Many are torn on whether the Boston Red Sox or the Cleveland Indians are the 2017 AL favorites. Breaking down the roster position by position is how to determine the winner.
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Are the Boston Red Sox the team to beat in the American League or is it a Cleveland Indians team coming off of a pennant winning season?
After landing arguably the biggest free agent prize of the offseason, slugger Edwin Encarnacion, many experts and fans alike have boasted the Indians as the AL favorites heading into the 2017 season. Of course, after landing arguably the biggest trade prize of the offseason in ace Chris Sale, many are saying the same about the Red Sox.
To see which playoff contender is truly deserving of the title of American League favorite (which of course means nothing in reality, it’s just for fun), I’m going to do a weekly series, conducting a position-by-position comparison of what the Red Sox and Indians have to offer.
This is one of the most interesting positional matchups between the two teams. One on side, there’s emerging star Andrew Benintendi, a true center fielder who has been pushed to left given the ability of his fellow outfield teammates. And on the other is Michael Brantley, a breakout star who barely played in 2016 due to several shoulder injuries.
Benintendi made his big league debut in 2016 for the Red Sox, just 13 months after he was drafted seventh overall. His meteoric ascent throughout the minors is nearly unprecedented except for MLB’s biggest stars, and it wasn’t without reason. At 21 years old, he simply destroyed the minor leagues to the tune of a .312/.392/.540 slash line.
The youngster showed quick transition to the majors, slashing .295/.359/.476 with the Red Sox over 34 games. Even the postseason couldn’t faze Benintendi; he started all three games and went 3-for-9 with a double and a home run.
His quick maturity and poise is what leads scouts to believe that Benintendi won’t fall victim to the infamous “sophomore slump” – a steep regression that many second-year players endure when opposing pitching begins to adjust to their tendencies. It’s also the reason that Dombrowski chose to deal super-prospect Yoan Moncada to the White Sox in the Sale deal while keeping Benintendi untouchable.
It’s probably reasonable to expect some regression from the now-22-year old’s stellar 2016 line, but it’s a safe prediction to say that he will be an above-average left fielder for next year.
The Indians have far more uncertainty at their left field spot. Of course, they would love to be able to pencil in a healthy Brantley in for 162 games, but that seems unlikely. The 29-year old managed just 11 games in 2016 resulting from shoulder and bicep injuries that he sustained when diving for a fly ball on Sept. 22, 2015. That November, he went under the knife to repair a torn labrum before undergoing several more related surgeries. Now the Indians are hopeful that Brantley will have finally recovered by Spring Training, but are willing to wait an extra month to be safe.
All in all, the team is confident that Brantley will return to major league action by the start of the 2017 regular season, but even if that comes to fruition, the question remains whether he can stay healthy. The injuries he sustained have been lingering for over a year now, and it may be too soon to assume that it will all go away.
If he does manage to stay on the field, Brantley’s value is unquestionable. Adding yet another dangerous bat to an already-dangerous Cleveland lineup, he would likely slot in the third spot in between Francisco Lindor and Edwin Encarnacion, creating a fearsome trio of alternating handedness that opposing managers can’t pitch around.
To quantify Brantley’s value to the Indians, he posted a combined 10.2 WAR between 2014 and 2015 over 293 games. He hit 90 doubles in that span and 35 home runs to go along with a .319/.382/.494 line. Perhaps most impressively, Brantley drew 112 walks and struck out just 107 times, joining an elite group of hitters who walk more often than strike out.
Overall, this is a difficult race to judge. The Indians have both the highest ceiling and the lowest floor, depending on Brantley’s 2017 durability. If he gets hurt, Benintendi likely is the more productive left fielder, but if he’s healthy, Brantley is. Thus, left field is declared a tie.
Jackie Bradley Jr. survived the Chris Sale trade rumors, and is slated to continue his role as Boston’s everyday center fielder. The 26-year old has always been a demon with the glove, consistently rating as one of baseball’s top overall defenders.
But the walking highlight reel had long faced questions about his bat in the big leagues. He could always hit in the minors, but his first two seasons up in Boston were plagued with sub-.200 batting averages and sky-high strikeout rates. Then in 2015, something clicked for JBJ. The strikeouts persisted, but the power spiked and the batting average climbed. All of a sudden, Bradley Jr. and his .249/.335/.498 slash line was a legitimate two-way player.
That made 2016 an important season for him, a 162-game long test to see whether he had truly discovered his major league stroke. JBJ responded with his first All-Star appearance, fueled by his .267/.349/.486 line, 63 extra-base hits, and 87 RBIs. Also encouraging was the lowered strikeout rate from 27.1% to 22.5%. That’s an above-average center fielder, before taking into account his defense.
JBJ totaled 11 defensive runs saved and a 4.5 UZR in 2016, cementing his status among players like Kevin Kiermaier, Adam Eaton, and teammate Mookie Betts as the MLB’s top defensive outfielders. All this resulted in his All-Star worthy 5.3 WAR, making it clear that Bradley Jr. had finally found his place in the majors.
There are still lingering concerns about his consistency, however. One month, JBJ could be hitting like Ted Williams (see: his 29-game hitting streak), but the next he’d be more akin to a National League pitcher. These frustrating bouts make it difficult to count on JBJ at the plate day-in and day-out, but his overall body of work more than justifies his spot as an elite two-way player.
