Boston Red Sox 2019 season preview: Defending champs will battle bullpen questions, Yankees during repeat quest

The Boston Red Sox in 2018 enjoyed a dream season — a 108-win regular season followed by a playoff gauntlet that included series wins over the Yankees, Astros, and Dodgers. In the end, the Sox claimed both belt and title, and Mookie Betts wound up being named AL MVP. As you would expect, the Sox profile once again as leading contenders to win the World Series, but the AL East — and in particular the rival Yankees — will be a stiff test. Now let’s have a closer look at the 2019 Red Sox … 

Probable lineup

  1. Andrew Benintendi, LF
  2. Mookie Betts, RF
  3. J.D. Martinez, DH
  4. Xander Bogaerts, SS
  5. Mitch Moreland/Steve Pearce, 1B
  6. Dustin Pedroia, 2B
  7. Rafael Devers/Eduardo Nunez, 3B
  8. Christian Vazquez, C
  9. Jackie Bradley Jr., CF

Bench: Sandy Leon, C; Moreland/Pearce; Devers/Nunez; Brock Holt, INF/OF

Probable rotation

  1. Chris Sale, LHP
  2. David Price, LHP
  3. Rick Porcello, RHP
  4. Eduardo Rodriguez, LHP
  5. Nathan Eovaldi, RHP

Probable bullpen

Closer: Ryan Brasier, RHP
Setup: Matt Barnes, RHP; Heath Hembree, RHP
Middle: Tyler Thornburg, RHP; Brandon Workman, RHP
LOOGY: Brian Johnson, LHP
Long: Hector Velazquez, RHP

Does Pedroia have anything left?

Stalwart second baseman Dustin Pedroia was limited to just three games last season because of a re-aggravated knee injury, and in 2017 problems with that same left knee plus a wrist sprain kept Pedroia to just 105 games played. While he may not be ready for Opening Day, Pedroia’s aim — and the Red Sox’s plan — is for him to be the primary at second base in 2019. The problem, of course, is that he’s playing the middle infield on a bad knee going into his age-35 season. 

Back in 2017, Pedroia showed signs of decline at the plate and in the field. Are his straits likely to be that much better now that he’s two years and one knee surgery further into his decline phase? The Red Sox do have backup plans on the roster in Brock Holt and Eduardo Nunez, but turning to either would be sub-optimal. Holt’s positional flexibility makes the roster flow much better, and Nunez is slated to be Rafael Devers‘ platoon partner at third base. Locking either into regular duty at second exacts a price elsewhere. 

The SportsLine Projection Model (@SportsLine on Twitter) tabs Pedroia in 2019 for 113 games played and a slash line of .270/.344/.395. Given the full context of Pedroia in the here and now, that’s somewhat promising. Last season, the average MLB second baseman batted .254/.317/.397, so SportsLine expects Pedroia to better than that in 2019. If they can get 100-plus games from Pedroia with an OPS in the .700s, then the Sox can live with that, especially given the overall strength of the lineup. First, though, Pedroia must prove he’s still capable of that. 

Bullpen questions

Last season, the Boston bullpen ranked fourth in the AL in relief ERA and third in relief FIP. So the relief corps was good, if not dominant. This offseason, though, righty Joe Kelly inked a three-year deal with the Dodgers, and outgoing closer Craig Kimbrel is still on the market (and presumably won’t return to the Red Sox). Those are notable losses from a bullpen that was, to repeat, good but not elite. As well, knuckleballer Steven Wright, who had been ticketed for the bullpen this season, will be sidelined until late June because of an 80-game suspension.

They’re light on known quantities right now. Ryan Brasier could be slated for closer duty, and Matt Barnes is also in the mix. Each has want you want in that role, at least in terms of the rudiments — i.e., the big fastball paired with a breaking ball. Elsewhere, the Red Sox will be hoping to finally get something from Tyler Thornburg more than two years after acquiring him from the Brewers. Major shoulder issues cost him all of 2017 and all but 24 (ineffective) innings last year. He’s finally healthy and has shown some flashes this spring. Thornburg proved at various points in Milwaukee that he’s capable of being a lockdown guy, and the Sox need him to be just that. Consider him an x-factor. Elsewhere, Hector Velazquez and or Brian Johnson could be multi-inning options for manager Alex Cora. If Johnson settles into that role, then Bobby Poyner could be rostered as the LOOGY. 

