The Red Sox haven't looked like the defending World Series champions so far this season. Boston is struggling to stay above .500 for good. In the early going, Boston hasn't stood out as the team to beat, but the tight AL East race has afforded the Red Sox the opportunity to figure out their issues.
Despite all the problems, Boston is just 1.5 games behind first place entering Thursday night's games. Here are some bold predictions for the rest of Boston's season.
BOLD PREDICTION: Jackie Bradley Jr. will not remain the Red Sox center fielder.
Jackie Bradley Jr. is the Red Sox center fielder of the future. That's going to have to wait a bit, though. The early going has been tough on the 24-year-old, who is hitting just .219 with a .326 on-base percentage and .325 slugging percentage. While his defense has been among the best in the league, the team can't afford to let its moribund offense threaten the team much longer.
The Sox are 16th in runs scored in all of baseball, 21st in batting average and 17th in slugging percentage. These numbers won't get Boston back to playing postseason baseball. In order for the team to start hitting again, changes have to be made.
The biggest offensive struggles so far belong to Bradley, shortstop Xander Bogaerts and third baseman Will Middlebrooks.
Bogaerts isn't going anywhere because there's no one internally to replace him at shortstop. It's possible that someone could be brought in from outside the system to replace Bogaerts, but while Bogaerts' lack of power has been a bit concerning in the early going, it would be foolhardy to give up on someone who could anchor the team for the decade to come.
If the Red Sox were interested in replacing Bogaerts at short, it would have happened already; last season's shortstop, Stephen Drew, is still sitting out there as a free agent. Plus, Bogaerts was a major contributor to the Red Sox during last season's World Series victory and has shown that he can hit for average and draw walks so far this season—it's just the power that has to come around.
Power isn't a problem for Middlebrooks, but his batting average is. However, he's far more likely than Bradley to stay in the lineup. For one, an injury robbed Middlebrooks of significant time in the early going, so he likely has a longer leash than Bradley, who has played in twice the amount of games Middlebrooks has.
Second, Middlebrooks has shown major strides in his plate discipline, which the Red Sox have noticed, per Jason Mastrodonato of MassLive.com. With the kind of power Middlebrooks has and his keener batting eye, he's the more valuable property on offense.
That leaves Bradley Jr. as the only underperforming bat that could be replaced.
There's no easy replacement for Bradley Jr., but there are certainly options. Shane Victorino could shift over from right field to his former stomping grounds in center, opening right field for another player—perhaps Daniel Nava. Grady Sizemore could always start playing more; after a poor start to the year, Sizemore's bat has started waking up.
In the minors, prospect Mookie Betts, who is red-hot at the plate, could move from second base to center field to replace Bradley. Betts already takes repetitions before the game in center field, as WEEI's Alex Speier writes.
There's also always the trade market, and given their flexibility in being able to move Victorino to center, that opens up a lot of possibilities in potential outfield targets.
But the Red Sox will have to do something about their underperforming offense before too long. The combination of poor contact and a lack of power is an issue for Bradley Jr., and at some point, his superb defense won't be able to cover that up.
BOLD PREDICTION: One current starting pitcher in the rotation will be traded.
The Red Sox have a lot of enviable depth in the minor leagues, which will enable the Red Sox to make changes in the rotation as soon as they see fit. Three of the five top prospects as ranked by ESPN's Keith Law (subscription required)—Matt Barnes, Allen Webster and Anthony Ranaudo—currently pitch for Triple-A Pawtucket.
By and large, those already pitching in Triple-A are thought to be ready for the majors and can step in at a moment's notice. Webster, for example, already made his debut with the Red Sox in 2013.
Ranaudo is already on the 40-man roster, meaning the team wouldn't have to remove someone from the 40-man to make room for the 2011 first-round pick. Also plying his trade in Pawtucket is Rubby De La Rosa, a former top prospect. De La Rosa was formerly the Dodgers' No. 3 prospect after the 2010 season, but he lost his rookie eligibility in 2011 then underwent Tommy John surgery. He's been a bit of a forgotten commodity but pitched extremely well in April before struggling to start May.
Rounding out the Triple-A rotation is Brandon Workman, who played a critical role in the postseason for the Red Sox in 2013. While the jury is out on Workman's long-term role, he could certainly step into a starting role in the majors immediately should the Red Sox ask him to.
