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2019 opponent preview: The Boston Red Sox are really stinkin’ good

Boston’s bullpen is a question mark, but the rest of their roster is absolutely loaded.

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

When writing these previews, I sometimes tend to gloss over a team’s top players — Aaron Judge’s name isn’t even mentioned in our Yankees preview, for instance. While this may seem like oversight, it’s really because we know these top players are going to produce for their respective teams. I don’t need to write 1,500 words to tell you that Francisco Lindor is really good. But fans who may have taken the winter off might not know the new faces, or the question marks surrounding a given Tigers opponent as we head into the season.

So, as we continue on by asking what the Boston Red Sox will be doing with their bullpen, or if their infield will improve in 2019, or how much of a step back they are going to take from last year’s incredible pace, let’s first make sure we talk about the things that are going very, very right for the defending World Series champions.

Spoiler: there’s a lot of it.

There’s Mookie Betts, the reigning American League MVP who put up a 185 wRC+ last year, walked nearly as often as he struck out, and, along with Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez, became baseball’s first 30-homer, 30-steal player in a half-decade. Health aside, the only question remaining about Betts is whether he will merely be an All-Star level player, or the transcendent talent he was last season.

There’s J.D. Martinez, the former Tiger who won two Silver Sluggers for the hell of it. He put up his second five-win season since 2015, giving him roughly 21 WAR since the 2014 season (almost all from his bat). He eclipsed the 40-homer mark for the second consecutive year, with an absurd .446 weighted on-base average (wOBA) at the hitter-friendly Fenway Park.

There’s Chris Sale, who was the American League’s best starter when healthy in 2018. Sale hasn’t missed a beat since moving to the rough-and-tumble AL East, with a 2.56 ERA and over 13 strikeouts per nine innings in 372 13 total innings with the Sox. Somehow, he still has yet to win a Cy Young Award.

We could go on for several more paragraphs, but you get the idea. The Red Sox were incredible last year, and will still be amazing in 2019.

Team at a glance

2018 record: 108-54 | 2018 pythag: 103-59 | 2019 farm system rank: 30
Manager: Alex Cora (2nd year)
First series vs. Tigers: April 22-25
Key additions: umm...
Key subtractions: RHP Craig Kimbrel, RHP Joe Kelly, 2B Ian Kinsler, LHP Drew Pomeranz

What’s up with the bullpen?

I’m not usually one to bag on Dave Dombrowski — he built a very good team here in Detroit, and just lifted the Commissioner’s Trophy last October — but man, does he seem to struggle with building a bullpen. The Sox were okay on this front last season, with the fourth-best ERA and third-best FIP in the American League, but are down two of their four most valuable relievers (per fWAR) as they head into the season. Closer Craig Kimbrel is still an option, but it doesn’t seem like the Red Sox are all that interested in a reunion.

This leaves a group light on big names, and without a proven closer — a Dombrowski staple over the past several years. Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier are in the mix to work the ninth inning (there’s your fantasy tip of the day), and are generally regarded as the two most proven arms in the ‘pen. Barnes had a fantastic 2018 season, with a 36.2 percent strikeout rate and a 2.71 FIP, both of which should be sustainable if he keeps spinning this nasty curveball. Brasier was the rare “hasn’t appeared in the majors in five years” player who actually made good. Though his 1.60 regular season ERA was largely BABIP-fueled, he was dominant in the playoffs, allowing just one run in 8 23 innings.

After that? Things get a bit shaky. Brasier is even a bit of a question mark, as his .198 BABIP will certainly regress in 2019. Brandon Workman is also a regression candidate after out-performing his 4.42 FIP by over a full run in 2018. Then there’s Tyler Thornburg, who struggled in his return from thoracic outlet surgery, and did not pitch in the playoffs. Heath Hembree, the resident “that guy isn’t a lefty?” pitcher, struck out over 11 batters per nine, but allowed too many walks and home runs for anyone’s liking last year. Actual lefthander Brian Johnson is a decent swingman, but he, Hector Velazquez, and Colten Brewer are all projected to be replacement level pitchers.

Whether or not this group rounds into shape, bank on Dombrowski and Co. looking to bolster their depth in July (a hot first half from Shane Greene would be nice).

Have we seen the last of Dustin Pedroia?

If we are to answer this question in a literal sense, the answer is almost certainly “No.” Pedroia will begin the season on the injured list after missing nearly all of 2018 with a knee injury, but has appeared in a handful of spring training games and appears to be as feisty as ever. He will almost certainly play for the Red Sox at some point in 2019.

But how much? And, perhaps more importantly, how well? Pedroia’s last meaningful game action, back in 2017, was still quite productive; he produced 1.9 fWAR and a 111 wRC+ in 105 games, and was a five-win player the year prior. Two years is a long time, though, especially now that Pedroia is a 35-year-old middle infielder who has been playing the game full tilt for the past 13 years. Statistical projections think he will still be reasonably productive in part-time duty — something the Sox may ask of him to keep him fresh throughout the year — but it still remains to be seen how his knees will hold up as the season wears on.

Down on the farm

There isn’t much to talk about here, which is typically the case of a team cashing in prospect capital to help bolster the major league club’s chances at winning a title. It’s something we were okay with at the time when Dave Dombrowski was in charge in Detroit — and if you say otherwise, you’re probably lying — and doesn’t just extend to his teams. The Astros and Dodgers, teams that have managed to create contenders without sacrificing too much prospect capital yet, are the exception, not the norm.

Even looking at specific players seems fruitless. Baseball Prospectus’ “Top Talents 25 and Under” list includes four current Red Sox before getting to top prospect Bobby Dalbec, and that’s only because Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts just missed the age cut-off. The young, in-its-prime talent is already in the majors, which is why the Sox are coming off yet another championship season.

But if we do have to pick out a few names, their last three first round picks — Triston Casas, Tanner Houck, and Jay Groome — have some ceiling, with Houck likely filling the role of “advanced college pitcher Dombrowski drafts to use as early trade fodder.”

Player to watch: Ryan Brasier

Assuming Barnes is just fine (if not better) as the closer, Brasier could have a lot to say about how well the Sox do in 2019. The 31-year-old righthander pulled a high-90s fastball out of his back pocket last year, touching velocity levels he wasn’t able to in his brief stint in the Angels bullpen back in 2013. He rode the fastball-slider combination to a 1.60 ERA, albeit thanks to that aforementioned .198 batting average on balls in play (BABIP).

Most fans recognize that Brasier will take a step back in 2019, but the magnitude of that regression is important. He only struck out 23.4 percent of hitters in his 33 23 regular season innings last year, and did not improve significantly on that front in the postseason. This may be a case for him to handle the ninth while Barnes, more of a strikeout artist, takes on higher-leverage situations. Or Boston could stick with Brasier and his ability to generate weak contact in the setup role. Either way, the Sox will certainly need both to be effective in order to hold off the Yankees and their other AL competition this year.

Projected record: 95-67

Bullpen concerns aside, the Red Sox are one of the best teams in baseball and will win a lot of games this season. They are one of three teams projected to win at least 95 games — normally a lofty total given the conservative nature of projection systems — and the numbers suggested their true talent level was north of that last year. There may be some regression in certain areas around the roster, but this team isn’t the same as the 2013 club that played out of their minds for an entire season. These Red Sox are a true juggernaut, one destined to reach the postseason yet again in 2019.