Keep an eye on former TCU closer Durbin Feltman, who soon turns 22. He was a third-rounder in last year’s draft, and as a college trained reliever he’ll move quickly. Feltman dominated in 23 1/3 innings in the lower rungs of the system last season, and this spring he’s turned heads with his slider and fastball that touches the high-90s. Don’t be surprised if he finds his way to Boston soon and works his way into a high-leverage role. Likewise don’t be surprised if Dave Dombrowski is active in trying to land a reliever leading up to the July 31 trade deadline. 

Don’t forget the young bats

Given all the very justifiable attention on Mookie Betts’ MVP campaign, J.D. Martinez’s very successful first season in Boston, and David Price’s redemption, there wasn’t much bandwidth left for less notable Sox contributors. Let’s take a moment, though, to note that Andrew Benintendi and Xander Bogaerts were central to the Sox’s triumphs in 2018. 

Benintendi took the next step forward last season, as he authored an OPS+ of 123 and made strides in terms of power against left-handed pitching. Going into the 2017 season, Benintendi was the consensus No. 1 overall prospect, so he’s certainly got a high ceiling. He’s now 24, so don’t be surprised if he shows further skills growth in 2019. 

As Bogaerts, he broke out in a big way in his age-25 campaign. He came into last season with a career OPS+ of 100 — certainly fine for a shortstop — but then he busted out with an OPS+ of 135 across 580 plate appearances. He backed up that surge with improved plate discipline indicators and new levels of raw power. Like Benintendi, Bogaerts is a former frontline prospect, so it’s not surprising that he would eventually find his level. Consider him in the discussion for best shortstop in baseball. 

Let’s also not forget about Rafael Devers. Hamstring and shoulder problems hindered Devers last season, but despite all that and despite being in just his age-21 season Devers still managed 21 home runs in 450 at-bats. Devers was not so long ago a consensus top-20 overall prospect who batted .297/.354/.484 across five minor-league seasons despite being much younger than his peer group at every stop. So long as he’s healthy and gets primary playing time at third base, look for him to make a forward leap in 2019. 

Has Eovaldi truly leveled up?

Hard-throwing Nathan Eovaldi has always been long on stuff with strong underlying indicators, but consistently good run-prevention numbers have at times eluded him. That changed following last July’s trade to Boston. With the Red Sox, Eovaldi put up an ERA+ of 132 across 11 stretch-drive starts and one relief appearance, and then he gave them 22 1/3 dominant innings in the postseason. With Boston, Eovaldi threw more cutters and flashed his curve a bit more, so there are some changes underpinning the improvements. The Sox are of course betting that all of this is sustainable, as they inked Eovaldi to a four-year, $68 million pact this offseason. They need him to keep it up in order to stabilize the back of the rotation in 2019 and beyond. 

It’s probably going to be a death struggle with the Yankees

Last season, the Red Sox topped the Yankees by a hefty eight games in the AL East. However, at the level of the run differential the Red Sox played more like a 103-win team last season, while the Yankees played more like a 99-win team. That suggests we might see a bit more compression in 2019. As well, the Yankees, while they didn’t land a particularly big fish, they did make some nice targeted additions this offseason in James Paxton, DJ LeMahieu, Adam Ottavino, and Troy Tulowitzki

So, yeah, it’s looking like a most compelling race for the division title between these two blood rivals. As for the SportsLine Projection Model, it pegs the the Yankees for 101.5 wins (the averaged of thousands of simulations) and a 52.6 percent chance of winning the AL East. The Red Sox are right behind them at 100.1 wins and a 41.7 percent chance of taking the flag. This one could be a classic.

You’ll note this scribe has not mentioned the Rays as potential AL East winners in 2019. This is because the Rays are not going to win the AL East in 2019.

Categories: National Sports

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