By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Red Sox became the talk of the town in baseball when they traded for ace lefty Chris Sale, and for good reason. They added one of the best left-handed pitchers in baseball to their starting rotation without giving up any players off the major league roster. Sale provides a major boost to the Red Sox’ starting pitching, which remained their biggest flaw despite a career year from Cy Young winner Rick Porcello.
Some believed that Sale put the Red Sox over the top as the favorites to represent the American League in the 2017 World Series. Except such an argument would ignore that the Red Sox got swept out of the American League Division Series by the team that remains the real favorite to come out of the AL next season, the Cleveland Indians.
ESPN first reported on Thursday that free-agent slugger Edwin Encarnacion agreed to a three-year, $60 million contract with the Indians that also includes a club option for a fourth year at $20 million or a $5 million buyout. Encarnacion is likely to replace first baseman/DH Mike Napoli, who batted .239 with 34 homers and 101 RBIs in 2016.
Encarnacion, meanwhile, batted .263 with 42 homers and 127 RBI batting in the middle of the high-powered Blue Jays lineup. Despite being a similar hitter to Napoli in terms of his streakiness and raw power, he is a clear upgrade. And with Encarnacion and Carlos Santana, the Indians suddenly have an advantage at the first base and DH spots over the David Ortiz-less Red Sox, who appear likely to platoon Hanley Ramirez and free-agent acquisition Mitch Moreland at those positions.
In the Red Sox’ quest to turn their roster into a World Series superpower, it’s fair to wonder if they have even caught up to the Indians, let alone passed them.
Until next October at the earliest, the Indians can safely say they still have the best, most valuable pitcher on either roster in Corey Kluber. The Indians ace compiled a 4-1 record and 1.83 ERA in six postseason starts in 2016 and shut down the Red Sox’ now-weaker lineup in the process. Chris Sale may be a better overall pitcher than Kluber, but he’s also never pitched in the postseason and has plenty to prove in that department. And David Price, well … David Price went decidedly in the opposite direction of Kluber and he simply cannot be trusted as a postseason pitcher until he proves otherwise.
The Indians don’t just have a decided advantage at the top of their rotation entering 2017. They were also missing two key pieces in the postseason in Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, who were both injured at the start of the ALDS. Carrasco and Salazar combined to strike out 311 batters in 283.2 innings in 2016 and were both emerging as two of the better young power pitchers in the AL before they got injured.
That’s not to say that Carrasco and/or Salazar will definitely be healthy in the 2017 playoffs, but each of those pitchers at 100 percent would be much safer bets than the likes of Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer – who pitched well enough in the postseason anyway. The Red Sox certainly got much stronger in the starting rotation between then and now, but then again, so did the Indians.
If the 2016 postseason proved anything to the Red Sox, it’s that they can’t depend on their offensive firepower to simply outslug opponents. They needed more help on the pitching staff, especially power pitching, and they got it. But the Indians enter 2017 with the same strong pitching staff intact, which includes mid-season bullpen acquisition Andrew Miller, who pitched like a playoff MVP shutting down the middle innings for Cleveland. Couple that with the addition of Encarnacion to the lineup, which needed not just an overall upgrade but some added clutch hitting, and the Indians are still the AL’s team to beat.
And of course, with Ortiz now retired, the Red Sox now turn to Moreland to give them left-handed power and to Hanley to be as productive, consistent, durable, and reliable as he was in 2016, which was ostensibly motivated by delivering Ortiz a world series ring in his final major league season. Can Hanley be counted on to repeat his performance in 2017? Can Moreland replace even a tiny fraction of the clutch production that Ortiz gave them?
The Red Sox still boast a talented young core on offense, led by 2016 MVP finalist Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi, and Jackie Bradley Jr. But it was Ortiz all along who was the true engine of the offense, the lifeblood of the synergy they showed as a lineup on most nights. A healthy, rejuvenated Pablo Sandoval could be an upgrade at third base and a full year of Benintendi could be a huge boost in the Red Sox’ production in left field, but there’s no escaping the steep downgrade the Red Sox are making in the lineup by losing the irreplaceable Ortiz.
This is the long way of saying that the Red Sox still shouldn’t be considered the AL favorite over Cleveland. The Indians are not a one-year wonder. They will be right back in the thick of the AL race, if not at the forefront, in 2017. It’s likely that the Red Sox will be fighting to catch them, not the other way around.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.