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Are the Champion Red Sox Playing It Too Safely This Offseason?

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Are the Champion Red Sox Playing It Too Safely This Offseason?
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

The Boston Red Sox have been awfully quiet this offseason. Too quiet, some might say.

Or, you know, not. To say they've been "too" quiet, Mr. Strawman, is to imply that the Red Sox have been quiet to a fault this winter. I'm not sold that's the case. 

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let's do a quick review of who's gone out the door and who's come in to Boston this winter.

The list of free agents who have left: Andrew Bailey, Stephen Drew, Jacoby Ellsbury, Joel Hanrahan, John McDonald, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Matt Thornton. Boston also lost left-hander Franklin Morales, who was traded to Colorado for infielder Jonathan Herrera.

Herrera is one of two players acquired by Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington via trade, with the other being right-hander Burke Badenhop from Milwaukee in exchange for minor league lefty Luis Ortega.

The list of players acquired by Cherington via free agency includes: Edward Mujica, A.J. Pierzynski...

And, well, that's it. I suppose we could count Mike Napoli. But since the Red Sox merely retained him, he's not really an addition, is he?

It looks on the surface like the Red Sox have lost more than they gained. But if we simplify things by focusing on 2013 fWAR gained and lost, we can get at both the good and the bad of the situation:

Red Sox 2013 fWAR Gained and Lost
Player POS 2013 WAR Lost 2013 WAR Gained
Jacoby Ellsbury CF 5.8
Jarrod Saltalamacchia C 3.8
Stephen Drew SS 3.6
Matt Thornton LHP 0.2
Franklin Morales LHP 0.1
Andrew Bailey RHP 0
John McDonald INF 0
Joel Hanrahan RHP -0.6
A.J. Pierzynski C 1.6
Jonathan Herrera INF 0.4
Burke Badenhop RHP 0.3
Edward Mujica RHP 0
Total 12.9 2.3

FanGraphs

Before we get to the bad, let's talk about the good.

One: Going from Bailey and Hanrahan to Badenhop and Mujica is a clear step up based on what happened in 2013. It also helps that Badenhop and Mujica are healthy, whereas Bailey and Hanrahan are both coming off major surgeries.

Two: The Red Sox have gained more infield depth than they've lost in swapping out McDonald for Herrera. In doing so, they've also gotten about a decade younger.

Three: Boston hasn't added a replacement for either Thornton or Morales, but it didn't need to. The replacement for them will be a healthy Andrew Miller, who had a 35.6 strikeout percentage in 37 appearances in 2013 before suffering a season-ending foot injury.

So as far as three areas are concerned, the Red Sox are fine. Better than fine, actually.

As for the bad, well, there's Ellsbury, Salty and Drew.

John Minchillo/Associated Press

Ellsbury and Salty are officially gone, as the latter signed with the Marlins and the former signed with that one pinstriped team. Drew's still available, and he might return to the Red Sox. But if he doesn't, that'll make three productive regulars from 2013 the Red Sox will have lost.

On the surface, that's not a good way to go about a title defense. Below the surface, however, it's not all that bad.

Let's start with the switch-out from Salty to Pierzynski. That's a clear downgrade if we're going by 2013 WAR, but not necessarily if we look at what's projected for them in 2014.

Via FanGraphs, here's what Steamer sees in store for Salty and Pierzynski in 2014:

2014 Steamer Projections: Saltalamacchia vs. Pierzynski
Player G PA wRC+ Def WAR
Salty 105 433 91 5.3 1.5
Pierzynski 81 320 88 7.5 1.3

FanGraphs

Now the switch doesn't look so bad. Salty and Pierzynski are projected to have about the same WAR, and that's with Pierzynski projected to handle a lighter workload due to his platoon partnership with David Ross.

It's also fair for Steamer to see regression in Salty's future. His success in 2013 was largely fueled by a .372 BABIP. His career mark coming into the season was a humble .309. Steamer sees him finishing at .291. A bit conservative, but fair enough.

The Red Sox are a smart team. Smart enough to anticipate something like that and decide they were best off not paying good money to watch it happen. In paying Pierzynski $8.25 million for one year rather than $21 million for Salty, they made a shrewd investment.

We probably shouldn't call the Salty-for-Pierzynski switch a clear victory for Boston. But at the least, we can call it a fair trade and move on to discussing the Ellsbury-Drew equation.

With Ellsbury gone, the Red Sox currently have Jackie Bradley Jr. penciled in as their starting center fielder. Because he managed just a .617 OPS in 107 plate appearances in the majors last year, that's a leap of faith.

If Drew leaves too, then the Red Sox are going to have Xander Bogaerts at shortstop and Will Middlebrooks at third base. Bogaerts has just 84 major league plate appearances, and is only 21 to boot. Middlebrooks, of course, battled a terrible sophomore slump for much of 2013.

That'll be the domino effect if Drew doesn't re-sign: Losing two established players will force the Red Sox into going with three largely unestablished players. Sounds like an even bigger leap of faith.

...But is it that crazy to think that Bradley, Bogaerts and Middlebrooks might be able to make up for what the Red Sox would be missing from Ellsbury and Drew in 2014?

