5 Bold Predictions for the Red Sox 2015 Season
We're just 36 days away from pitchers and catchers reporting to Fort Myers, Florida on Feb. 20. As a new year inches closer to beginning, questions mount as to where the Red Sox and their players stand in baseball's yet-to-be-defined hierarchy.
As fans start to form their expectations and forecast things that will happen during the upcoming season, I couldn't resist prognosticating a few occurrences myself. Without further ado, five bold Red Sox predictions for 2015.
Mookie Betts Is an All-Star
I can't drink enough Mookie Betts Kool-Aid. Some have suggested I lessen my excitement for a 22-year-old who ESPN doesn't even project as a starter, but I refuse to scale back my expectations.
The All-Star prediction for Betts isn't one I make wildly. The .291 batting average and .368 on-base percentage to go along with 18 extra-base hits in 52 games last season is a solid sample size. John Farrell raved about Betts to WEEI and said the youngster will likely sit atop the order come opening day.
"I think what Mookie showed in the time that he was in the leadoff spot was very encouraging. His on-base skills have been consistent at every level through the minor leagues. It was the same when he came to Boston."
Batting first for an offense that should be top-seven in the majors means a lot of runs for a leadoff man. I'm also expecting Betts to see a bump in his steals rate after swiping just seven bags during his MLB stint last season. Across the three levels he played during 2014, Mookie stole a total of 40 bases. I'd be very surprised if he stays healthy and doesn't register 30-plus SB.
This is where people tend to voice their objections. A .285 hitter with a .360 OBP, 100 runs, 15 HR, 30 SB and 55 RBI is nice but is it really All-Star caliber?
To those doubters I point to 2014 OF selections Alex Gordon (.266 AVG, .351 OBP, 87 R, 19 HR, 12 SB, 74 RBI) and Yoenis Cespedes (.260 BA, .301 OBP, 89 R, 22 HR, 7 SB, 100 RBI).
One can also look at Ben Zobrist (.275 AVG, .354 OBP, 77 R, 12 HR, 11 SB, 71 RBI) and Torii Hunter (.304 AVG, .334 OBP, 90 R, 17 HR, 3 SB, 84 RBI) getting Midsummer Classic nods in 2013.
Betts is unlikely to crack the American League's outfielding big three of Mike Trout, Adam Jones and Jose Bautista. However, recent history shows the sort of numbers Mookie's capable of are certainly worthy of a July trip to Cincinnati.
I'm a firm believer in Betts' quick hands and line-drive swing. The patience he showed at the plate far surpasses his age and I don't anticipate a drop-off in production after extended success last season. His power upside is limited but he has an outside chance to top out as a 20 HR, 30 SB guy down the line during his career-best season.
Even if he stays in the 12-17 HR range, Betts' future is incredibly bright because of his Dustin Pedroia-esque consistency. Get ready for him to become a household name in 2015.
David Ortiz Bats .300 Again, but Doesn't Join 500 HR Club
2014 marked the first time in three seasons that David Ortiz failed to hit .300. As he enters his age-39 season, it could be viewed as the beginning of the decline for Big Papi. As we're seeing with Peyton Manning, when it goes it can happen quickly.
However, I view the .263 average through a different lens. For starters, Fangraphs reveals Ortiz's batting average on balls in play (BABIP) dropped to .256 last season. That's well below the league average of .300 and is Papi's lowest BABIP since 2001.
Some may say that's not so much unluckiness as it is a product of the shifts defenses implement when Ortiz is at the plate. That's logical thinking but would seem to be debunked by the fact that in the four seasons prior Ortiz's BABIP's were .321, .316, .321 and .313. The defensive shift revolution against sluggers like Big Papi isn't a newfangled strategy that debuted for the first time in 2014, so the drastic dip wouldn't seem to correlate with that.
