Why the Boston Red Sox Will Go from Worst to First in 2016

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 18, 2015

New ace David Price is just one reason.
New ace David Price is just one reason.Winslow Townson/Associated Press

Strictly going off their last four seasons, the Boston Red Sox have a 25 percent chance of finishing in first place in 2016 and a 75 percent chance of finishing in last place.

But in the words of Han Solo, never tell me the odds. Not those odds, anyway. The 2016 Red Sox are custom-designed to avoid the fate of the 2012, 2014 and 2015 clubs, and we're here to promise they will.

Avoiding another last-place finish has, of course, been the whole idea since even before the Red Sox completed their 84-loss campaign in 2015. They laid the groundwork for a turnaround in August when they hired new team president Dave Dombrowski, and he's been busy pursuing the rest of the grand plan this winter.

With 224 saves and a 1.70 ERA since 2011, Kimbrel is more like "the" relief ace.
With 224 saves and a 1.70 ERA since 2011, Kimbrel is more like "the" relief ace.Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Dombrowski has been busy, notably signing ace left-hander David Price to a huge contract and making blockbuster trades for relief aces Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith. He's also rounded out the Red Sox's depth with platoon outfielder Chris Young and lefty swingman Roenis Elias.

After all this, Dombrowski may be done for the winter. This according to the man himself, who told reporters at last week's winter meetings that he's happy with the roster he has.

Do the Red Sox still have needs? Sure. But none look especially glaring. Were they to move into 2016 with their current roster, they'd be ready to take on all comers.

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In fact, the projections say it's the Red Sox that all comers should be afraid of. According to FanGraphs, they're now projected to produce more wins above replacement than any other American League team in 2016. With a projection like that, heck, what could go wrong?

And when we say that, we're only half-joking.

David Ortiz and Mookie Betts are two pretty big reasons to like the Red Sox in 2016.
David Ortiz and Mookie Betts are two pretty big reasons to like the Red Sox in 2016.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Full disclosure: WAR projections have been known to misfire. Sometimes drastically so.

The Red Sox are practically Exhibit A. The 2014 Red Sox projected as an elite team and lost 91 games. The 2015 Red Sox also projected as elite, and they also fell flat.

"Darn," said the projections. Hence why you're sitting there thinking, "Darn the projections!"

But here's the obligatory hear-me-out plea: Rest assured, the 2016 Red Sox are a different animal.

The 2014 Red Sox failed largely because they gambled too heavily on young, unproven talent. The 2015 Red Sox failed because they gambled too heavily on their lineup. The 2016 Red Sox are doing neither of these things.

By WAR, Betts and Bogaerts were two of the AL's six best 25-and-under hitters in 2015.
By WAR, Betts and Bogaerts were two of the AL's six best 25-and-under hitters in 2015.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

They're gambling on young talent, sure, but not unproven young talent. Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, both 23 years old, are coming off star-making seasons in 2015 in center field and at shortstop, respectively. Catcher Blake Swihart (23), starter Eduardo Rodriguez (22) and Jackie Bradley Jr. (25) also broke through. Let's also not forget super-utilityman Brock Holt, who was Boston's lone All-Star in 2015.

Just as important, though, is how the 2016 Red Sox aren't doomed to repeat the big sin of 2015 Red Sox.

These Red Sox still have a good lineup. All the big players from 2015 are back, and that should be a good thing. Mainly thanks to Betts, Bogaerts, Swihart and designated hitter David Ortiz, Boston's lineup was last seen posting a .766 second-half OPS that played a big role in the club's strong 34-26 finish.

And come 2016, these guys should get even more support.

Maybe second baseman Dustin Pedroia won't get any healthier, but the Red Sox stand to get a boost from third baseman Pablo Sandoval and first baseman Hanley Ramirez if they put their awful 2015 seasons behind them. Sandoval could do that by following his orders to shape up, and Ramirez could do that by avoiding running into any walls. Remember, he got off to an outstanding start in 2015 before Fenway Park destroyed his left shoulder.

Also, Ramirez's switch to first base should help Boston's defense. He may not be a good first baseman, but it's hard to imagine him being any worse than he was in left field.

That's one small reason the Red Sox should also be better in the department where they need to be better. With MLB's sixth-worst ERA since 2014, that would be run prevention.

