By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Red Sox head into the 2019 season looking to do something that hasn’t been done since the turn of the century: Repeat as World Series champs.
It certainly won’t be easy. Winning a World Series is hard enough, let alone trying to do it again with a giant target on your back. But with most of the band back together, it’s tough not to feel good about Boston’s chances at a repeat.
That is a long, long way from being decided though, and we have 162 regular season games, all of spring, summer and a portion of fall to get through. And though the 2018 Red Sox made just about everything look rather simple, they’re in for a much bigger challenge in 2019.
With the Sox set to open their season in Seattle tonight, here are 19 story lines we’ll be following as they look to protect their reign as World Series champs.
A Slight Step Back?
While the team has done their best to put last season in the rear view mirror, these Red Sox have the tough task of following up last year’s special run. And make no mistake; what we witnessed last year was extremely special on many different levels.
From February to October, the Red Sox made winning 119 games look relatively easy. Maybe this year’s edition will repeat as world champs, but don’t expect that massive win total again. The defending champions have a giant target on their backs, with the Astros and Yankees gunning to knock them off the top of the American League (the Cleveland Indians may have something to say about it too). The Red Sox-Yankees rivalry is back on, and the budding Boston-Houston rivalry has been great for baseball the last few years. Both should ramp up even more in 2019.
Offensively, the Red Sox were a powerhouse, leading the AL in just about every category aside from homers. Mookie Betts had an all-time season. Betts, and the offense as a hole, should be phenomenal again, but chances are they’ll be slightly less amazing as they were last season.
The Sox were also extremely lucky on the health front last season. After a long and grinding postseason run, they may not have that same luck this year.
Make no mistake, the Red Sox are a damn good team. A really, really good team. But 2018 good? That was special, and likely won’t be repeated anytime soon. Don’t be disappointed if they only win 100 games this season.
The Ninth Inning
Buckle up. This could be interesting.
Craig Kimbrel will likely start the season in the unemployment line rather than the Boston bullpen. Cora has yet to actually name a closer, but in all likelihood, Matt Barnes will be the one trying to lock games for the defending champs.
In his five-year career, Barnes has eight save opportunities. He’s locked it down just twice in those chances, and his last successful save came on Sept. 19, 2017.
That’s not to say Barnes can’t handle high-pressure situations, because he saw plenty of those last October and was more than up to the challenge. While he allowed 12 base runners in his 10.1 innings, which is always dangerous for a reliever, only one of them touched home plate. Barnes finished Boston’s World Series run with a 0.87 postseason ERA, three holds and a pair of wins. And before October arrived, Barnes set career-highs with 96 strikeouts, a 3.65 ERA and 25 holds as Kimbrel’s setup man during the regular season.
Barnes has turned into a solid reliever over his career, but now we’ll see if he can get the final three (or more) outs of a game.
Overall Bullpen Concerns
The last guy out isn’t the only concern permeating in the Boston bullpen. Like last year, the bullpen in general is a concern — at least to start the season.
Ryan Brasier, Brian Johnson, Heath Hembree, Hector Velazquez, Brandon Workman, Tyler Thornburg and Colton Brewer will join Barnes in the pen, a group that doesn’t exactly strike fear into the opposition. Among the AL contenders, Boston has the weakest bullpen heading into the season.
With Kimbrel anchoring the crew last year, the Red Sox made it work. Without Kimbrel, everyone else’s role will be increased. It seems like the Red Sox are taking a bullpen-by-committee approach, which should rightfully cause some concern in Boston. Mix in the fact Dave Dombrowski doesn’t have much in the minors to deal, and the Sox could have trouble acquiring a reliable arm late in the season.
There are a few potential arms in the system that could help if the bullpen turns into Boston’s kryptonite. Jenrry Mejia is back from his “lifetime” ban and starting the season in Pawtucket, but he has Major League experience as a closer.
