Tomase: Breaking down Red Sox’ roster is an exercise in extremes originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
Front offices prize certainty, or at least the illusion of it.
It’s why the Braves have locked up all of their young stars and the Dodgers acquired a former MVP every couple of years. The more pillars a team possesses, the easier it is to build around them.
Then there are the 2023 Red Sox. Boom or bust doesn’t even begin to describe the potential performance extremes. It’s more like a black hole or a supernova.
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Outside of Rafael Devers, it’s staggering how little certainty exists. At least half the roster has a ceiling of All-Star and a floor of useless. If enough breaks Boston’s way, a path to the postseason theoretically exists. If it doesn’t, we could be looking at a 2012-style meltdown.
So which way will it go? Let’s just consider 13 players expected to play key roles and the primary issue facing each of them. If you’re looking for certainty, you won’t find it here.
Pitching prospects do not develop linearly. Consider the first four seasons of Clay Buchholz’s career: no-hitter, 2-9, half a year at Triple-A, All-Star. That’s a lot of living by age 25.
Bello looked like the real deal down the stretch, when he posted a 2.59 ERA over his final six starts with a blazing fastball and devastating changeup. But before we extrapolate that performance over an entire season, let’s remember that he doesn’t turn 24 until May. He could be the ace of the staff, or he could end up needing more work in Triple-A.
I’d personally bet on him being a productive big leaguer, but it’s by no means guaranteed.
Chris Sale: Avoiding catastrophe
Listening to Sale at Winter Weekend provided a reminder of how he talks a great game. He’s through letting people down, Humpty Dumpty is put back together again, he may be almost 34, but his arm is 30, etc. … But the reality is he has made only 11 starts since August of 2019.
Tommy John is what it is, but Sale has also been felled by COVID, a sore neck, a broken rib, a mangled pinky, and a tumble off his Huffy. The Red Sox have no choice but to count on him to front their rotation, but there’s absolutely no reason to believe in him until he proves he can stay on the field.
Putting aside that Whitlock needed hip surgery after staggering around in the second half like one of The Last of Us, there remains the question of where he’s best suited to pitch.
It’s understandable that the Red Sox want him to start, since he’s got top-of-rotation potential. But doesn’t it feel like he’s inevitably headed back to the bullpen to be a multi-innings weapon? And if that’s the case, then what purpose will this dalliance with the rotation serve except to jerk him around?
By now you’ve probably seen the research about Jansen being Lee Smith levels of deliberate on the mound. He ranked dead last in time between pitches with runners on base last year at 31.4 seconds, and only two pitchers were slower than his 25.6 seconds with the bases empty. That’s not going to fly in 2023, thanks to the introduction of a 15-second pitch clock.
Jansen is confident it won’t be an issue, but the Red Sox need him to pick up the pace for a new team in a new league at age 35. Even for the National League’s reigning saves leader, nothing is guaranteed, but if Jansen maintains his recent performance, he’ll address the team’s most glaring need.
Of all the players on this list, McGuire’s ceiling is well below All-Star. It’s not clear it’s even a regular. After opening the offseason by identifying catcher as a potential area of upgrade, chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom could not find a replacement for Christian Vazquez. That means McGuire will get a chance to build on an encouraging final two months, when he hit .337 after arriving from the White Sox.
That’s a lot to ask, especially in a full-time role. McGuire has never appeared in 90 games or totaled 250 at-bats in a season. Perhaps he’ll be pushed by former Padres slugger Jorge Alfaro, who signed a minor-league deal with Boston. But for now, the job is his.
Triston Casas: Swing, batter batter
Much like Bello, nothing with Casas is guaranteed. Although he looked trimmer at Winter Weekend after dropping 15 or 20 pounds, it’s still a fact that he lost more than two months to an ankle injury last year before knee pain ended his winter ball stint in the Dominican Republic after only four games. And on the field, we still don’t know if he’ll be able to translate his power-patience combination to more of the former and less of the latter.