And now, for the big reasons why the Red Sox should be better in that department.

One place where the Red Sox are unquestionably better now is in their bullpen. Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald is among those who have noted the Red Sox have felt the "Kansas City Royals Effect." The Royals have spent the last two years showing what a team can do with a trio of dominant relievers, and the Red Sox now have one of those.

In Kimbrel, Boston's bullpen now has MLB's most valuable reliever over the last five seasons. Next to him is Koji Uehara, who has been nearly as good since 2013. In Smith, the Red Sox have another setup man who was arguably underrated by the 2.31 ERA he posted as a rookie in 2015.

"It's not going to matter if the starter goes six innings or if he goes eight innings," said Kimbrel, via Aaron Leibowitz of MLB.com. "We're not going to lose games when the starter comes out. We're going to expect our bullpen to go out there and carry those innings throughout the entire season."

Kimbrel is right to feel confident. In 2015, the Red Sox bullpen was a bottom-five unit with a 4.24 ERA. On the strength of the Kimbrel-Uehara-Smith trio alone, it could be a top-five unit in 2016.

As for Boston's rotation, projecting it to be elite is probably a bit much.

But it should at least be a lot better.

Price owns a 1.95 ERA in 11 starts at Fenway Park.
Price owns a 1.95 ERA in 11 starts at Fenway Park.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

Price will help see to that. He's been one of the baseball's 10 best starting pitchers for a while now and is coming to Boston off his second American League ERA title in four years. The Red Sox know he can succeed in the AL East, and we've previously discussed how he shouldn't be fazed by Fenway Park.

Things are a little more uncertain behind Price, where the Red Sox don't have an obvious No. 2 starter. What they do have, though, is three good candidates for the job.

One is the aforementioned Rodriguez. The young left-hander used his hard fastball and developing changeup and slider to carve out a 3.85 ERA in 21 starts as a rookie in 2015. Dombrowski opined right off the bat that Rodriguez has ace potential, and he's not alone in thinking so.

Then there's Clay Buchholz, whose durability is a question mark. But his talent? Maybe not so much. Buchholz authored a rock-solid 3.26 ERA when he was healthy in 2015, which was largely the gift of a rejuvenated changeup. After 2013, that was the second time in three years he'd shown ace potential.

There's also Rick Porcello. He was mostly terrible in 2015, but he did end on a positive note with a 3.49 ERA over his last 12 starts. Brooks Baseball shows that he got back to using his sinker and benefited by watching his ground-ball rate go from 43.0 percent to 49.1 percent.

If Rodriguez, Buchholz and Porcello are able to pick up where they left off, Price's supporting cast won't be a liability at all. On the contrary, Mr. Straw Man, it has the potential to be quite good.

All told, you're looking at a Red Sox team that has its bases covered much more thoroughly than the 2014 or 2015 Red Sox. Those teams looked good but couldn't hide their fatal flaws. The 2016 Red Sox look at least as good, and it's hard to see where the fatal flaws are.

Elsewhere in the AL East, the Red Sox don't have too much to fear.

The Toronto Blue Jays are the reigning division champs, and they still have a killer offense. But their acquisition of Price had a lot to do with their rise to power in 2015. His jumping ship to Boston was about the worst scenario they could have imagined. And to date, they haven't yet filled his shoes with an equivalent ace.

The New York Yankees earned a wild-card berth in 2015, but they did that largely on the strength of a strong first half that featured star performances from aging regulars. Barring regular shipments of Michael's Secret Stuff, that's not happening again.

Then there are the Baltimore Orioles, a .500 team in 2015 that's in danger of losing first baseman Chris Davis and starter Wei-Yin Chen. That just leaves the Tampa Bay Rays, an 82-loss team that has done little to improve.

The relative inaction of these four clubs this winter makes what the Red Sox have done look all the more important and is a big reason why they're circling a return to form in 2016. While the rest of the AL East has either stayed the same or gotten worse, the Red Sox are returning a dangerous lineup and have established a much-improved rotation and a dominant bullpen.

So, heck. They might as well not even play baseball in the AL East in 2016. Just go ahead and give the division title to the Red Sox and get it over with.

Again, we're half-joking. But only half.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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