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The Red Sox can challenge the Yankees atop the AL East, but it won’t be easy

New York’s ancient rival returns a talented lineup, but the pitching leaves a lot of question marks

New York Yankees Vs. Boston Red Sox At Fenway Park Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Yesterday, I wrote about the Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays, the two teams most likely to finish at the top of the AL East table. There’s of course a third team in that mix too, and we’d be remiss not to talk about the Boston Red Sox.

The Yankees’ most storied rival finished 2019 with 84 wins, five fewer than their BaseRuns record. The Red Sox have a really talented lineup, with their 106 wRC+ good for sixth in baseball last season. The big pieces of the offense are all returning in 2020, and the projections for the likes of Mookie Betts and Xander Boegarts look good:

The heart of the Red Sox order is as good as any you’ll find in baseball, and if that’s all it took to win 95 games, they’d be in great shape. There are a few real issues facing the team though, on the field and in the front office, and they start with the bench.

Brock Holt has quietly been very valuable for Boston, especially over the past two years. Combining an above average bat with fielding time at six different positions gave the team a potent utility weapon, despite his time on the IL. Now a free agent, Holt doesn’t seem to be garnering much interest from his former employer, with the Reds and Blue Jays inquiring and the Sox staying on the sidelines.

Part of that decision comes from the team’s imposed budget, and their Opening Day payroll currently sits just south of $220 million. There have been rumors swirling around the team all winter that David Price and Mookie Betts could be, maybe, possibly available for trade to a team willing to take their significant CBT hits off Boston’s books.

Obviously this hasn’t happened yet, and may not at all, but such a trade would severely affect Boston’s ability to be competitive in 2020. Even if Price isn’t worth his contract, he’s projected to be better than average this year, and the biggest issue facing the Red Sox is their pitching depth. Slightly better than average pitchers throwing more than 160 innings is what the team needs right now.

Steamer is still a fan of Chris Sale, pegging him for a five-win season, but I think you’d be forgiven for taking the under on that. He’s failed to make 30 starts each of the past two seasons and battled nagging injuries all of 2019, while walking more and having his worst season by ERA and second worst by FIP and xFIP. He may still be a good pitcher, but the toll of all those innings may be taking him out of the elite realm he used to be in.

The Nathan Eovaldi experiment went poorly in the first year after being re-signed, and the one attempt Boston made at deepening their staff, signing Martin Perez, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, as Steamer is projecting a 4.59-ERA season from him. The Red Sox have a lot of concerns on the pitching mound, and it’s probably going to be what holds them back in 2020.

It’s silly to count out any team in baseball. Maybe Betts stays and is the MVP again. Maybe Chris Sale returns to the form that we’ve seen for so long. Boston could hit a few 90th percentile outcomes, become a playoff contender, and it wouldn’t be that surprising. The challenges facing the pitching staff and the team’s concerns around payroll present two sizable obstacles to that happening, and it’s a safe bet they’ll have a fine but unspectacular season.