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2018 MLB team preview: Hey, these Boston Red Sox seem familiar

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The Red Sox will be good in 2018, but will face some tough questions down the road.

MLB: Spring Training-St. Louis Cardinals at Boston Red Sox
Yup, still weird.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

If these Boston Red Sox look a little familiar to you at first glance, you’re not alone. See, this Red Sox club reminds me a lot of the Detroit Tigers teams we enjoyed so much from 2011 to 2014.

/waits for Red Sox fans’ heads to explode

No, I’m not really talking about the roster itself (though there are a few familiar faces mixed in). The Red Sox are far better defensively than those Tigers were, and have several relievers that are better than anyone Detroit brought in during their best years. Even the offense is a bit more dynamic -- while Boston struggled like crazy to hit for power last year, they were an above-average baserunning team, and thus miles better than anything Detroit ever produced.

This Red Sox team looks familiar because of how they are trending. When Dave Dombrowski arrived in Boston in the summer of 2015, the Red Sox had a top-five farm system in baseball. Though he made a few withdrawals from the war chest that winter, they still entered 2016 with the No. 4 farm system in the game, according to Baseball America. Two years later, they are down to 24th.

This isn’t a worry for the 2018 Red Sox. They are a deep and talented team, one easily capable of winning a World Series. The 2019 Red Sox are the same way, and will even have some money to play with when Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval come off the books this winter. But going forward? There’s some real concern here. Boston’s young core is starting to reach arbitration, which adds up over time when your players are so talented. Three-fifths of their starting rotation will reach free agency within the next two years, and even young talents like Xander Bogaerts are only a couple years from free agency. Even J.D. Martinez might not stick around long.

For most teams, this is standard operating procedure. A “window,” they call it. For the Red Sox, it represents a real concern. Can they spend enough to compensate for a now-lackluster farm system? How long can they keep up with the new-look Yankees? Will they actually have to enter a rebuild? These are the types of questions looming on the horizon.

But hey, let’s ignore those for now (us Tigers fans are good at doing that). The Sox are locked, loaded, and ready to win in 2018.

Team at a Glance

2017 record: 93-69 | 2017 pythag: 93-69 | 2018 farm system rank: 24
Manager: Alex Cora (1st year)
SB Nation site: Over the Monster
Key additions: OF J.D. Martinez
Key departures: RHP Doug Fister, OF Chris Young, RHP Addison Reed, RHP Blaine Boyer

Lineup

I’m not sure what Red Sox fans have against Xander Bogaerts. While he had a bit of a down season in 2017, he was still an above-average player and is quite easily Boston’s best shortstop since Nomar Garciaparra. Better/worse yet, Bogaerts’ “down” year was almost entirely due to a wrist injury he suffered in early July. Prior to getting hurt, he was hitting a robust .308/.363/.455. For the next six-or-so weeks, he put up a .579 OPS. He returned to form in September (.803 OPS), and should be a safe bet to return to form this year. On his right will be young third baseman Rafael Devers, who drew surprisingly little attention for coming up to the bigs and hitting like a banshee for two months. Devers added a much-needed jolt of power into Boston’s lineup, compiling a .198 ISO in 240 plate appearances. There will be some kinks to work out -- his defense among them -- but the raw talent is clearly there.

Despite Devers’ best efforts, the Red Sox were one of the worst power hitting teams in baseball last year. Their 168 home runs and .149 ISO were both dead-last among American League teams, a staggering fact for a team that won 93 games. Boston addressed this deficiency in the best way possible, signing J.D. Martinez to a five-year, $110 million contract after an offseason of unnecessary drama. Martinez, as we know, went on an unholy tear after being traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks, crushing 29 home runs in just 62 games. However, he was just as ridiculous before that, posting a 163 OPS+ in 57 games with the Tigers (compared to a 168 OPS+ with Arizona). He hasn’t produced an OPS+ below 139 since his breakout in 2014. Now playing in the hitter-friendly AL East, I don’t see any reason why that streak ends in 2018.

