Can Price (center) get Boston back on track in 2016? (MLB.com)
The Red Sox start spring training today, which means it's time to assess their busy offseason and chances at contending in 2016.
Boston addressed its greatest need; pitching. After stumbling through last year without an ace, Dave Dombrowski ponied up for one by handing David Price a six-year, $217 million contract. One of the best pitchers in the game, Price makes Boston's rotation drastically better and is capable of adding five to six wins by himself.
While Price was their biggest splash this winter, the Red Sox made upgraded other problem areas as well. Their bullpen was horrendous last year, but now looks like one of the league's best with the additions of Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith. They also took a flier on Carlos Marmol, who has the potential to be a valuable contributor if he could just get his wildness under control.
While the Red Sox finished last again in 2015, it's important to remember that they were only outscored by five runs over the course of the season, so they weren't actually that bad. It's also encouraging that they were one of the best teams in the second half without a) any of the names mentioned above, and b) several star players, including Hanley Ramirez, Clay Buchholz, and Dustin Pedroia. Supplement their new additions with continued growth from Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Henry Owens, and Eduardo Rodriguez (all 23) as well as Blake Swihart (24), plus a healthy Christian Vazquez behind the plate, and Boston should be substantially better in 2016.
Boston's rotation remains incredibly shaky beyond Price. Rick Porcello was a major disappointment last year, and no one still has any idea what to expect from Buchholz, Owens and Rodriguez have just 32 combined major league starts under their belts, which means their futures likely include more growing pains. Third-year starter Roenis Elias offers depth but doesn't appear to be anything more than a league average starter (Wade Miley wasn't anything special, but at least he was reliable). Furthermore, Boston's rotation is now excessively left-handed, which could spell trouble in Fenway Park.
The Red Sox look great up the middle, but their corner infielders appear to be a problem. Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez were two of the worst players in baseball last year, as both supplied sub-.300 OBPs and horrific defense at offense-first positions last year. Sandoval has been steadily declining for some time now (his OPS has dropped every year since 2011) and Ramirez is 32, so it's hardly a given that either will return to form. To make matters worse, both are drastically overpaid and thus untradeable. Ramirez is also learning a new position (first base), which didn't go well last time.
The largely unproven outfield could potentially be a mess as well. Betts is a superstar in the making, but may regress in his second full season as pitchers adjust. Rusney Castillo and Jackie Bradley, Jr. are several years older but just as inexperienced. Castillo has underwhelmed since signing a seven-year, $72.5 million contract while Bradley, as great as he is in center field, is still searching for consistency at the plate. Young's a solid fourth outfielder, but he's also 32 and will be exposed if he's forced into an everyday role.
Lastly, while the Red Sox are a mostly young team, they are still counting on several older players to be productive. Pedroia is 32 and has spent time on the disabled list in four of the past six seasons, meaning he's a good bet to get hurt again. Koji Uehara will be 41 in April and was hurt last year. David Ortiz is 40, and the list of productive hitters at his age is woefully short. Boston's offense looks a lot less scary if Papi and Pedroia are absent or otherwise not themselves, plus their bullpen won't be nearly as formidable if Uehara can't sustain his dominance.
Prediction: Boston's improved, but Toronto's still the team to beat in the AL East. Luckily for the Sox, none of their division rivals made much of an effort to improve this winter, so look for them to threaten 90 wins and a wild card berth.