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Under New Management - A Boston Red Sox preview

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A look ahead at the current AL East frontrunners

"I'm here to murder baseballs and collect a retirement gift. And I've already collected my retirement gift."
"I'm here to murder baseballs and collect a retirement gift. And I've already collected my retirement gift."
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

On August 4, 2015, the Detroit Tigers made the surprising decision to release team president and general manager Dave Dombrowski. The Tigers were in the midst of a difficult season and the twin anchors of a barren farm system and heavyweight contracts to aging players were threatening to drag the franchise into the abyss. Whether desperate times called for this specific desperate measure was questionable; Dombrowski is respected as one of the best executives in the game. However, the on-field frustration and the general impatience of owner Mike Ilitch proved to be a dangerous combination and sometimes a situation like that leads to change for change's sake.

Naturally, Dombrowski wasn't out of a job long. There were a few different suitors for his services and Boston Red Sox owner John Henry pounced on the rare opportunity to bring in such an experienced and well-regarded front office talent. Henry and Dombrowski developed a strong relationship when the latter served as GM for the former with the Marlins organization. It's thought that their history working together was instrumental to the Red Sox hiring Dombrowski as President of Baseball Operations on August 18, 2015, a mere two weeks after the Tigers abruptly dismissed him.

This called into question the future role of the team's general manager at the time, Ben Cherington. The Carmines were in the process of finishing in last place in the AL East for the third time in Cherington's four years at the helm. Even though a World Series championship was mixed in there as well, there was reason for Red Sox ownership to want a change and the hiring of Dombrowski was a clear signal that faith in Cherington was waning. With autonomy essentially stripped from the general manager position, Cherington resigned shortly thereafter.

Despite some bad contracts on the books, the team that Cherington left behind was exciting because of a quality crop of young players. Possibly the best of those young players is outfielder Mookie Betts, who turned in a very productive season at the top of the Boston lineup in 2015. The 23-year-old can hit for average and power and is one of baseball's best baserunners. His partner-in-crime is 23-year-old shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who's hell on opposing pitchers and spelling bee contestants alike. Bogaerts has yet to realize the power potential that many had forecast for him, but he made up for it by allaying concerns about his defense last season. He's an All-Star-level player in his current form, so if the doubles start leaving the yard, Bogaerts could collect some down-ballot MVP votes in his future.

Betts has moved to right field full-time to pave the way for stellar defender Jackie Bradley Jr to handle center. Bradley's bat looked too helpless to carry in limited stints during 2013 and 2014 but he delivered a highly promising .249/.335/.498 line in 255 plate appearances last season. If this is anything close to sustainable, the Red Sox will have yet another cost-controlled star.

Typically, having such a nice collection of pre-arb players would mean loads of financial flexibility for the future, but the Red Sox have made some blunders in free agency that may hinder the upside. Former "shortstop" Hanley Ramirez was acquired to play left field last season and was effectively a walking blooper reel worthy of a Yakety Sax soundtrack. He's slid all the way down the defensive spectrum to first base, where his bat doesn't play as an asset. In August of 2014, the Red Sox signed Cuban Rusney Castillo to a seven year, $72.5 million deal. The 28-year-old has been so disappointing that he's currently collecting that paycheck at Triple-A Pawtucket (and he's not exactly pushing the PawSox closer to an International League championship either).

The coup de grâce, however, was the 5 year, $95 million contract handed out to Pablo Sandoval. In San Francisco, Sandoval made headlines with his nickname, good defense at third base, and postseason heroics. In Boston, Sandoval has made headlines for his excessive weight problems and his mid-game Instagram activity in the Turner Field bathroom. Sandoval was one of the worst players in the game last season and he effectively lost the third base job to Travis Shaw before going on the disabled list and electing season-ending surgery. The 26-year-old Shaw was effectively a non-prospect and wasn't exactly destroying Triple-A last season, but he got his chance when Mike Napoli was traded to Texas and showed some surprising power that has carried over to 2016 thus far. Shaw's current stellar .322/.390/.533 slash line comes with the caveat of a .419 BABIP, however.

