Boston Red Sox 2016-2017: Five Offseason Areas of Concern

John Farrell will return as Boston Red Sox manager in 2017. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The Boston Red Sox 2016 has come to a close and with that the career of David Ortiz has come to an end as well.

There will be plenty of looking back and trying to place blame for the failures of 2016, but in the end there are no do-overs. All that Dave Dombrowski and Red Sox ownership can do is try to asses the team’s weaknesses and then go out and try to fix them.

Between October 12 and opening day 2017 there are several issues that the Red Sox must address.

No.1: The Designated Hitter

David Ortiz’s retirement is a great reason to celebrate the career of one of the all-time great hitters in franchise history. It is also a reason for concern. He won’t be back, and as every Red Sox fan and player knows, replacing Ortiz is not just about replacing the statistics.

Ortiz brought a swagger and confidence to the team, he was the face of the franchise and one of the biggest names in all of sports.

The totality of Ortiz’s contributions are actually impossible to replace. Nonetheless the Red Sox will need to add a bat to at a bare minimum replace the 30-plus home runs, .300 average and 100-plus runs batted in that Ortiz seemed to contribute on a yearly basis for well over a decade.

There are two directions the Red Sox could go. They could pursue a player who would really be primarily a designated hitter, or they could go out and try and add a first baseman which would allow the team to shift Hanley Ramirez to the DH spot.

Free agents to keep a watch on include Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, and Mark Trumbo. As far as trades go, don’t be shocked if there’s some chatter regarding the availability of Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto.

No.2: Catcher

It was cool when everyone assumed the Red Sox had not one, but two very good young catching prospects. When the 2016 season started it was pretty much assumed that Blake Swihart would be the team’s primary catcher and under the unlikely circumstances that Swihart faltered or got hurt, well Christian Vazquez would be there to step-in and man the position with gold glove efficiency.

That’s not what happened of course.

Swihart looked shaky both at, and behind the plate. He was demoted, the Red Sox brought up Vazquez and started to transition Swihart to left field.

Vazquez struggled in the majors and right when it looked like Swihart might be catching on in left field, a severe ankle sprain ended his season.

Vazquez was so bad that the Red Sox decided to bring back journeyman Sandy Leon. Ryan Hanigan and Bryan Holaday were there as back-ups, but Leon was one of the hottest hitters in the majors, and Vazquez even at his best was never predicted to be much of an offensive contributor.

By the time the season ended, Leon had crashed back down to earth. He hit .213 in September and October and was 1-for-1o in the ALDS. The glove is good, Leon guns down would-be base stealers with the best of them, but he’s also going to be 28 next season, and odds are he’s more like the hitter we saw at the end of the season, than the one that was one of the sport’s hottest hitters in July and August.

The decision will be very tough for the Red Sox. It is too soon to write-off young prospects like Swihart and Vazquez.

Swihart is especially tough to give up on. He’s a former first round draft pick, he consistently performed well in the minors, he’s only 24 year old and he’s switch hitter.

During an interview back on June 1, 2016 Red Sox general manager Mike Hazen told WEEI that the team still viewed Swihart as a catcher. Unless that plan changes, expect to see Swihart get every chance to win the starting catching job out of spring training 2017.

No.3: Third Base

The Red Sox are faced with a triple dilemma here. Travis Shaw is the present. He was a good but by no means great fill-in at third base for most of 2016. Shaw started red-hot, but cooled considerably as the season wore on.

Ultimately Shaw is probably best utilized as a platoon player. Shaw is a left-handed hitter who slashed .187/.235/.364 against left-handed pitchers. His glove is good but no one will mistake him for Brooks Robinson.

Pablo Sandoval represents the past.

Everyone knows that Sandoval was signed to a five-year, $95 million contract prior to the 2015 season. Everyone also knows that he was awful for most of 2015, showed up to spring training 2016 looking somewhat out of shape,and by mid-April he was lost for the season to major shoulder surgery.

Sandoval is only 30 years old, he’s got three-years and $59.8 million left on his contract.  That type of financial burden will make Sandoval nearly impossible to trade, and might motivate the Red Sox to give him a lot of leeway as far as third base playing time goes.

