Examining the 2015 Red Sox lineup and their explosive new offensive weapons
The kaboom that the Fenway Faithful have waited patiently for in 2014 finally sounded on Tuesday night in a 9-4 drumming of the Yankees.
Leading the charge against the playoff hopes of the Bronx Bombers were 21 year-old mega prospects Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts. In a season littered with disappointments, it was great to watch the youngsters play spoiler to the Yanks’ longshot playoff aspirations in Derek Jeter‘s curtain call (full disclosure: I have the utmost respect for Derek Jeter, even with all the hoopla of his “farewell tour” driving me up a wall. He is the Peyton Manning of Boston baseball anti-heroes; regardless of the score, you have to respect the presence of a legend).
Tuesday’s shelling was a tantalizing glimpse of the potential 2015 holds. I would remind folks to temper expectations lest we suffer another disappointment. Don’t expect Mookie Betts to continue to pummel the ball; instead expect growing pains, and if they don’t come, you’ll feel pleasant surprise rather than the renewed disappointment had he failed to live up to sky-high expectations the way Bogaerts did after batting .296 in a postseason in which a dominant Sox offense was strangled into submission by unstoppable pitching staffs.
Bogaerts was hitting .300+ through May, but has since struggled mightily and left fans concerned about his future. I still have faith that one day, he will slot right into the heart of our order as a perennial All-Star, but I would be lying if I said my faith was unshaken. So instead, hope for the best but be prepared for anything. Fortunately, unlike 2014 there is a lot to be excited about in next year’s lineup following another active summer for Ben Cherington.
It all starts with the highest paid player of the bunch, the intriguing Rusney Castillo, subject of my very first blog for Bosox Injection. While we cannot truly form educated opinions about Rusney Castillo yet, the early reports are quite promising. His speed is just a tad below the elite levels of Jacoby Ellsbury, Dee Gordon, and of course, Billy Hamilton, but still looks to be in the 60-70 range on the scouting scale (with 80 being the maximum and 20 being the minimum), or well above average, comparable to players like Brett Gardner, Rajai Davis and Boston’s own Mookie Betts. His arm is his weakest defensive tool, but could it really be any worse than Ellsbury’s? Jokes aside, it still grades out as a 50, so while we won’t see him throwing balls from home plate to the center field bleachers anytime soon, he will be more than adequate in center field.
His speed allows him to grade out as a strong defensive outfielder, regardless of his instincts, which cannot yet be adequately gauged. And that brings us to his hitting. Scouts project his hitting tool to be in the 60-65 range, and while there are some concerns about his swing mechanics, the same was said about Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu, and just like them, his physical abilities have yet to fail him. Somewhat surprising at his Miami workout were his major muscular gains, which have led scouts to reconsider their early, conservative power projections. Don’t expect Jose Abreu, but don’t be surprised when he puts balls over the Monster next year either. May start out in the bottom third, but look for him to bat anywhere from 1-3 once he capitalizes on his potential.
The next most exciting player is the Jon Lester return, Yoenis Cespedes. Ben Cherington really deserves an award for this trade – as a cancer survivor myself, Jon Lester was on a special pedestal for me, but his grit earned him the love of all of Red Sox Nation. To bring back a name like Cespedes was Cherington’s only chance of erasing potential outcry from the fans. For a team whose power outage was reaching a boiling point, he hauled in a player with a tremendous amount of pure power making just $10.5 million next year. Cespedes had stagnated for about a month in Oakland, but has been resurgent since the trade, hitting .279, with 4 HRs and 24 RBI, but more importantly, has provided that power cushion that David Ortiz likes to have behind him.
Cespedes possesses precisely the right-handed power to make the most of Fenway’s unique ballpark dynamics, with the ability to pull balls over the Monster exactly the way Mike Napoli and Will Middlebrooks do. With a cannon arm very much like Jackie Bradley‘s he adds a new wrinkle to the defensive outfield when he plays left. Cespedes makes sense as the long term corner outfield power we need, or as the quick, affordable power fix for the 2015 lineup that would not have been available this winter. He is a terrific cleanup option to round out a very much improved 1-4 of Castillo, Dustin Pedroia, and Ortiz. Slightly less flashy is Allen Craig who was the centerpiece of the Cardinals lineup for most of the post-Albert Pujols era, but hasn’t looked right following the foot injury that hampered him in last year’s World Series. I don’t see both him and Mike Napoli on the roster next year, barring blockbuster trade(s), that moves both Mookie Betts AND Jackie Bradley Jr. Craig can only fit in left, or at first and putting him in left would leave Cespedes to a right field that would overwhelm him and put unnecessary strain on the rookie, Castillo. Even with his contributions in 2013, trading Napoli just makes more sense than the cheaper, younger, and potentially better Craig. There are a lot of question marks, but, there is enormous potential in this top 5, more than they have had in a long while. There is even significant potential in the lineup’s 6-8 spots. But the one position the Red Sox will really need to figure out this winter is third base. Middlebrooks looks worse by the day and his future is has never been less clear.