The young core has been a lot of fun for Red Sox fans to watch develop, but the star who's shining the brightest right now is 40-year-old David Ortiz, who has confirmed he will retire after the 2016 season. This isn't a Jeterish or Konerkoesque farewell tour, however. Ortiz may be into his fifth decade of life, but he leads the majors in doubles and has slashed .317/.417/.634 through 23 games. Not since Barry Bonds have we seen someone put up such stellar numbers at such an advanced age. That Ortiz has managed to average 34 home runs in his age 37-39 seasons in this environment of high-velocity hurlers and specialist relievers is nothing short of incredible. The game will surely miss Big Papi.

Ortiz may yet have another postseason left in his storied career, but to get there, the Red Sox pitching staff will have to improve on last year's lackluster performance. The 2015 rotation was led by Clay Buchholz, who's about as inconsistent a pitcher as you'll find. His ERA has seesawed from the previous year's mark by at least two full runs-per-nine each of the last three seasons. You never know whether you're going to get a shutout, watch a disaster start, or whether he'll even show up at all given his complicated injury history. But hey, maybe Buchholz is starting to produce stable results; he's given up exactly five runs in four of his five outings this year (and zero in the other, obviously).

The other pitcher counted on to carry a heavy load with the 2015 Red Sox was Rick Porcello, who was acquired from the Tigers in the Yoenis Cespedes heist trade. Porcello had been a ground ball pitcher for years but suddenly his sinker started to get hammered and homers started leaving the yard last season. A quick glance at his vertical movement chart may explain why: he's lost a great deal of dip on his sinker compared to previous years.

The Red Sox' other incumbent starters for 2016 were knuckleballer Steven Wright, whose ERA is currently sparkling due to an unsustainably low home run rate and Joe Kelly, who has relatively poor command of electric stuff. The latter is on the shelf with a shoulder injury, so soft-tossing lefty Henry Owens is filling in. Owens will be hard to trust until he gets his horrifying ground ball rate under control, as he's highly susceptible to the longball.

While it's not the saddest collection of arms you'll find, there was little to inspire great confidence in the Boston rotation after the 2015 season. An aggressive win-now executive like Dombrowski was never going to let that stand, especially in an organization that loathes the idea of a rebuild. That's why he went out and brought in the biggest fish on the free agent market, David Price, for seven years and $217 million. An unfortunate BABIP and sequencing (57.3 percent strand rate) have the lefty ace's ERA looking downright astronomical, but Price's strikeout rate is higher than ever, even though his velocity appears down a tick across the board.

The acquisitions of Price to front the rotation and ace reliever Craig Kimbrel to slam the door in the ninth should work well with an improved Red Sox defense to strengthen run prevention efforts. With Dombrowski at the helm of a team with a deep farm system, it's safe to assume that reinforcements will be brought in if Boston is at the front of a pennant race in July. Beantown has had a disproportionate share of nice things in baseball this millenium; it doesn't appear that will be changing anytime soon.

Projected Record and Finish: 91-71, 1st place AL East

Probable Starting Pitchers

  • Tuesday, May 3: Jose Quintana vs. Steven Wright
  • Wednesday, May 4: John Danks vs. Clay Buchholz
  • Thursday, May 5: Carlos Rodon vs. Henry Owens

Probable Lineup

Pitching

1. Mookie Betts - RF

SP1. David Price - LHP

2. Dustin Pedroia - 2B

SP2. Clay Buchholz - RHP

3. Xander Bogaerts - SS

SP3. Rick Porcello - RHP

4. David Ortiz - DH

SP4. Steven Wright - RHP

5. Hanley Ramirez - 1B

SP5. Henry Owens - LHP

6. Travis Shaw - 3B

CL. Craig Kimbrel - RHP

7. Brock Holt - LF

RP1. Koji Uehara - RHP

8. Christian Vazquez - C

RP2. Junichi Tazawa - RHP

9. Jackie Bradley - CF

RP3. Carson Smith - RHP