Then there’s Yoan Moncada. Moncada definitely represents the team’s future, but the question is how long will the team have to wait for Moncada to be major-league ready?

They thought he might be ready back in early September. After a meteoric rise through the minors which included a highlight reel worthy home run at the major league future’s game back in July, the Red Sox promoted Moncada and handed him the starting third base position.

He wasn’t ready.

Over 20 hard-to-watch plate appearances, Moncada racked up 12 strikeouts, including nine straight before being benched.

Moncada will get a look in spring training,  but odds are he’ll start the season in either double or triple A.

Look for Sandoval to reclaim the starting job, with Shaw either traded or retained as an attractive left-handed pinch hitting option.

No. 4: Starting pitching

Rick Porcello is unlikely to be any better than he was in 2016. David Price is unlikely to be any worse than he was in 2016. Eduardo Rodriguez will definitely be penciled into a starting rotation spot. Don’t be at all shocked if the Red Sox pick up Clay Buchholz’s one-year, $13.5 million option. Starting pitchers don’t come cheap, and Buchholz need not be that great to validate a $13.5 million price tag.

Drew Pomeranz turned out to be a disappointing midseason addition. He never looked comfortable in a Red Sox uniform and then a combination of fatigue and injuries rendered him ineffective down the stretch.

He’s still under contract and he’s going to get a good long look as far a rotation spot goes. The franchise’s best young arms, Michael Kopech and Jason Groome are not likely to be major league ready until sometime in 2018.

Steven Wright is likely to be there as a spot-starter or long-reliever, same with Joe Kelly.

Could the team add a starter? That doesn’t seem likely but don’t underestimate Dave Dombrowski’s willingness to make major trades. The free agent market is thin, but there are some big name starters such as Chris Sale and Jose Quintana who will be frequently mentioned in trade talks.

No.5: The Bullpen

Craig Kimbrel will be back, and Red Sox fans will have to hope that his second year is better than his first one in Boston. Kimbrel wasn’t quite as bad as some of the numbers would suggest. He was done-in by some memorably bad outings, but he also didn’t look like the guy the Red Sox probably thought they were getting when they dealt two top prospects for him last offseason.

No matter, Kimbrel is most likely the team’s closer in 2017. How the team gets to Kimbrel seems likely to change.

Junichi Tazawa, Koji Uehara and Brad Ziegler are all free agents. There’s a chance that the Red Sox try and bring back Uehara or maybe Ziegler, but odds are Tazawa won’t be back, and even if the Red Sox do bring back Uehara, Ziegler or both, they’re probably going to look to add one more hard-throwing late-inning option.

Keep in mind that at various points in the 2016 season, both Joe Kelly and Matt Barnes flashed plenty of promise coming out of the bullpen.

What Won’t Change

First off all, in spite of all the hand-wringing, Red Sox manager John Farrell appears to be the team’s opening day 2017 manager. The Red Sox made the announcement Tuesday afternoon, and the timing means that the Red Sox don’t want a lot of offseason managerial speculation.

Look for a young dynamic outfield of Mookie Betts (potentially the reigning AL MVP,) Jackie Bradley Jr (who might win a 2016 gold glove) and Andrew Benintendi.

Dustin Pedroia is going to return as the team’s starting second baseman. Xander Bogaerts at shortstop is about as safe a bet as anything, and Hanley Ramirez will be back as well. He might be a first baseman, or he could move to the DH spot but regardless he’s going to be counted on to be a key offensive contributor for the 2017 season.

Don’t be shocked if the Red Sox are a popular preseason pick to win the AL East. Odds are that Toronto will lose one or both Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion to free agency. Baltimore could lose the AL home run king in Mark Trumbo and they’re a team that definitely needs to add starting pitching, which will be tough with a thin free agent market.

The 2016 season was a lot more good than bad, and the 2017 season could be even better. No David Ortiz will make things tough, but the Red Sox have overcome obstacles before.

 

About the Author

Ben Shapiro
Red Sox columnist for ESPN New Hampshire. Originally from Western Massachusetts, I currently live in New York City with my wife and dog. I've previously written for Huffington Post, Bleacher Report and MassLive.com

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