However, looking at Ortiz's batted ball numbers from Fangraphs we see a sharp spike in fly balls. The 196 fly balls Ortiz hit in 2014 was a 28-count increase from the previous season and his highest total since 2009. Meanwhile, his strikeout rate increased (14.7 percent to 15.8 percent), his ground ball rate declined (157 in 2014, down from 168 in 2013) and his live drive rate plummeted (76 in 2014, down from 98 in 2013).
My takeaway from all that is that Ortiz started swinging big last season to generate runs in one fell swoop due to Boston's anemic offense. Papi shifted his mindset because that gave last year's Red Sox the best chance to produce runs and win games. It resulted in his highest HR total (35) since 2007 and simultaneously caused the batting average tumble.
The lineup has since been lengthened this offseason with additions of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. There is also reason to hope Mike Napoli can give Boston more than 119 games in 2015. The talent upgrade means the entire weight of run production responsibility won't fall on Ortiz alone. Because of that, I think Papi gets back to using the whole field and peppering the Monster the way he learned to do from 2011-2013.
Since I expect the future Hall of Famer to move to a more measured, line-drive approach, I'll quibble with the slugger's claim to MassLive.com that he'll 'probably' hit the 500 HR milestone this season. It's certainly realistic (he's 34 HR away from 500), but I think some of those 2014 HR turn into doubles in 2015.
The 27 two-baggers Ortiz hit last season were the lowest of his career in a season where he played at least 100 games. I expect that number to spike into the mid-to-high 30's while the HR count drops to 27-30 range. So though I believe Papi makes his 10th career All-Star game come July, I'd wager he has to wait another year to join the 500 Club.
Red Sox Win the AL East
Boston's starting pitching concerns don't make them a viable World Series contender in my opinion. Fortunately for Red Sox fans, no one in the AL East possesses a dominant staff. There are going to be a lot of 8-7 games played among the East's five teams this year, and I think the Red Sox offense can get them to the 88-win mark it'll take to finish atop an unusually weak division in 2015.
With the Orioles being decimated in free-agency, the Rays entering a total rebuild and the Yankees' decrepit lineup, it seems the Blue Jays are Boston's biggest threat. They added to their already potent batting order by trading for Josh Donaldson and signing Russell Martin this offseason. In this new age of decreased power, Toronto sports three guys with legitimate 35 HR potential (Donaldon, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion).
But like the Red Sox, the Blue Jays' main weakness is their starting pitching. John Gibbons' No. 1 is 40-year-old R.A. Dickey and the other notable names in the uninspiring staff are Marcus Stroman and Mark Buehrle. That's a far cry from an upper-echelon rotation and is seemingly on-par with the Red Sox top three of Rick Porcello, Clay Buchholz and Wade Miley.
With general manager Ben Cherington having similarly bolstered his lineup with free-agent bats, the difference between the clubs in my mind lies in the bullpen.
Despite Koji Uehara's second-half struggles last season, I expect him to return to his All-Star form in 2015. It may take some finagling, but by limiting him to one inning of work and not pitching him on back-to-back days at some points in the season Boston can maximize his effectiveness. I don't think his pinpoint command and nasty splitter are done baffling hitters just yet.
On the flip side, Jays closer Brett Cecil had a nice second-half to 2014 but his unsightly 1.37 WHIP and lack of a track record worry me. Aaron Loup is a nice 8th-inning man for Toronto, but I wouldn't rank him above Junichi Tazawa. The lack of a trustworthy righty in the Blue Jays' bullpen is also cause for concern, as Ceicl and Loup are both LHPs.
I'm making this pick on the Red Sox current roster alone, but my belief that they'll acquire an ace helps strengthen my confidence. They're just waiting for the Phillies to drop their asking price on Cole Hamels. It's nonsensical for Philly to enter the upcoming season with Hamels' $23.5 million salary on the books. Then again you can't put anything past their GM Ruben Amaro.
