In most seasons, Fenway Park is a safe place to chase offensive production. The park is tiny and a bonanza for scoring, and the Red Sox usually have a stable of capable hitters.
Alas, 2014 wasn't like most years for the Olde Towne Team. A collection of slumps, injuries and mediocre players combined to torpedo the Boston offense, and with that, any hope of a championship repeat died quickly. The Red Sox finished 18th in the majors in scoring last year, a notable drop from their normal perch. Boston posted a Top 4 scoring offense in six of the prior seven seasons. (And to be fair, it hasn't been all Fenway Park; only the Yankees scored more runs on the road from 2007-2013.)
The fix-it plan is fairly simple if you're one of the "haves" in baseball – you throw money at the problem. Boston started that theme last August (landing Cuban outfield prospect Rusney Castillo with a $72 million package), and the spending continued over the winter (about $200 million went out for Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval). The Red Sox still have questions on the mound and with roster construction, but this team should be scoring plenty in 2015.
Let's load up some Ps and Qs and see where we get.
Q: Does a change of location help Ramirez and Sandoval?
I can't see how it won't. Obviously American League life has advantages for most hitters (the DH, more cycling through the order), and the ballpark change in particular is a daisy for both players.
Ramirez previously toiled in Dodger Stadium, where runs take a 12-percent dip (grading over the last three years, per the Bill James Handbook) and right-handed batting average drops seven percent. Fenway's float: scoring rises by eight percent, and batting average jumps six percent.
The run-scoring environment is even trickier in AT&T Park, Sandoval's prior stomping grounds. AT&T pushes average down by four percent, and crushes scoring by 16 percent. Sad Panda? Not in The Hub. (It's not just the tiny size of the yard, but also consider the minuscule amount of foul territory.)
Ramirez is also looking at a position change – after a career at shortstop and third base, he'll be Boston's left-fielder. I don't see any reason to dock Ramirez for that, and it might even turn out to be a positive. The middle infield is rife with collisions, but left field is a benign place to be. The Wall takes a bit of work at Fenway, but it's really not that big of a challenge defensively - and a postage stamp would cover the tiny amount of real estate in that park. Ramirez looks like a second-round fantasy play to me, given that he still carries the critical shortstop tag.
Q: Where else is the offense likely to be upgraded?
If you compare the 2014 Opening Day lineup with what’s likely this time around, Sandoval replaces Will Middlebrooks and Ramirez replaces Mike Carp. Everyone sees the upgrades there.
At shortstop, you’re comparing sophomore Xander Bogaerts to rookie year Bogaerts. A likely win. And while Castillo is shrouded in mystery and uncertainty, he should be a notable gain from the last days of Grady Sizemore.
Fantasy players get a bounce in their step when discussing Mookie Betts. Fun name, exciting game. Betts had a monstrous 99-game run in Double and Triple-A last year (.346/.431/.529, 11 homers, 33 steals), and did just fine in a third of a season with Boston (.291/.368/.444, five homers, seven steals). Heady stuff from a kid who turned 22 right after the season.
Betts finally had a job for good in the second half of August, and the fun really started when the team elevated him in the lineup for September. Betts slotted first in his final 21 appearances, scoring 15 runs, walking 10 times, slashing .305/.387/.439. He was a Top 10 middle infielder for the final month of 2014, and should be parked in the leadoff slot when the fresh season begins. Start your engines.
Although Betts is slotted for outfield duty in 2015, he'll qualify as a second baseman in many pools. That's the best place to deploy him. His current ADP is 108 in the NFBC draft world, but I expect the price to keep rising as we move closer to April.
Q: What about the pitching staff?
Three is the magic number for Boston’s starting rotation – you won’t find an ace on the roster, but there are plenty of guys who could be a No. 3 at their best, even on a contending club. The depth isn’t bad here. It’s just a matter of finding a horse or two between now and the dog days of August.
The Red Sox tried to make an offseason pitching splash, to be fair. GM Ben Cherington made an aggressive pitch for old friend Jon Lester, and they kicked the tires on Cole Hamels. If the club is contending come midsummer, you have to figure this team will explore a major deal, even as it would be costly from a luxury tax standpoint.
Clay Buchholz has toggled between overachieving and underachieving through his eight-year career. He’s been an All-Star twice, his two dynamic fantasy seasons (2010, 2013). Injuries have also been a big part of his story, though he was frustratingly healthy for most of 2014 (5.34 ERA, 1.39 WHIP). His FIP was over a run lower than his front-door number last year, if you wanted to know. He underwent knee surgery shortly after the year.
Boston was happy to scoop Rick Porcello in exchange for Yoenis Cespedes (square peg, round hole for the Red Sox), but Porcello is another tricky fantasy call. A 3.42 ERA and 15 wins, you like that, but his puny strikeout clip (129 over 204.2 innings) is a killer if you play in a format that caps innings or starts.
Porcello’s game is pitching to contact (most of it on the ground) and letting the chips fall where they may. You’ll have to earn your way on base against him; Porcello issued just 37 unintentional walks last year. It feels like he’s been around forever, but he’s just entering his Age 27 season.
If you want to talk yourself into lefty Wade Miley, look at the 2012 numbers. Justin Masterson's best showing came in 2013; same for Joe Kelly. In an AL-only format, they're worth exploration and consideration. In the mixers pools we tend to focus on, we'll ask them to force their way onto our rosters. Show us something first.
Hub Happenings: Although veteran closer Koji Uehara expired down the stretch, succumbing to fatigue, the Red Sox quickly resigned him in the offseason and plan to use him in the ninth inning again. Uehara remains in tremendous shape overall and I expect he'll be surprisingly affordable at the March tables. I'm not holding his final 2014 quarter against him . . . You have to get in line to bash Dustin Pedroia these days; he was panned four times in the 2015 Fantasy Baseball Guide (full disclosure: I didn't write on Pedroia but I did contribute to the magazine), and my friend D.J. Short recently offered his own thumbs-down on Pedroia. I'm not particularly bullish on Pedroia, either, after watching him suffer through a couple of injury-marred seasons. But he's going to slot No. 2 in a loaded lineup, and if the cost on him is reasonable (he might not be a Top 10 second baseman in some formats), I'll consider playing the contrarian card and hoping a fixed wrist will lead to a rebound season . . . We’ve seen plenty of Cuban imports produce right away in recent years (Cespedes, Jose Abreu, Yasiel Puig), not that Castillo’s expectations should be in that realm. Nonetheless, we are talking about someone who’s already 27, a finished product, and Castillo hit the ground running in his 10-game September trial, homering twice and stealing three bases over 10 games. Every projection I’ve seen for Castillo calls for a double-digit year in homers and steals, along with an acceptable average . . . Brock Holt and Daniel Nava had some splashy moments with the 2014 team, but they're slotted as bench players entering the fresh season, which speaks to the improvement of the roster. Shane Victorino is also a man without a job, coming off an injury-riddled Age-33 campaign.