Finally, the fourth of five pitchers in ESPN's top 10 prospects is Henry Owens. Owens is currently pitching in Double-A Portland and could feasibly be promoted to Boston given how well he is pitching. Plenty of pitchers make the jump from Double-A to the majors all the time.
The takeaway is that Boston has a lot of quality pitchers who could be promoted to the majors at any point.
Currently, the Red Sox have two starters with ERAs north of 6.00: Clay Buchholz and Felix Doubront. If there isn't rapid improvement shortly, one has to think the Red Sox would start looking elsewhere for solutions.
There's plenty of talent in Doubront's arm that other teams would be interested in, but his struggles in controlling his pitches—the left-hander's 3.82 walks per nine innings is higher than the league average of 3.12—isn't something the Red Sox can continue to be patient with if they want to stay within striking distance of first place.
Buchholz certainly has a longer leash than Doubront. Before getting hurt and missing much of the summer in 2013, Buchholz was in prime position to win the AL Cy Young Award. He ended the year with a 12-1 record and 1.74 ERA. Add in a guaranteed contract that has him signed through 2015, and it makes more sense for Boston to trade Doubront, not Buchholz. Doubront could even fetch the replacement for Bradley Jr.
The team could even elect to trade John Lackey or Jake Peavy instead. Lackey has been a key part of the Red Sox rotation since coming back from Tommy John surgery. Since the start of 2013, Lackey has a 3.53 ERA in 37 starts. But he's 35 years old. How long can Boston lean on him?
Boston also holds a club option for 2015 for the right-hander...at the league-minimum. This is due to the terms of the five-year deal Lackey signed with Boston before the 2010 season, as Baseball Prospectus outlines. With the way Lackey is pitching, plus his affordable salary for 2015, he could fetch something significant back in a trade.
Lastly, there's Jake Peavy, who was acquired from the White Sox prior to the trade deadline in 2013. Peavy isn't the same pitcher he was in his Padres days. In 2014, his numbers show that the right-hander is a back-of-the-rotation starter.
Since joining Boston, he's struck out just 6.9 batters per nine innings and walked 3.7 per nine. His BB/9 figure in 2014 alone is a whopping 5.1, a number he's going to have to trim dramatically if he hopes to stay in the rotation, let alone retain trade value.
It's a good thing that the Red Sox have enviable minor league pitching depth because they might need it. With the struggles of Buchholz, Doubront and Peavy, it's not outlandish to suggest that they could be outperformed by a few pitchers currently plying their trade in the minors.
With other priorities on the team that need to be addressed, look for the Red Sox to trade off a pitcher currently in the rotation in order to fill needs elsewhere and open up a spot in the majors for one of their prospects.
BOLD PREDICTION: The Red Sox will make the playoffs.
Yes, the Red Sox will make the playoffs. The Red Sox are still largely the same team that won the World Series last year. Only center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and shortstop Stephen Drew have departed.
Bogaerts has replaced Drew and, despite his power outage, is here to stay. His defense hasn't been spectacular, but it's been good enough. Further, the 21-year-old is still collecting hits and getting on base. There isn't much to worry about with Bogaerts.
As for Ellsbury, he's only earned 0.7 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) this season while Bradley is at 0.1. The difference isn't stark enough (yet, anyways) to say that keeping Ellsbury would have kept the Sox in much better position to defend the their World Series title.
As time goes on, the starting rotation will inevitably improve. Either the pitchers will pick up their production, or changes will be made to get new pitchers in who will produce. Similarly, the team won't wait around for Jackie Bradley Jr. to start hitting or for Will Middlebrooks' average to rise. At some point, it will become about producing at the plate.
When you look at all the other AL East teams and their own holes, it becomes immediately apparent that the Red Sox are still in strong position.
The Yankees are aging and have battled with significant injury issues. The Orioles are an intriguing team, but their offense is just as bad as Boston's because no one gets on base while their pitching staff is one of the worst in all of baseball. The Rays lost Matt Moore, a key starting pitcher, for the season, so they don't stand out as a cut above the other teams. The Blue Jays look like they can finally do some damage this season, but they also aren't a cut above.
With the amount of talent the Red Sox have on the team and marinating in the minors, plus the financial resources they can deploy in midseason trades, they're perhaps the best-equipped team in the AL East to walk away with a spot in the postseason.