By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Whether you’re ready or not, baseball is back in our lives for the next six-plus months.
America’s (former) pastime is back a little bit earlier than usual (because who doesn’t love cold weather baseball?), and all 30 teams will partake in Opening Day ceremonies on Thursday. That includes the Boston Red Sox, who get to start their season by spending an extra week down in Florida. How lucky.
If you feel like there’s very little buzz surrounding the Red Sox, you’re not alone. And that extends far beyond them opening the season against the Rays and Marlins. For the first time in a long time the Red Sox find themselves on the bottom of the Boston sports totem pole, well behind the Super Bowl LII runner-ups and the playoff-bound Bruins and Celtics. But maybe that will work in their favor, and they could just surprise all of those who are currently saying ‘nay’ to a 162-night commitment.
There are actually plenty of reasons to be excited about the 2018 Red Sox, and those who dismissed the team following last year’s ALDS defeat may be back on the bandwagon sooner rather than later (warm weather will help). Here are some of the biggest storylines we’ll be following from Thursday’s first pitch by Chris Sale to whenever the final out is recorded.
First-Year Manager Alex Cora
John Farrell led the Red Sox to back-to-back 93-win seasons and two straight AL East crowns, but those teams failed to get out of the divisional round. There is hope that Alex Cora can buck that trend.
The talent is there for the new skipper, who will man a bench of his own for the first time — ever (WBC excluded). But he’s got a lot on his plate, too.
He’s been tasked with turning around an offense that didn’t crush the ball at all last season, so Cora brought in a new aggressive approach at the plate. He’s also got a juggling act to perform in the outfield, trying his best to find time for last year’s dancing stars Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi and Jackie Bradley Jr. while also working in J.D. Martinez enough to satisfy the newcomer’s desire to play the field. To top it all off, he’s got some big personalities to balance in David Price and Dustin Pedroia (not to mention, Sale can go a little cuckoo at times too). Hopefully he won’t have any hissy fits over a broadcaster to deal with.
Cora seems to have a solid grasp of everything at the moment, and there is a lot of positivity emanating from Yaw… Jersey Street. But the expectations are also there too. With baseball’s biggest payroll, one of the game’s best rotations, and a lineup that should be much, much better than last year’s, it’s not unreal to think the Red Sox can — and should — be in the mix for the World Series come the fall. No pressure, rook.
Can Chris Sale Finish The Season Strong?
Sale started his Red Sox career looking every bit like a dominant ace. He brought back memories of Pedro Martinez with every punch out, and seemed destined to win the AL Cy Young. But he faded down the stretch, a trend that has plagued him throughout his career, and the lefty was roughed up in his first-ever playoff start. He was clearly gassed when September rolled around, so it will be up to Cora to make sure Sale still has plenty left in the tank in the closing months of the season.
The team took a different approach with Sale and others during Spring Training and didn’t really ramp things up until late in camp in hopes of preserving them for the long season ahead. So don’t be shocked if he doesn’t get off to another blistering start, and there may even be a few skipped starts along the way.
But if the payoff is a dominant Sale in October, it will be well worth it for the Red Sox.
Will Price Bounce Back?
This is a gigantic year for Price, who appeared in just 16 games last season and started only 11 of those.
He has the opportunity to opt out of his deal after the season, though it’s wild to think anyone would leave a contract that will pay him $30+ million for each of the next five years — especially a 32-year-old with a unique elbow. But if he really wants to get out of Boston, and still get paid like an ace, it’s in Price’s best interest to kill it on the mound this season. That would also benefit the Red Sox.
Which Rick Porcello Will Show Up?
The righty followed up his 2016 Cy Young season with a dud, turning in one of the worst years of his career. Porcello went 11-17 with a 4.65 ERA, leading all of baseball in losses, and also surrendered a whopping 38 homers, also the most in baseball. A John Wasdin impersonation by any pitcher is concerning, but it’s especially worrisome for a ground ball pitcher.
But if Porcello follows his career trend — good year, bad year, good year, bad year — he’s due for another strong (to very strong) season in 2018.
Kimbrel In The 8th?!?!
Craig Kimbrel is as dominant as they come in the ninth inning, but Cora has said he may not wait until the game’s final three outs to go to the fireballer. If the heart of the opposition’s lineup is due up in the eighth, Kimbrel may find himself in an inning early, with someone else heading back out for the ninth. In theory, that should work with very few issues, with Carson Smith, Matt Barnes and Joe Kelly candidates for that ninth inning. Then again, that also means relying on Carson Smith, Matt Barnes and Joe Kelly in the ninth, so…
Without David Ortiz in the heart of the order, there was a massive power outage in the Boston lineup last season. They hit the fewest homers in the American League, and fourth-fewest in the Majors. That’s kind of a big deal in today’s baseball, and that glaring deficiency was magnified even more with the Yankees adding Giancarlo Stanton over the winter.
That should change with the addition to J.D. Martinez to the lineup, even if he doesn’t match his career-high of 45 longballs from last season. But it shouldn’t rest solely on Martinez’s bat, and the Sox need others (like Xander Bogaerts and Hanley Ramirez) to pick up the slack in the home run department as well.
Time For Bogaerts To Shine
Bogaerts is the leading candidate to have a bounce-back year this season. And the 25-year-old needs it.
The shortstop slashed just .273/.343/.403 in 148 games, and more worrisome, launched just 10 homers. He needs to be better in 2018.
You’ll probably notice something different about Benintendi when he steps up to bat on Thursday, and it’s not just the absence of those amazing locks. The kid is huge after bulking up over the offseason, adding 20 pounds of muscle. It’s paid off early too, with Benny Biceps blasting four homers during spring action.
Bentendi left the yard 20 times last season, a number that should go up in 2018. It’s just a damn shame he won’t have that sweet flow of hair when rounding the bases 25-35 times this season.
Boston will have a baby-faced rookie manning the hot corner this season, and there is tons of excitement surrounding Devers after an impressive 58-game stint in the big leagues last year. There won’t be too much pressure on him early on as he hits in the bottom of the order, and the sky is the limit for the 21-year-old. Expect some growing pains along the way, but the future is bright at third base (just as long as Dave Dombrowski doesn’t get an itchy trade finger).
What’s Pedroia Got Left?
Dustin Pedroia won’t be back at second base for the Red Sox until …. well we don’t really know when Pedroia will be back after undergoing knee surgery back in October. He played in just 105 games last season, and it’s fair to wonder what he has left at 34. But when you count this little guy out, that’s usually when he surprises everyone. So time shall tell.
Can They Win In October?
We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here, with 162 regular season games still on the slate. But this is Boston and winning in the postseason is all that really matters. Can Cora’s crew break the Farrell trend of the last two seasons? We’ll know in six short months.