If we once again go by Steamer projections for all five players, it's surprisingly not crazy:

Steamer Projections: Replacing Ellsbury and Drew in 2014
Player 2014 WAR Lost 2014 WAR Added
Jacoby Ellsbury 3.8
Stephen Drew 2.0
Xander Bogaerts 2.8
Jackie Bradley Jr. 2.0
Will Middlebrooks 2.3
Total 5.8 7.1

FanGraphs

Now, I would agree that Ellsbury's projection is too conservative. Steamer sees his offensive numbers going down in 2014, and that's a hard sell given the likelihood of Yankee Stadium's short right field porch boosting his power.

Even still, you can project an extra point of WAR for both Ellsbury and Drew and only go from an advantage for the three Red Sox to about an even fight. That says a lot about the faith Steamer has in the talents of Bradley, Bogaerts and Middlebrooks.

And why not? This faith isn't necessarily misplaced.

As young and inexperienced as Bogaerts is, anybody who watched him in the postseason should understand why he's universally recognized as a future superstar. His plate approach is mature way beyond his years, and his bat has some natural pop in it. 

As for Bradley, he could be a productive player even if he doesn't turn into an above-average or even average hitter. His defense is regarded as his best talent, and excellent defense in center field alone could make him a worthwhile regular.

Regarding Middlebrooks, don't forget that he was a different hitter once he returned from his demotion to the minors in August. It went like this:

Will Middlebrooks' 2013 Season
Split G PA K% BB% AVG OBP SLUG OPS HR
Before Demotion 53 216 27.8 4.2 .192 .228 .389 .617 9
After Demotion 41 158 24.1 7.0 .276 .329 .476 .805 8

Baseball-Reference.com

That post-demotion line isn't far off from the .288/.325/.509 one Middlebrooks had over 286 plate appearances in 2012. Maybe that's the real Middlebrooks, and a player like that is going to be at least an average contributor over a full season's worth of plate appearances.

I'll take a wild guess that the Red Sox's own projections for Bogaerts, Bradley and Middlebrooks are about as optimistic as those of Steamer. If so, it's no wonder they haven't been in a hurry to use their resources to bring in veteran replacements for Ellsbury and Drew. 

Beyond that...Well, there's not many questions left to be answered regarding the Red Sox's roster.

We've already talked about how the bullpen has gotten some depth, and that basically puts the Red Sox right back where they were this time last year when their bullpen looked like the deepest in baseball. They ended up needing that depth, so good on them for repeating the experiment.

Elsewhere on the field, the Red Sox are set. There's a solid platoon (Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes) for left field. Shane Victorino will man right. Dustin Pedroia and Mike Napoli make up the right side of the infield. David Ortiz is still there at DH. David Ross and Mike Carp are still on the bench. 

As for the rotation, the Red Sox still have Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Jake Peavy, Felix Doubront and Ryan Dempster lined up for their rotation. There's both talent and depth in that collection, two very good things for a rotation to have.

Because they have both talent and depththe latter of which is certainly crucial for a team coming off a deep postseason run—the team the Red Sox have at this very moment looks like a good one.

Good enough, in fact, to project as elite.

You can go on FanGraphs and see how much total WAR each of MLB's 30 teams are projected to get in 2014. Check out where the Red Sox stand among the top 10:

Projected WAR for 2014
Team Batters Pitchers WAR
Red Sox 25.5 21.5 47.0
Tigers 23.8 20.9 44.7
Rays 28.4 14.1 42.5
Rangers 23.3 19.1 42.5
Dodgers 25.7 15.9 41.6
Cardinals 26.7 14.9 41.6
Royals 25.3 16.2 41.4
Angels 30.3 10.4 40.7
Athletics 26.9 13.6 40.5
Indians 26.7 13.4 40.1

FanGraphs

They've lost Ellsbury. They've lost Saltalamacchia. They might lose Drew. The projections don't give a you-know-what. They still see the Red Sox as one of baseball's best.

If you're not into this stuff, you might be cheesed off about the lack of urgency the Red Sox have shown. Maybe you agree that they still have talent but think they could be so much more talented if they'd been willing to make some key signings or trades to replace the big pieces they've lost rather than rely on upstarts like Bradley, Bogaerts and Middlebrooks.

Maybe you agree that those guys have talent but disagree with the concept of essentially giving them the keys to the castle.

Since I'm a numbers guy, I'm inclined to say that the concept is supported by the data. But even beyond the numbers, however, the concept still makes sense.

The Red Sox could have responded to winning the World Series by giving in to the pressure to win it again and making like the Yankees: exhausting their resources to bring in established stars.

The thing is, the Red Sox didn't fare so well the last time they played at being the Yankees. It would seem they mean to be more like the Cardinals, who always have a young stud to plug in every time a veteran gets too old, too expensive or both.

Have the Red Sox played things too safely this winter?

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The pattern has worked pretty well for them. Maybe it can work for the Red Sox too, and now's as good a time as any for them to give it a shot.

The Red Sox appear to be viewing 2014 as a year in which the pressure will actually be lower. They don't need to appease an impatient fanbase. They don't need to regain any dignity. They did both in a big way in 2013, so why not use 2014 as a year to see just what the organization has in its own ranks?

Maybe it won't work. If it doesn't, oh well. Boston will have plenty of resources to use next winter, which will feature a free-agent market with names like Max Scherzer, Hanley Ramirez and Chase Headley.

But if it does work? Shoot, buckle up. A championship-caliber team without a core of young stars will have begotten a championship-caliber team with a core of young stars, and there will be more on the way and plenty of money to use elsewhere.

The Red Sox have all but announced to the world that they're willing to take a chance with the kind of offseason they've had. That chance is very much worth taking.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked. 

 

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