As encouraging as his debut looked, especially in regards to controlling the strike zone, we’re still talking someone who hit just .197 and will be getting his first extended look at big-league pitching. He just turned 23. Even if you believe he’s the real deal long-term, he’s still technically a rookie.
Trevor Story: Be seeing you, hopefully
The out-of-nowhere news that Story needed modified Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow provided the perfect capper to a rough offseason. Rather than slide back to his natural position of shortstop to compensate for the loss of Xander Bogaerts, Story underwent an internal bracing procedure that will sideline him for months. The Red Sox aren’t counting on his return anytime soon, although Story vowed he’ll be back this year.
He’s a key piece of the offense, thanks to his power and baserunning, and he’s an above-average defender at (especially) second or short. Instead, we wonder if we’ll see him in time to make a difference.
Replacing JD Martinez’s production actually shouldn’t be that tall a task. While Turner is not going to recreate the former DH’s 2018 numbers, which were borderline Triple Crown, he should at least approximate last year’s output of 16 homers and a .774 OPS. He also should help fill a massive leadership void, given his front-and-center role in that department with the Dodgers.
The issue with Turner is age. He turned 38 in November and missed 30 games last year with abdominal and leg injuries. A shift to DH should mitigate some of those concerns, but the bottom line is, if you’re a 38-year-old big leaguer, you are officially on the clock.
We do this every year with Arroyo, who for a time will rip line drives all over the park while playing solid defense at second base. We wonder if he’s finally ready to excel like the former first-round pick that he is, only for some malady or another to sideline him just as he’s heating up.
As things stand now, Arroyo is your opening day second baseman alongside shortstop Kiké Hernández. But how long will he last? He set a career-high with 300 plate appearances last year, but that’s still barely half a season. He’s effective when healthy, but he’s never healthy.
Adam Duvall: Say hello to center field
Duvall’s disappointing 2022 season ended in July because of wrist surgery. He says he’s fully healed, but the real issue for the 34-year-old will be how well he mans center field. A Gold Glover in right, Duvall didn’t take to center until relatively late in his career, and it’s still not clear that he can man the demanding position every day while also providing thump to the lineup.
He’d be the perfect left fielder, but the Red Sox need him to take center so the Gold Glove-caliber Hernández can move to shortstop. Meanwhile, Alex Verdugo will shift to right to make room for Masataka Yoshida. It feels like the carousel is dropping everyone in the wrong spot. That said, a healthy Duvall has 30-homer potential.
Kiké Hernández: Choose a vintage
It’s obvious to say that Hernández might not be an everyday shortstop after playing only about 20 games a year there with the Dodgers, but we’re going to focus elsewhere. The bigger concern is how well he bounces back from a brutal 2022.
One year after serving as a postseason destroyer, Hernández struggled with what was initially termed a hip flexor strain before being diagnosed as a hematoma. The painful injury robbed him of the ability to engage his core, and his numbers suffered: .222 with a .629 OPS. Never a high on-base guy to begin with, Hernández must produce in a Red Sox lineup looking for help around Devers. He’s central to the team’s identity.
Alex Verdugo: Make the leap
At this point, maybe we should just stop waiting and accept that Verdugo is a fringe average big leaguer who will never be a remotely worthwhile return for Mookie Betts. And yet, one can’t help but wonder if he’ll ever figure it out.
At his best, Verdugo sprays balls into the left field corner and launches them to right. At his worst, he rolls over to second base, runs into outs, and makes no impact in the field. He turns 27 in May and has reached the age where he either breaks out or it’s never going to happen.
Masataka Yoshida: Power player
The Red Sox reportedly were willing to pay Yoshida maybe twice as much as anyone else ($90 million) because they believe the 5-foot-8 bat control artist will not only record high on-base numbers, but hit for power in the big leagues .
The performance of Japanese hitters not named Ichiro or Ohtani has been decidedly mixed, however, with Cubs outfielder Seiya Suzuki the latest arrival to start with a bang and then kind of fizzle. Yoshida is one of the true X-factors in the lineup, and Bloom’s offseason may very well hinge on his performance.