Winter Report Card: Red Sox gain Sale but still have Ortiz-sized hole to fill
Before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we’re checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season, acknowledging that there’s still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2016. Next up: the Boston Red Sox.
93–69 (.574), first place in American League East; lost ALDS to Indians
RHP Clay Buchholz, RHP Michael Kopech, INF Yoan Moncada, DH David Ortiz, 3B Travis Shaw, RHP Junichi Tazawa, RHP Koji Uehara, RHP Brad Ziegler
1B Mitch Moreland, LHP Chris Sale, RHP Tyler Thornburg
Off-season In Review
As one superstar leaves, another one arrives. So it was this winter for Boston, which said goodbye to the retiring David Ortiz but pulled off a blockbuster trade for Chris Sale, as the front office geared up for another World Series run.
The loss of Ortiz is far and away the biggest of any the Red Sox suffered this off-season, though it was at least one they were prepared for, given his announcement before the 2016 season that he would be hanging up his cleats at year's end. The three-time world champion went out with a bang in his age-40 season, hitting a gaudy .315/.401/.620 and leading the team in home runs (38), RBIs (127) and OPS+ (162). His departure leaves a gigantic hole in the middle of Boston’s lineup (to say nothing of his presence in the clubhouse as the team’s emotional leader), and one that the Red Sox have struggled to fill this winter.
But while Ortiz’s retirement is a blow, the addition of Sale is a huge boost. In exchange for top prospect Yoan Moncada, hard-throwing righthander Michael Kopech and two other minor leaguers, Boston landed a pitcher who is third in Wins Above Replacement since the start of 2012 (27.6), trailing only Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer. Sale was a strikeout machine with the White Sox, whiffing 10.0 per nine in 1,015 2/3 innings over the last five seasons, though last year saw that rate fall to 9.3. That drop was planned on Sale’s part, though, with the lanky lefty telling SI's Ben Reiter before the season that he wanted to sacrifice punchouts to go deeper in games. That worked: Sale threw 18 more innings in 2016 than ’15 over nearly the same number of starts (32 to 31) and led all of baseball with six complete games. Even if his strikeouts don’t return to the realm of the ridiculous, he’s still one of the AL’s top five starters (on a tremendously team-friendly contract, to boot) and will front a rotation featuring a pair of AL Cy Young Award winners in David Price (2012) and Rick Porcello (last year's recipient).
Understandably, to land a pitcher of that caliber cost a hefty amount, with Boston sacrificing Moncada, who came into 2016 as the game’s No. 1 prospect but saw his stock take a slight hit after a short yet unimpressive major league debut in which he struck out 12 times in 20 plate appearances. Still, the Cuban import is young (he turns 22 in May), and his combination of power, plate discipline and speed make him a potential future franchise player. To lose him and Kopech, who rose quickly up the prospect rankings thanks to his power fastball, will hurt Boston, but president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski is nothing if not dispassionate about prospects, especially if the return is as good as Sale.
Aside from landing a new ace, the Red Sox were more or less quiet. The team made just one other major trade this winter, landing reliever Tyler Thornburg in a four-player swap with the Brewers that sent Travis Shaw and two prospects to Milwaukee. Thornburg split last season between setup work and closing and performed admirably across both, striking out 90 in 67 innings (albeit with 25 walks). The 28-year-old righty should immediately slot in as one of manager John Farrell’s top setup options and restore some righthanded depth to a team that lost three such relievers in Junichi Tazawa, Koji Uehera and Brad Ziegler. Tazawa seemed worn down last year after being heavily used by Farrell in the four seasons prior (234 innings in that span), slumping to a 4.14 ERA and 1.6 home runs allowed per nine. Nonetheless, he scored a two-year deal in free agency from the Marlins. Joining him in Miami is Ziegler, who was excellent as a closer for Arizona and a setup man for Boston last year. Uehara showed his age in 2016, with the 41-year-old righty missing time due to injury and posting a 3.45 ERA in 47 innings. He still boasts a killer splitter, however, and despite his inability to pitch back-to-back days, he joined former Red Sox boss Theo Epstein with the Cubs.
Also gone, likely to the relief of many Red Sox fans, is Clay Buchholz. The former top prospect never did manage to reach his ceiling in Boston thanks to injuries and inconsistency. Last year was perfect proof: The 31-year-old righty was limited to 139 1/3 innings as he was shuttled between the rotation and bullpen and got lit up for a 4.78 ERA, but he was nearly untouchable down the stretch (a 2.86 mark in his final 44 innings). A newly crowded rotation put an end to his 10-year tenure in Boston, and he was dealt to Philadelphia for a return of no note.
Unfinished Business: The corner infield spots
Despite the need for a new regular designated hitter for the first time in 14 years, the Red Sox steered clear of free agency's best option at the position, Edwin Encarnacion (and even after Ortiz not-so-subtly suggested that Boston should bring in his Dominican countryman to replace him). Scared off by Encarnacion’s price and the draft pick compensation attached to him, the Red Sox didn’t bite on the ex-Blue Jays slugger, who instead signed a three-year, $60 million deal with the Indians. Nor did Boston explore any of the other top free-agent hitters available, including Jose Bautista, Mark Trumbo or Mike Napoli, who was an integral part of the 2013 World Series team.
Instead, the Red Sox have decided to fill the DH slot from within and on the cheap by using a combination of Hanley Ramirez and Mitch Moreland, who was signed to a one-year, $5.5 million deal. Ramirez is a known quantity, having bounced back from a dismal first season in New England to club 30 homers and post a 124 OPS+ as the regular (and surprisingly adept) first baseman in 2016. Moreland, meanwhile, comes to Boston from Texas, where the 31-year-old put together seven seasons of middling quality and hit a meager .233/.298/.422 last year. A good defender and viable bat against righthanders, Moreland is nonetheless a budget option at a position that calls out for better, and it’s hard to see him being able to make up for either Ortiz or Ramirez, should the latter take over as the full-time DH.
Also troublesome is the situation at third base, where the traded Shaw gives way to free-agent megabust Pablo Sandoval and utility player Brock Holt. Shaw was no great shakes in his only year as a starter, starting off hot (a .796 OPS before the All-Star break) but crashing down the stretch (.654 in the second half). But Sandoval is a total question mark who was awful in his first season with the Red Sox (a 75 OPS+ and -0.9 WAR) and absent in his second (just seven plate appearances before shoulder surgery ended his year early). Holt, meanwhile, is best suited to a reserve role, as he’s overexposed when asked to take regular at-bats. A decidedly slimmed-down Sandoval has made waves this off-season with reports of his weight loss, but Boston shouldn’t expect much from a player who will turn 31 in August and whose production has steadily fallen since his last All-Star season in 2012. Worse, the team’s depth behind Sandoval and Holt is non-existent; if both flop, then the hot corner will be an issue without a ready solution.
Preliminary Grade: B
The Sale trade, while costly, gives Boston arguably the best rotation in the AL, and the addition of Thornburg is a quietly great one that should help shore up the bullpen. But the Red Sox could have and should have done more to replace Ortiz’s production at DH. The lineup still boasts Ramirez as well as AL MVP runner-up Mookie Betts, line-drive machine Dustin Pedroia and burgeoning young stars Andrew Benintendi, Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr., but going with Moreland instead of Encarnacion may come back to haunt Boston.