Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Red Sox New Year's Resolutions

Ramirez (left) and Sandoval were duds in their Red Sox debuts (Yahoo Sports)
No matter how dedicated we are to our new gym memberships, it's going to take awhile for most of us to shed those unwanted pounds we packed on during the holidays. The Boston Red Sox, however, have used the last few months to beef up in a good way, bolstering their starting rotation as well as their bullpen. While they're already looking new and improved, here are some things they need to do to ensure good health in 2016:

Maintain their second half momentum
While the Red Sox sunk themselves with a terrible start last year, they were quietly one of the hottest teams in baseball after the All-Star break. From July 30th on, Boston had the fourth-best record in the American League and outscored everyone except the Toronto Blue Jays thanks to big turnarounds from David Ortiz and Blake Swihart as well as unexpected production from Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Travis Shaw. Their pitching improved too, with Rick Porcello and Joe Kelly rebounding from disastrous first halves while Eduardo Rodriguez and Henry Owens improved down the stretch. Boston played terrific baseball for two months without Dustin Pedroia, Hanley Ramirez, and Clay Buchholz, leaving one to wonder what the Sox are capable of if they can all stay healthy.

Fix Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez
Boston desperately needs to get something from their two highest-paid position players, because last year they got less than nothing from the $40 million tandem. Both were All-Stars before joining the Red Sox and are young enough to return to that level, but they need to remind Bostonians why their team shelled out $170 million to acquire them in the first place. Ramirez should have an easier time at first base than he did in left field, while Sandoval's offense should bounce back after cratering last year. 

Play Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Rusney Castillo regularly
After years of trying to figure out what the future holds for Bradley (26) and Castillo (27), the time has come for Boston to commit to them as everyday outfielders or start searching for replacements. Bradley's entering his fourth season and has yet to prove he can hit consistently at the major league level, whereas Castillo is much too expensive be a project at over $10 million per year. Neither has logged a full season in the Show yet, but they're both in their primes now and it's not like the Red Sox have better options. Boston needs to know what these guys are capable of, because if they're not everyday players then they'll need to find outfield help fast.

Have a backup plan
Even with the (costly) addition of David Price, Boston's rotation is still loaded with question marks. Buchholz is expected to be the team's second best starter after Price, and he's been one of the most volatile--not to mention injury-prone--pitchers in baseball. Porcello was a major disappointment last year and will be again if he can't keep the ball down. Joe Kelly has potential but seems better suited for the bullpen. Owens and Rodriguez also have potential but just 32 combined major league starts between them, which makes them difficult to count on this year. Roenis Elias and Steven Wright offer depth, but you don't want either one making regular turns. Even Price is a bit risky given the heavy workload he's carried the past six seasons, making him increasingly susceptible to injury as he enters his 30s. It's entirely possible that Boston ends the season with a completely different rotation than the one it starts with, which means the Sox may want to consider shipping out some of their prospects for a proven starter at some point.

Commit to a catcher
Boston is blessed with two young, talented backstops in Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart. Their skillsets are very different, however, as Vazquez is an excellent pitch-framer and potential Gold Glove winner while Swihart is a switch-hitter with Matt Wieters potential. Swihart looks like the better long-term option due to his bat, which improved by leaps and bounds in the second half along with his defense. Boston was in a similar position in 2013, when they had two phenoms at short (Jose Iglesias and Xander Bogaerts)--one of whom was a defensive wizard while the other excelled at the plate--and wound up trading the better fielder (Iglesias) for starting pitching help at the deadline. The Red Sox would be wise to make a similar decision this year, dealing from a position of strength to address their needs. With Ryan Hanigan also in the mix, they'll want to avoid carrying three catchers on their 25-man roster.

Utilize the bullpen effectively
With Craig Kimbrel, Koji Uehara, and Carson Smith at his disposal, John Farrell has a dominant trio of relievers capable of shortening games by several innings. He should not hesitate, however, to use them to get out of jams in the middle innings, rather than save them for late inning save opportunities that may never come. If Boston's going to roll the dice with this iffy rotation, Farrell needs to forego conventional bullpen usage and be aggressive with his firemen by deploying them in high leverage situations (as Joe Maddon does).

This is going to be a big year for the Red Sox, who seem to be at a crossroads with their manager and numerous players. Everyone on the roster has something to prove and a lot of questions need to be answered as the team tries to chart a new course under Dave Dombrowski. Above all, Boston must get back on track after finishing last three of the past four years, if not by making the playoffs this year then by greasing the skids to do so next year. The Sox certainly have the talent to do so; they just need to find a way to make it all work.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Top 10 Remaining Free Agents

Chris Davis is still the market's top prize (CBS Sports)
With the offseason now two months old, several of this winter's big-ticket free agents are already off the board. Most of the top hurlers--Zack Greinke, David Price, Jordan Zimmermann--in this year's class have been scooped up, but a plethora of impact position players remain. Here are the 10 best players still up for grabs, with next year's age in parentheses:

1. Chris Davis (30)
Crush quietly had a monster season for the Orioles, re-establishing himself as the best slugger in baseball with a major league-leading 47 home runs and 12.2 AB/HR ratio (his .300 ISO was second only to Bryce Harper). Nobody has swatted more homers over the past four years, during which time Davis has averaged 40 big flies per season. Sure, he strikes out a lot, but he actually hits for solid averages and gets on base plenty via walks. His profile is eerily similar to Ryan Howard's, however, which should make teams think twice before handing him the pretty penny he's going to cost.