Winter Ball is apparently being floated by the Red Sox brass for the struggling Middlebrooks. That leaves utility infielders Brock Holt and Jemile Weeks as other options at the hot corner. Defensively they both have promise, but offensively I expect them to put up the numbers Jonathan Herrera gave us. That leaves the Red Sox with three options. Trading for a 3rd baseman is an option, but that feels counterproductive to me when there is such clear need in the rotation, and there isn’t trade candidate. Free Agency is a more appealing alternative. As another low risk flier in the same vein as Allen Craig, Chase Headley could still put up decent numbers next year on a short term deal. A flashier option is available in Pablo Sandoval, though he will likely be closer to a Curtis Granderson or Hunter Pence deal in the neighborhood of 4-6 years and $60-80 million.
Beyond that, the Red Sox could elect to give 2 high profile prospects in Triple A Pawtucket auditions for full time roles. As with Bogaerts and Bradley this year, growing pains should be expected if they travel this road. Deven Marrero is the less polished of the two players having been promoted to Pawtucket this season after being drafted by the Red Sox in the first round of the 2012 MLB First-Year Player Draft. After hitting .291 in Portland through July 1st, the offensively-challenged 24 year-old earned a promotion to Triple A, but has since hit only .210, leading many to once again question how close he is to being MLB-ready.
The better option may be Garin Cecchini. Red hot in August, Cecchini was considered to have one of the best hitting tools in the minor leagues after hitting no less than .296 at any Minor League level, Cecchini suffered a tumultuous transition to Triple A, hitting .253 in May, .205 in June, and .188 in July. But he consistently barreled the ball in August and hit the game-winning single in the first game of the Paw Sox playoff series. Cecchini remains a strong prospect with just his ability to make strong contact, but many scouts believe that he could have some power to go along with his smooth swing and quick feet. The one major drawback is his defensive readiness (read: nonexistent).
While Marrero would likely force Bogaerts to third, Cecchini as a left-infield partner would keep him at shortstop. Cecchini is a liability in the field, and while Bogaerts has been making strides, a Cecchini-Bogaerts tandem worries me. Of particular note is the surplus of pitching that relies on fielding contributions. Clay Buchholz leads the group with an uninspiring 4.11 FIP. Joe Kelly (5.32) and Anthony Ranudo (6.51!!!) in particular may be hurt by a porous left side. But these are the options we have and barring a shocking change of position (Mookie Betts, or, dare I say, Dustin Pedroia…?) that likely will only improve the defense from sub-par to par, Cecchini seems like the current favorite for the hot corner, at least until we hit free agency, likely spending a fair amount of time in the 8 and 9 holes.
The potential packed 6-8 really hits its stride with Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts. The exciting tandem form arguably the two best prospects the Red Sox have called up since Jacoby Ellsbury and Pedroia almost a decade prior. Betts, playing out of position in the outfield as a natural middle infielder, has held his own with speed, and improving instincts thus far. Him, Castillo and Cespedes would form a dynamic two-way outfield providing the lineup with plenty of power and speed. Bogaerts too, still has the potential to be a number 3 hitter for a long time and at just 21 I think there should be few doubts about him. He has looked much improved at shortstop since the start of the season and has developed good double play rapport with Pedroia. Behind Castillo, Betts and Bogaerts still seem to be realistic long term options in the 2 and 3 holes respectively, possibly as soon as next season.
In the 9 spot is Christian Vasquez. A wizard behind the plate, Vasquez projects as a better option in the backup/situational role David Ross currently holds. But he is no slouch offensively with above-average pop when he can put a bat to the ball that will lead to doubles and RBI for the young backstop. Just on the horizon is the 3rd offensive uber-prospect for the Sox, Blake Swihart. Swihart has drawn comparisons to Buster Posey for his above-average to plus contributions on both sides of the ball. Swihart ought to see time in 2015 and may find himself claiming a spot at the heart of the Red Sox order in the coming years.
I have to close my analysis of the revamped 2015 lineup with some front office appreciation. The flexibility they have afforded themselves is absolutely astounding. These projections leave Will Middlebrooks, Jackie Bradley Jr, Shane Victorino on the outside looking in and although all of them have struggled mightily in 2014, I was glad to have them on the team in the preseason and all 4 may not yet be done. With a farm system that, besides a Cubs system stacked with unbelievable young hitters, represents one of baseball’s best, they have hordes of trade chips/future plug-and-play guys for years to come. They also have significant financial flexibility to make an impact in free agency.
This is really a team that is incredibly well put together, in the sense that if it doesn’t work, it will be stunningly easy to shake it up and try again. Get excited for baseball again, folks. Soon enough, we will be back in the picture.