I have a lot of favorite times of year in sports. I have favorite weekends, favorite months, even a favorite morning. But this upcoming week gets the nod as my favorite random sports week of the year. It’s got the NCAA Championship, the NBA playoff race, the Masters and best of all, Opening Day.
Despite what the New England weather might be telling us with gusts of freezing wind, baseball season is indeed upon us. And with the first pitch tonight at the newly modernized Wrigley Field, a new MLB year will be upon us. Memories of the 2014 Red Sox can finally be stowed away and we can be filled with the youthful optimism of Opening Day tomorrow. Few things are as gloriously hopeful as seeing the Sox take the field again.
Putting aside my blind Opening Day optimism for the remainder of this post, I want to outline my expectations for the coming year. With the lineup restocked with serious hitting talent, this team will be fun to watch at the very minimum. There’s no chance that a team with so many sluggers can stumble to a last place finish. So that’s good. But I have serious doubts about the team’s October chances with the current collection of pitchers. Sure, they’ll score in the regular season. But in the playoffs, when you’re facing the likes of David Price and Anibal Sanchez, runs will be hard to come by. Suddenly, you need a pitcher who can hold opponents to under three runs in big games. And I don’t think the Red Sox have that pitcher. But before I get to the pitching staff, I’ll start with the hitters.
Behind the plate, I’m not sold on Ryan Hanigan and Sandy Leon. That’s not a duo that can turn a mediocre pitching staff into a great one. Nor one who can hit enough to make up for it. I’m incredibly disappointed and saddened by Christian Vazquez’s surgery as I was excited to watch a defensive wizard handle this staff. But alas, injury strikes, and I fear Vazquez won’t be given another shot if Blake Swihart is ready next year. Catcher is clearly the team’s weakest position, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Red Sox had to make a move in late May or June for a short-term fix.
In the infield, I expect a big season from Mike Napoli. I’m a big believer that you have more energy when you sleep well, and it sounds like Nap’s finally getting good sleep. He’ll be a menace in the six spot in the order, and should clean up offensively. I see him easily eclipsing 100 RBIs. I’m less sure about Xander Bogaerts and Dustin Pedroia bouncing back. I’d be happy with any sort of consistency from the two at the plate. Both will be in positions to get good pitches to hit, but I’m afraid Pedroia’s lost some bat speed and that Bogaerts simply isn’t as good as we all thought. I’m worried a slow start could shatter the shortstop’s confidence. And for Pablo Sandoval, we all need to realize he’s not going to be David Ortiz. I think he’ll have a high OBP but a much lower slugging percentage than people will want. And as far as Ortiz goes, I think he’s due for a big year with some protection in the lineup for the first time in years. 34 home runs (the amount needed to get to 500 in his career) doesn’t sound too far-fetched.
Where last year’s outfield was a black hole, this one should be right at the top of the league in offensive production. I want to be cautious with my expectations for Mookie Betts, but frankly, I’ll be just as surprised as everyone else if he doesn’t come in and steal our hearts. He carries himself with so much confidence that I don’t see him backing down against anyone. In left, Hanley Ramirez is going to be the right-handed middle-of-the-order bat the Sox have lacked since Jason Bay in 2009. I’m really excited to see him play. And while I love the guy, I don’t expect Shane Victorino to be the starter in right field much past April. Either he gets hurt (which is probably the likely outcome), or he plays himself into being a trade target. Rusney Castillo has to get big-league at-bats soon.
Defensively, this team could be pretty bad. All the ground-ball pitchers will expose the fact that this infield isn’t as strong as it has been. Expect 20-plus errors from Bogaerts and another 10 each from Sandoval and Pedroia. I’m also worried that Pedroia’s lost a step at second. Be on the lookout for whether he’s getting to as many balls as he used to. And in the outfield, things could get messy, especially if Victorino’s not out there. There’s probably a reason most teams don’t switch often their life-long infielders into the outfield. And between Ramirez and Betts, the Sox have two of those guys. Sure, Betts will make some nice catches, but there’ll also be many poor reads and mistimed dives that lead to free bases Jackie Bradley Jr. didn’t allow.
When lamenting the fact that this team lacks an ace in the starting rotation, it’s worth remembering that Lester was hardly an ace for the last few years in the regular season. So this isn’t entirely new. But what is new is the lack of a marketable go-to guy in October. There’s nobody to trust yet. Among the starters, I’m confident that Rick Porcello can have a good year. But matched up against top pitchers in the playoffs, I don’t think we can count on him throwing a shutout. Behind him, I think Clay Buchholz can have a productive three or four months. When those months will be I don’t know, but he’ll either start strong or finish strong. The other three guys I don’t have much faith in however. Hitters have seen the ball well against Justin Masterson both in recent years and in spring training, so things could get ugly with him on the mound. And I’m not sold on Wade Miley or Joe Kelly as being good enough for the AL East.
I like the compilation of right-handed arms in the bullpen. The sixth, seventh and eighth innings will be in good hands if Junichi Tazawa, Alexi Ogando and Anthony Varvano can stay healthy. I’m not as confident in the left-handed options sans Andrew Miller, but maybe Craig Breslow can return to the pitcher he was in the 2013 regular season. And at closer, Koji Uehara’s health is a huge worry. I wasn’t a fan of the contract he received given his health concerns, and that could prove disastrous if he’s not able to take the mound every other night. Edward Mujica seemed to figure things out late last year, so he’s not the worst emergency option, but this team will need Uehara at or near his best to contend for a title.
All in all, I think the team will finish with a win-total in the upper-80’s and will earn one of the two wild-card spots. That’s where the lack of an ace could prove especially costly. But I’m confident that Ben Cherington will make a move for a pitcher at some point, though I don’t think it will be Cole Hamels coming to Boston. But even without a star pitcher, this team will be fun. Expect lots of runs.
Tomorrow at 3:05, another journey begins for the hometown nine. As Mookie steps in to face Hamels, we can all be optimistic that this is our year. We can forget about the miserable 2014 and the endless winter. Because on this afternoon, the sun will be bright and the grass will be green. And the Red Sox will be back playing baseball. Let’s play some baseball.