Hanley Ramirez Hits 30 Home Runs
In 2012, Major League Baseball had 27 players hit 30 home runs or more. In 2013 that number dwindled to 14 players and last season the club membership dipped again to just 11. So on the surface, forecasting a guy who has only accomplished the 30 HR feat once in his career (in 2008 with the Marlins) and has seen his HR total shrink each of the past three seasons (all the way down to 13 in 2014) doesn't appear like a wise move.
Yet I think Hanley Ramirez has a good chance to reach that plateau as he enters the best hitting opportunity of his career. He hit 35 doubles last year, and as he transitions from spacious Dodgers Stadium to Fenway Park for half his games a few more of those should find their way over the fence.
The 31-year-old also swaps out regular trips to cavernous Petco Park and AT&T Park to play a combined 32 road games at three very hitter-friendly divisional venues: Yankee Stadium, Rogers Centre and Camden Yards.
Manager John Farrell told WEEI he plans to slot Ramirez in the cleanup spot right behind David Ortiz, a place in the order that asks for HR production. With Pablo Sandoval and Mike Napoli serving as protection, pitchers won't have the luxury to nibble with Ramirez when you consider the likelihood that Mookie Betts, Dustin Pedroia and Ortiz are already wreaking havoc ahead of him.
One thing Ramirez will have to improve upon is staying on the field. In 2014 he suffered injuries to his knee, oblique, hand, calf and elbow that limited him to 128 games and sapped his effectiveness for stretches when he played dinged up. The hope is the less taxing position of LF can help procure 140 games again from the three-time All-Star, instead of the 115.75 he's averaged over the past 4 seasons.
I think the Red Sox vastly overpaid for Ramirez's services, but his power upside does exist. As recently as 2012 he belted 20 HR to go along with 25 doubles and two triples in a mere 86 games. I smell a similar success in 2015 over a greater number of games allowing his HR total to finish among MLB's elite sluggers.
I still fear Boston will regret this contract down the line, but expect Ramirez to be productive in his inaugural season in Beantown.
Christian Vazquez Wins a Gold Glove
It'll be a tall task to dethrone back-to-back American League Gold Glove award winner Salvador Perez, but Christian Vazquez has the best chance of anyone.
Vazquez gunned down 15 of 29 runners who attempted to steal on him during his 55-game MLB stint a season ago. To put the 24-year-old's season into perspective, Vazquez's 51.7 caught stealing percentage (CS%) was the tops in baseball for catchers with at least 50 games played (Yadier Molina's CS% of 48 was his nearest peer). Caleb Joseph and Robinson Chirinos were the only other qualified catchers to have a CS% of 40 percent or higher.
Vazquez accumulated a 7.8 defensive value by Fangraphs, a metric that generally increases the more games someone plays if they're a sound defensive player. In just his one-third of a season, the Puerto Rican's rating would have been the fifth-best in baseball among qualified backstops, with all four catchers ahead of him logging at least 135 games.
The Red Sox's former ninth-round pick's defensive runs saved above average (Rdrs) mark of 6 was tied for eighth-best in the majors despite the fact he only caught 458.1 innings. All seven players ahead of him played at least 214.1 more innings than Vazquez, with five of those catchers working more than 931 innings. Reigning AL Gold Glover Perez had an Rdrs of 8 in 1,248.2 innings during his 2014 campaign.
Vazquez's defensive runs saved above average per 1,200 innings (Rdrs/yr) registered a 16, better than both 2014 Gold Glove winners Perez (8) and Molina (11). With the youngster expected to see regular time behind the plate this year, his defensive impact could be astronomical.
It's not just advanced metrics that note Vazquez's defensive prowess. David Ortiz detailed to The Boston Herald back in October the sort of respect the first-year MLB catcher commanded from his fellow players almost immediately.
"He completely shuts down the running game. When I was playing first base in those games against Pittsburgh, the runners at first would say, ‘Who is this kid, he’s unbelievable.'"
The Pirates in awe of Vazquez played with a defensive wizard in his own right in Russell Martin (MLB-best Rdrs of 12 last season). The fact that they were so taken with the tools Vazquez possesses says a lot. Look out, Sal Perez.