1 K/9, avg fastball velocity of  97.3 mph), the hard throwing righty can still be considered an elite closer in baseball. Carson Smith has a bright future in MLB as well. He’s expected back sometime in June.

Southpaw Robbie Ross had a strong past season with a 3.25 ERA in 55.1 innings of work, as did Tyler Thornburg for the Brewers, who was acquired via a trade this offseason on the same day Boston landed their biggest fish in Sale.

Thornburg saved 13 games for Milwaukee in 2016 to go along with a solid 2.15 ERA and a K/9 of 12.1. The bottom line is, manager John Farrell has enough depth in the pen to plug and play arms when he needs to. Especially when you factor in that Price, Sale and Porcello finished one, three, and four when it came to innings logged by AL starters last season.

Left field, third base and designated hitter become the only real question marks entering 2017 for position players in the BoSox lineup.

Things we know; Papi is gone. He’ll be tough to replace. Though Hanley Ramirez is surely capable, and he’s expected to slide into that role. Streakier than Ortiz at the dish is Ramirez. However, Boston can now remove or minimize his shaky glove and dwindling defensive skills from the equation, allowing him to focus wholeheartedly on his hitting skills, which should end up being a bonus for the club.

In the second half of 2016, no AL hitter drove in more runs than Ramirez’s 63 and only two guys hit more second half homers than his 22. On the whole, Han-Ram’s .286-30-111 output from last year would be considered a success for any full-time DH.

Mitch Moreland will be an upgrade defensively at first base and is a career .254/.315/.438 hitter who has swatted over 20 home runs in three of his last four years.

Pablo Sandoval is expected to resume playing third base. Last year was a major debacle for the former World Series MVP from 2012. After losing his job to Travis Shaw (now with MIL) in the spring, his most memorable moment came in this singular at-bat. There really was nothing redeeming about his very limited time on the field. Only 30, a now trimmed down Sandoval looks to be re-focused on extending his professional baseball career. If things don’t work out, Brock Holt is one of MLB’s best utility players and thus, a great insurance policy.

Youngster Andrew Benintendi‘s rookie status will still be intact for 2017. He’s expected to grab the everyday left fielder job. As a 22-year-old last year, he hit .295/.359/.476 in 105 at-bats. MLB.com lists him as the No. 5 prospect in all of baseball. Waiting in the wings for starts in LF if Benintendi can’t acclimatize his game swiftly enough will again be Holt, and veteran Chris Young.

This organization, with a weaker rotation and stronger divisional competition in 2016, climbed their way to 93 wins in 2016. Toronto has since said goodbye to Edwin Encarnacion, who now finds himself in Cleveland with the defending AL champs.

Though well past their prime, the locker room wisdom of fellow retirees Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez will signal a youth movement in the Bronx for the Yankees. As well, Future Hall of Famer Carlos Beltran signed with the Astros.

In Baltimore, Mark Trumbo remains un-signed, meaning someone named Trey Mancini is currently slated to be the DH. Management did nothing to improve the rotation in the offseason. Instead, the O’s will bank on breakout years from arms who were once former top prospects in the system in Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman.

Lastly, Tampa will again need to lean on a bright rotation, but the Rays hit an AL worst .243 last season and were 10th in OPS with a measure of .733. Catcher Wilson Ramos, who is recovering from ACL surgery, will be the only significant addition of an offensive asset for the club when he gets healthy.

2017’s version of the Boston Red Sox, overall, will be an improved one. It now boasts two of the premier hurlers in the league, excluding the defending Cy young winner. A bonafide MVP candidate in right fielder Mookie Betts and a manager who overcame cancer in 2015, only to return and lead the Red Sox to their second AL East title during his tenure as bench boss of Beantown, are other features to look forward to.

The sky is the limit for this club. Significant injuries appear to be the only thing that could derail an impeccable showing from Boston in the year ahead. After a startling dismal ending to the postseason this past October, Boston’s fans and Red Sox players alike will be hungry for a return to form. Anything less than appearing in the ALCS will be considered a letdown.

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