The Indians counter with Tyler Naquin, a rookie in 2016 who impressed many in his own right. Finishing third in the AL Rookie of the Year race, Naquin came out swinging in 2016, and got results. He hit .341 in April before cooling off a bit in May and then going on a summer rampage. His OPS for the months of June and July was over 1.000 (for reference, Miguel Cabrera’s OPS was .999 when he won the Triple Crown in 2012). However, it seemed that pitchers made the adjustment to Naquin in the later months, as his production fell off a cliff in August (.589 OPS) before recovering slightly in September and October (.716).
Overall, Naquin’s .296/.372/.514 slash line is extremely impressive and resulted in a higher OPS+ than JBJ (126 to 116). But what separates the two by a country mile is defense. While JBJ’s defensive super-stardom has been established, Naquin has far more to prove. His defensive runs saved were a damning -18 to go along with -6.3 UZR. These are deep negative numbers, and suggest that Naquin is perhaps better suited for a corner outfield spot than in center, but center is where he’s currently slotted.
So while Naquin rates as perhaps the better hitter (assuming he doesn’t regress in 2017, which may be a tough assumption to make given his late-season slump), the difference in defensive prowess at a cornerstone defensive position makes this contest easy to call for the Red Sox.
That should come as no surprise, given that Boston fields AL MVP runner-up Mookie Betts in right. There’s really too much to say about Mookie to praise his 2016 work, so I’ll stick to the highlights. 31 homers, 113 RBIs, 122 runs, 42 doubles, 5 triples, 26 steals, .318/.363/.524 slash line. Oh yeah, and a major-league leading 32 defensive runs saved and a 17.8 UZR on defense to culminate in a 9.6 WAR – second in the majors behind Trout.
This guy is a bonafide star in every way, and he’s only 24 years old. He’s the Red Sox version of Mike Trout, which is probably the best way to sum it up.
It really doesn’t matter who the Indians put at right field unless it’s Mike Trout, but it doesn’t help matters that it’s Lonnie Chisenhall. No, he’s not a bad player by any means, and the Indians aren’t exactly counting on superstar production from him, but he’s light-years away from Betts. Often rotating between third base and right field with a bit of first base sprinkled in, Chisenhall settled in as the Indians’ everyday right fielder in 2016.
His 97 OPS+ rates him as a slightly below-average hitter, and his .286/.328/.439 reflects that. Given that he’ll be hitting around the eighth spot in Cleveland’s lineup, that’s hardly bad production from the bottom of the lineup. So yes, this comparison is a bit unfair to Chisenhall, who is quietly a serviceable starter if not quality bench piece, but in the spirit of the position-by-position competition, this one is a no-contest.
After an entirely forgettable 2015 that left Red Sox Nation embittered by his four-year, $88 million free agent deal, Ramirez took big strides in 2016 in becoming more like the fearsome hitter that he was in the past. Virtually every statistic increased from 2015 to 2016, including his walk rate (4.9% to 9.7%), ISO (.177 to .219), and BABIP (.257 to .315). To sum it up crudely, Hanley became a more patient hitter, allowing him better hitter’s counts, which in turn led to harder contact – his hard-hit percentage climbed from 31.1% to 37.2% in that span.
Another huge and often overlooked development was simply getting him out of left field. Needless to say, that experiment turned out to be an utter disaster. In left, Ramirez posted a -19 defensive runs saved mark compared to his -5 at first base last season. And mostly regulating him to designated hitter means he’ll have less of a negative defensive impact. Subtracting a negative is the same effect as adding a positive, so this positional move actually helps his defensive value.
All in all, Hanley jumped from a -1.8 WAR to a +2.8 WAR, and that level of value is reasonable to expect from him in 2017. It seems that the transition to Boston has been made, with all the growing pains along with it. Going into his age 33 season, there’s little reason to doubt that the slugger can post a similar .286/.361/.505 line in Ortiz’s old role.
Back in Cleveland, the DH spot looks to be occupied by Carlos Santana. This is, of course, is under the assumption that newcomer Edwin Encarnacion takes most of the first base reps. Perhaps the most unorthodox leadoff man in the game, the power-hitting DH has been remarkably consistent as an on-base threat. Since 2011, his OBP has never dipped under .350, fueled by his 90+ walks in each season in that span.
Back in his younger days, the 30-year old was a catcher, and understandably that was when he held the most value. Now regulated to DH and first base, Santana relies more and more on his bat to carry his value. That’s not all that detrimental, however, given that his bat is statistically 20% better than league average.
Ultimately, what Santana and Ramirez can bring to the DH position is similar: 30-homer power, high on-base ability, versatility that can extend to first base. Both are solid options for their respective clubs, so this race is declared a tie.
The Red Sox win the battle of outfield, with young stars Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts outpacing sophomore Tyler Naquin and Lonnie Chisenhall in center and right, respectively. And to be fair to the Indians, there may not be a pair of outfielders that can match up with that Boston duo.
Left field and designated hitter ended up with ties, but for different reasons. In left, Andrew Benintendi is likely the safer bet to produce at an above-average level. Michael Brantley has the higher ceiling, having produced a star-like 6.8 WAR just two seasons ago. But coming off multiple surgeries, it’s questionable whether he will be healthy enough to produce at his highest level.
At DH, Hanley Ramirez and Carlos Santana produce similarly gaudy offensive numbers. They are each able to get on-base at a .350+ clip consistently, combined with the potential for elite power.
Come back next week to see who wins the battle of the starting pitching staff. You can find the earlier infield results here, but for now, here are the combined outfield and infield results: