Heading into 2015, the Boston Red Sox were a popular pick to win the AL East. Projection systems were high on their mix of young talent and quality veterans, and Boston looked poised to win 90+ games. For the second straight year, however, the Yankees' fiercest rivals ended up in the cellar, going 78-84 with a -5 run differential. New York would surely sign up for a repeat of that result in 2016, but the projections portend a quality outlook for Boston:
ZiPS is again fairly optimistic regarding Boston's youthful contributors. Mookie Betts in particular receives a superb projection of 5.4 WAR in 2016. Betts is entering just his age-23 season, and last year he parlayed not quite spectacular but easily above average play in every facet of the game into a six win season by bWAR. Xander Bogaerts, also just 23, is Boston's second highest rated position player behind Betts, with a 3.0 WAR projection. Betts and Bogaerts form a potent young combo that the Yankees and the rest of the AL East will unfortunately have to contend with for quite awhile.
The corners of the infield could be a major problem for the Red Sox, however. Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez were highly publicized under-performers in the first year of their respective free agent deals with Boston, and while ZiPS does expect them to perform better in 2016, neither appear likely to begin playing up to their contracts. Sandoval is slated for just 0.9 WAR in 547 plate appearances, with Ramirez pegged for 1.7 WAR in 480 plate appearances. Ramirez's projection includes an average defensive rating in his first year at first base, and given what we know about how Ramirez handled a position change last year, that projection could easily turn out to be overly optimistic. Yankee fans can take solace in the fact that New York is not the only team in the division saddled with albatross contracts.
David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia round out the lineup as the most tenured Red Sox. Despite their advancing ages, Pedroia still projects for 2.5 WAR, and ZiPS assigns an especially promising 135 OPS+ to Ortiz, the highest on the team. Projection systems, being conservative by nature, typically are loath to project such quality production for 40-year-old players like Ortiz (our favorite Alex Rodriguez, also 40, received only a 115 OPS+ projection from ZiPS). Ortiz's projection does appear a tad aggressive, but the fact that he was bestowed such an optimistic forecast at all is a testament to his long run of excellence as his career ends.
On the pitching side, Dave Dombrowski moved swiftly and decisively in signing David Price to a mega contract, in an effort to assuage concerns regarding Boston's poor starting pitching. After the Red Sox finished 24th in MLB in starting pitching ERA (4.39) last year, Price, projected for a 3.35 ERA and 2.93 FIP in 209 innings, will provide a major boost. The rest of the rotation appears to be just as mediocre as last year, but not without notable depth. The Red Sox have a plethora of arms, in the form of Eduardo Rodriguez, Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Joe Kelly, Henry Owens, and Roenis Elias, projected to post an ERA+ very near to the average of 100. It appears to be the hope of Dombrowski and Co. that a cavalcade of average hurlers, fronted by a bonafide ace like Price, will be enough to propel the Red Sox back into the postseason.
While the back-end of the Boston rotation seems shaky, the back-end of their bullpen does not. The Red Sox are looking to trot out a three-headed relief monster not entirely dissimilar to the one the Yankees have assembled. New York's bullpen trio of Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Dellin Betances is likely to outproduce Boston's core of Craig Kimbrel, Carson Smith, and Koji Uehara, but the Boston bullpen still projects as a strength. All three of their top relievers project for an ERA+ of 130 or better.
We have all heard this story before; the Red Sox look solid on paper prior to the season. It's the same story we've been told the past two offseasons, and Boston went on to post significantly underwhelming years in 2014 and 2015. However, with a strong young core of Betts, Bogaerts, and 25-year-old center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr, plus the addition of stars like Price and Kimbrel, Boston looks poised to snap their streak of last place division finishes. The rest of the AL East can only hope that Boston's recent trend of underachievement continues on into 2016.