Boston has the luxury of using Martinez as their primary designated hitter thanks to a wealth of talent in the outfield. Right fielder Mookie Betts took a step back from an otherworldly 2016 season last year, but still produced 6.4 rWAR and finished sixth in the AL MVP voting. While it’s hard to predict a “bounce back” season from a guy who just did that, Betts’ .264 batting average might have been suppressed by a .268 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). If that’s true, look out. Jackie Bradley Jr. has seen his walk rate and power drop off in both of the past two seasons, a dangerous trend for a hitter that tends to run so streaky. Luckily, he’s still a Gold Glove caliber defender out in center. Left fielder Andrew Benintendi seemingly fell short of expectations in his rookie season, but still finished the year with a 103 OPS+ and 2.6 rWAR. He hit 20 home runs, stole 20 bases, and improved his plate discipline (if not his overall numbers) against lefties as the season went on. As a 22 year old. Yeah, he’s good.

On the right side of the infield, the Red Sox will anxiously await the return of Dustin Pedroia following offseason knee surgery. The 34-year-old “looks good” in limited activities this spring, according to manager Alex Cora but still isn’t taking batting practice yet. His status for Opening Day is in doubt, but the Red Sox are probably more concerned about the long-term. Pedroia is coming off the worst season of his career and is still under contract for four more years. He has already had trouble staying healthy for the last four, averaging 122 games per year since 2014. His power has declined as well; this was the third season in five years he posted an ISO below .120. The Red Sox signed Eduardo Nunez last week as insurance, but he had knee troubles of his own last fall, which could hamper his still-excellent baserunning. The Sox also re-upped with Mitch Moreland, who will form some sort of platoon at first base with Hanley Ramirez after a nondescript 2017 season. Ramirez struggled with injuries again last year following a productive 2016 campaign, and finished below replacement level for the second time in three years. He has lofty goals after working out with Tom Brady all winter but might not get enough at-bats to change anyone’s mind now that J.D. Martinez is around.

If you’re looking for a position battle, look no further than Boston’s catchers. Christian Vazquez should get the majority of starts after putting up a solid 92 OPS+ and excellent framing numbers, but last year’s .348 BABIP seems ripe for regression. Fighting for playing time are Sandy Leon, who finally came back to Earth in 2017, and Blake Swihart. While the 25-year-old Swihart probably has the highest ceiling of all three catchers, the Red Sox seem committed to turning him into a super-utility player. He only caught last year -- injuries and a 75 OPS+ will do that to you -- but played some left field for the Sox in 2016. He’s out of options, so don’t be surprised if the Red Sox carry all three backstops on their roster until someone separates themselves from the pack.

Pitching staff

Did lefthander Chris Sale burn out late last season in his pursuit of breaking the 300-strikeout barrier? The numbers certainly hint as much. Sale sputtered to a 4-4 record and 4.09 ERA after August 1, allowing multiple home runs in five of his 11 starts (he didn’t fare any better in the postseason either). One would think Sale should dial it back a bit during the regular season, but he already did that last season.

FanGraphs

That Sale was able to take something off his heater and still strike out 300 batters is unfathomable. He also did so without throwing 120 pitches in a single outing, though he did come close in most starts. Joining him in the rotation is former Tiger Rick Porcello, who followed up his 2016 Cy Young campaign with a 4.65 ERA last year. Porcello went to the high fastball well a bit too often last season, surrendering an MLB (and career) worst 38 home runs. However, he topped the 200-inning barrier for the third time in four years, and posted a strikeout rate north of 20 percent (barely) for the third consecutive season. His command took a turn for the worse, though; while it didn’t entirely show up in his walk rate, it certainly did on the scoreboard.

Porcello’s struggles paled in comparison to what David Price went through, though. The one-time Cy Young winner endured endless criticism from the local media while he recovered from an elbow injury last year. It was the storyline that would not end, and one that distracted from the fact that Price looked like his usual self when on the mound. He put up a 3.38 ERA and 3.64 FIP in 74 ⅔ innings, the ERA representing a decent improvement from 2016. We haven’t heard anything negative about Price so far this spring, so one imagines it will be a return to business as usual for the star lefty this season. Meanwhile, Drew Pomeranz will look to build on his best season to date, a 4.0 rWAR performance that saw him top 170 innings for the second consecutive year. He will be a free agent after the 2018 season, and could cash in if he has another big year.