2. Justin Upton (28)
After an up-and-down tenure with the Diamondbacks, Upton has stayed remarkably consistent over the past three years, settling into a three-win player with close to 30-home run power. He's durable, having exceeded 149 games five years in a row, and a capable left fielder to boot. He'll even steal a base every now and then. One cause for concern, however, is that his OBP has declined every year since 2011.

It's hard to believe that Cespedes is already 30, seeing as how he's only been in the league four years. He's had two amazing years sandwiched around two so-so ones, but he is one of the more reliable sources of righthanded power in the game. He's also a good defensive outfielder, though he was horribly miscast as a center fielder with the Mets last year. Cespedes can hit anywhere, as he's posted strong numbers despite playing in some brutal slugger's parks in Oakland, Detroit, and New York, so if he lands in a hitter's haven watch out.

4. Alex Gordon (32)
No left fielder has provided more defensive value than Gordon over the last five years (Martin Prado only played left in 2011 and 2012), which is reflected in his four straight Gold Gloves. He's also a pretty great hitter, too, typically good for around 20 homers with double digit steals and strong on-base numbers. Add it all up and Gordon's been one of the 10 most valuable position players over the last half decade, ahead of flashier names like Dustin Pedroia, Evan Longoria, and Giancarlo Stanton. He turns 32 next month and missed almost 60 games last year with a groin injury, but he had been exceptionally durable before that and his all-around skill-set should age well,

5. Matt Wieters (30)
Teams in need of a backstop should consider rolling the dice on Wieters, who's been limited to 101 games over the past two seasons due to Tommy John surgery. He was a durable two-way receiver before that, however, and has remained productive at the plate in spite of his injury woes. He's still young enough to rebound, and his price should be reasonable given his spotty track record. He's the perfect candidate for a one-year deal to rebuild his value, as Adrian Beltre did with Boston in 2010.

6. Wei-Yin Chen (30)
The ideal midrotation starter, Chen has remained consistent, healthy, and effective while cutting his teeth in the AL East. The lefty is more of a finesse pitcher, as his strikeout rate is only average, but he hardly walks anybody. You know what you're getting from him, which makes him one of the safer investments this offseason.

7. Dexter Fowler (30)
Last winter, the Cubs traded for Fowler to be their everyday center fielder and leadoff man. The catalyst for Joe Maddon's fearsome lineup, he drew a career-high 84 walks, scored a career-high 102 runs, and swiped 20 bases--his most since 2009. He also tossed in 17 homers, another personal best. The former Rockie has proved he can thrive outside of Coors Field, so teams shouldn't be shy about bringing on the outfielder.

No longer the power pitcher who eclipsed 200 strikeouts in four straight seasons, Gallardo has remade himself into an effective ground ball pitcher. That approach served him well in his transition to the American League last year, which went more smoothly than I or anyone else anticipated (his ERA improved despite pitching half his games in Texas). Solid as a rock, he's made at least 30 starts and exceeded 180 innings in each of the past seven years, only one of which yielded an ERA over four. He's not sexy, but as with Mike Leake reliability is his strong suit.

9. Ian Desmond (30)
Desmond is hitting the market at a terrible time, coming off his worst offensive season to date. It wasn't merely a fluke, either, as his numbers have steadily declined since his All-Star breakout in 2012. His strikeout numbers have gotten out of control--370 times over the past two years--for a guy with 20-homer power. In his defense, no shortstop has launched more homers over the past four years, and Desmond was the only player to go 20/20 every year from 2012-2014 (when he earned three straight Silver Sluggers). Desmond also salvaged his poor 2015 with a strong finish, rallying from a horrid first half to slash .272/.343/.464 with a dozen homers after July 19th. He's a decent defender, but all his offensive value is tied up in his power, so if that dries up he'll become unplayable.

10. Howie Kendrick (32)
Kendrick has been one of the steadiest second-basemen in the game over the past decade, routinely providing above average offense and capable defense at the keystone. Injuries have cut into his playing time lately, causing him to miss at least 40 games in two of the past three seasons, but he's remained as productive as ever with the stick. An annual threat to bat .300, he should have several more solid seasons ahead of him, especially if he winds up in a hitter's park for a change. However, he's getting to an age where even the best second-sackers typically show signs of decline.