April 2, 2015
Every Team's Moneyball
Boston Red Sox: Hit First, Ask Later
Every day until Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus authors will preview two teams—one from the AL, one from the NL—identifying strategies those teams employ to gain an advantage. Today: two AL teams! Projected division winners Angels and their diverse bullpen of specific pieces, plus the Red Sox and their collection of same-position hitters.
If you were in Ben Cherington’s shoes, why wouldn’t you buy all of the hitters?
Offense is down across baseball, with power hard to come by. There are fewer ways for financial powerhouses to flex their muscles. Every 12 seconds some poor pitcher’s UCL snaps, and hitters tend to produce more later in their careers and decline more gently than their baseball-hurling counterparts.
It only makes sense, then, that Cherington has chased many a player who carries a big stick over the past eight months. What might make less sense, and what’s more interesting to explore, is how he’s targeted hitters regardless of the positions they play, their proximity to the majors and how naturally or strangely they seem to fit within the current composition of the Red Sox roster.
Consider all of the offensive talent Cherington’s amassed since he decided to remake the roster last July. He’s added, in semi-sequential order: Yoenis Cespedes, Allen Craig, Rusney Castillo, Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, Ryan Hanigan, and Yoan Moncada. The offensive players he’s subtracted from the roster since that point? Cespedes and Will Middlebrooks.
All in all, there’s nearly $325 million (not including Moncada’s penalty money) committed to the remaining six players who, aside from Sandoval and Hanigan, didn’t really fit an obvious team need. Craig is blocked by Mike Napoli, Daniel Nava, and David Ortiz. Castillo competes directly with Shane Victorino, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Mookie Betts. Ramirez is changing positions just to add to a muddled outfield, and Moncada is a prospect whose best position is currently occupied by the face of the franchise, Dustin Pedroia. You can even argue that, after the Ramirez signing, Sandoval wasn’t necessary, as the prodigal prospect returning home probably could’ve handled third base for a few years as Garin Cecchini waits in the wings.
The end result is that many believe the Red Sox now have too many players. Hanigan, Napoli, Pedroia, Bogaerts, Sandoval, Ramirez, and Ortiz are guaranteed roster spots as everyday players, Brock Holt is guaranteed a spot as the utility infielder/god of hair, and one spot will go to a backup catcher. If Boston goes with conventional 25-man roster construction, that leaves four roster spots for the likes of Craig, Nava, Betts, Cecchini, Bradley, Victorino, and Castillo.
To many, that looks like a misallocation of resources, especially when you consider a pitching staff that PECOTA projects to finish as the fourth worst in the game by RA. The flip side of that coin is that the Sox look to be a dominant unit on the offensive side of the ball and they have plenty of depth, too.
According to PECOTA, the Sox should finish as the only team in the game to score more than 800 runs this year. They have PECOTA’s highest-projected OBP at .339 and the third-highest projected slugging percentage. Six of their starters project to finish with a TAv of .275 or better, as do two of their backups, and as you look around the diamond, the only position at which the Sox look to be below average offensively is catcher. Sure, the Sox might end up having to park a $10.5 million Cuban and an all-world defensive center fielder in Triple-A, and we might hear someone like Craig or Victorino grumble about playing time here and there. But if projection systems can be believed, the offense Cherington has engineered is in excellent shape.
To be fair, Cherington has largely tried this before, and we’ve seen that the best laid schemes of mice and Ben often go awry. The Red Sox, if you remember, began the 2014 season as the defending World Series champions. PECOTA projected them to finish first in TAv at .287, first in runs scored per game at 5.27 and first in the AL East with a 97-65 record. Their pitching looked to be only slightly better than league average, but the 2014 Red Sox were absolutely going to hit.
Until they didn’t, of course. The ‘14 Red Sox, hampered by injuries, uninspired offseason moves, and the failures of their young hitters, stunk. They scored 634 runs, down at 18th in the league. They hit 123 homers, tied for 22nd. And they reached base at a .316 clip, making them middle-of-the-pack in a metric they’d dominated for the better part of the last decade. Ultimately, the Red Sox finished 71-81, underperforming their preseason win projection by a stunning 26 games.
There are some key differences this time around, though. Last year, the Sox relied on three young players, Bogaerts, Bradley and Middlebrooks, to produce in at key spots. It wasn’t a crazy idea, especially since Bogaerts and Bradley looked to be safe bets, but where Cherington failed spectacularly was in providing reasonable backup options should his youngsters struggle.
When Bradley put up one of the worst offensive seasons in history, the Sox had to look to Grady Sizemore for relief. When Middlebrooks was ineffective, the Sox had Ryan Roberts. And when Cherington tried to rectify that mistake by signing Stephen Drew and shifting Bogaerts to third, he only served to mess with Bogaerts’ development. Drew also stunk, and it all went to hell in a handbasket. Seriously, thank god for Brock Holt.
This year, things are a bit different. Bogaerts doesn’t have to occupy a prominent spot in the lineup. Bradley isn’t being counted upon for any significant contributions, despite his defensive prowess. Mookie Betts is probably the youngster who’ll face the most pressure this year and he can easily be replaced by Castillo, Victorino, or Bradley himself. Options abound.
Cherington has protected his veterans, too. Napoli can be replaced by Nava or Craig. Pedroia can be replaced by Betts. Sandoval can be replaced by Holt or Cecchini, and there are enough outfielders hanging around to fill two rosters. Really, the only big problem spots for the Red Sox will arise at shortstop, if Bogaerts struggles or is injured, and behind the plate, where Christian Vazquez’s likely absence looms large.
And that’s the real reason why Cherington’s “acquire offensive talent first, ask questions later” philosophy makes the most sense. The Sox have a talented team, but there are plenty of older, oft-injured players here, too. What are the odds that Napoli, Craig, Pedroia, Victorino, Ramirez, and Ortiz all make it through the season without a DL trip? Can odds be negative? When injury eventually strikes and if underperformance from youngsters strikes, the Red Sox are about as ready as an organization can be.
Plus, if by some miracle everyone is healthy and all of Boston’s young players do produce and too many cooks really can spoil the broth, Cherington will have an enviable surplus of offensive talent he can use to trade for a pitcher.
After all, the Phillies could use some better hitters.