Eventually, Eduardo Rodriguez will round out Boston’s left-hand dominant rotation. However, the 24-year-old Venezuelan is currently rehabbing from major knee surgery and will begin the season on the disabled list. He was solid when healthy last year, posting a career-best 2.1 fWAR in 137 13 innings. He added a cutter to his repertoire, and upped his strikeout rate to a career-best 25.8 percent. Knuckleballer Steven Wright was next in line to take Rodriguez’s innings, but he too is doubtful for Opening Day after a knee surgery of his own. Wright may also face discipline from the league after being arrested on charges of domestic violence last December. This leaves lefthander Brian Johnson as the odds-on favorite to start the season in the rotation. The former first round pick was a capable fill-in last season, producing a 4.33 ERA in five spot-starts.

One area where these Red Sox are miles ahead of those old Tigers teams mentioned above is in the bullpen. The Sox bullpen had the second-best ERA in the American League last season, a stratosphere Detroit never sniffed under most years of Dombrowski’s reign. Closer Craig Kimbrel returned to elite status after being merely “very, very good” for the past couple seasons. He struck out nearly 50 percent of the batters he faced in 69 very nice innings, and finished the regular season with a 1.43 ERA. Righthander Joe Kelly had the breakout season everyone expected following his promising transition to the bullpen in 2016. He threw fastballs harder than anyone not named Aroldis Chapman, and managed a 2.79 ERA in 58 innings. Righthander Carson Smith looked healthy in a handful of innings at the end of last season, but will get a chance to prove it in setup duty this year. Matt Barnes will also be in the late-inning mix after a strong 2017.

Down on the farm

Though Boston’s aforementioned war chest of prospects has been depleted, there are still a few interesting talents to come by. Lefthander Jason Groome struggled at times in his first season of pro ball, but still struck out 71 batters in 55 ⅓ innings despite an aggressive assignment in Low-A Greenville. Third baseman Michael Chavis hit 14 home runs in a half-season at Double-A as a 21-year-old and has first-division upside. Tanner Houck was a nice grab in the back half of the first round of last year’s draft, and righthander Bryan Mata has come out of nowhere to surprise some people.

Unfortunately, the rest of the farm system has Dave Dombrowski written all over it. There’s a sharp drop-off after their top four prospects, and almost anyone with true upside is in Single-A ball or lower. It’s hard to be too critical of Boston’s pipeline, though. They have several excellent players of prospect age in the organization with huge upside; most of them are just in the majors already.

Player to watch: David Price

The Boston media market can be toxic if given the chance, and Price has received some of their worst treatment of any Red Sox player in recent memory. The headlines alone would be reason enough to pay attention to him in 2018 -- though maybe don’t read the articles -- but his play on the field will also have major ramifications throughout baseball. For one, there’s still a division title to win, and Price could go a long way towards helping Boston capture their third consecutive AL East crown. Price also has personal incentive to round back into shape, with an opt-out clause in his contract following the 2018 season. If he can even return to what he did in 2016, let alone his previous form, he might join next winter’s free agency bonanza.

If not? Well, at least we can look forward to four more years of fireworks from Boston’s gaggle of sportswriters.

Outlook

The New York Yankees have garnered plenty of hype after reaching the ALCS in 2017 and adding Giancarlo Stanton this offseason. This is for good reason; they’re an excellent team set up well for both the short and long term, and are one of the favorites to not only return to the postseason, but perhaps even win the World Series.

It feels like people are sleeping on the Red Sox a bit, though. They won 93 games last year with almost zero power in their lineup and David Price out of the picture for most of the season. They hardly lost any talent from that 2017 roster, and added the best hitter on the market to shore up their offensive woes. Young talents like Betts, Benintendi, and Devers are a year older, and even the bullpen gets a jolt with the full-time return of Carson Smith. There are long-term concerns to be found, especially given how much the farm system has been depleted recently, but focusing on those is just ignoring how good this team is right now. Even if they remind us of a team we once knew.