22-year-old Darwinzon Hernandez was the talk of spring training, and he impressed with 11 innings of one-run ball. But he also allowed seven hits, walked eight and hit three more batters over that 11 innings, so the young lefty needs some work. He’s starting the season in Double-A Portland, but we may see him trotting out of the Boston pen in the next few months.
Roughly 99.9 percent of the moves that Alex Cora made last season turned to gold. He certainly seems to have a great baseball mind and a strong grasp on how to lead 25 different men throughout a 162-game schedule.
There were very few bumps in the road for Cora in 2018, and he handled those hiccups better than anyone could have expected for a first-year skipper. This season will be a lot different. Fair or not, there’s the expectation to be great — borderline perfect — again.
And along this 162-game journey, there are going to be more outside distractions. The team has a White House visit in May, and those things have gotten a bit messy (some may even say, distracting) over the last few years. David Price is still David Price, Dustin Pedroia is stalking Cora at every turn to let him play, and Phil Nevin may need to be told to stay in his box again at some point. And this may sound crazy, but the team may actually go on a losing streak or two. They never lost more than three straight games all of last season.
Cora handled everything with grace last year, but doing the same while trying to repeat will likely be much more difficult. But if anyone can do it, it’s Cora.
The Red Sox did all they could last season to keep Sale fresh for the stretch run, and he still broke down in the second half of the season. It didn’t matter that he got a late start in spring, or was given time off; he still was nowhere near his dominant self once the All-Star break came around.
And that has been the story of Sale’s career; an amazing pitcher who starts strong but runs out of gas late in the year. It’s hard to imagine that will change with Sale set to turn 30 on Saturday.
What could change is Sale’s approach. Rather than coming out of the gates firing, he may hold back his A-plus stuff and be more of a finesse pitcher to start the season, painting the corners rather than blowing the cheddar by batters. This is a storyline we’ll be following not just this season, but for the rest of Sale’s career in Boston.
As David Price Turns
He’s finally a world champ, he was all smiles throughout the offseason, and he’ll have a fresh start with a new number. But will that make David Price any less of a prickly pear off the mound? Probably not.
Before he was celebrated as a World Series hero, Price was his usual lightning rod self during the regular season. He missed time due to a mysterious carpal tunnel diagnosis, one that led to weeks of speculation that the pitcher was playing too many video games. Cora laughed it off, but there was nothing funny about ridiculous video game talk that never seemed to end.
That is all part of the package with Price, and we should all be used to it by now.
A Full Season Of Nasty Nate
The last time we saw Nathan Eovaldi, he was going balls to the wall in Game 3 of the World Series, tossing seven innings of relief in that marathon affair in Los Angeles. He was a force as Boston’s “rover” out of the bullpen during their title run, and was rewarded with a four-year contract over the offseason.
Now Red Sox fans get a full season of Eovaldi flirting with triple digits on the radar gun every fifth day. Not to shabby for the middle of the rotation, as long as he can stay healthy.
E-Rod At The Back End
And at the back end of the Boston rotation is Eduardo Rodriguez. The 25-year-old lefty finally had a healthy offseason and made it through spring unscathed. If he can stay healthy, E-Rod could be in for a big breakout year at the back of the rotation.
Oh, Yeah, Porcello Too
Porcello is heading into a contract year. We’re not saying he’s going to be as good as he was during his 2016 Cy Young season, but imagine if he’s as good as his Cy Young season. Or even just as good as last season when he won 17 games. We aren’t going to doubt a guy who isn’t fazed by a line drive to the dome, even if he does tend to struggle in odd years.
Mookie’s MVP Follow-Up
Mookie had an historic season at the plate in 2018, earning himself a $20 million salary for 2019. He’s betting on himself that he can be just as good in 2019, earning another giant raise for 2020 before he really cashes in on the open market.
But enough about Mookie’s future money. Let’s just appreciate what should be another epic season from one of the best players in the game, as he tries to follow up one of the best seasons in Red Sox history. Cora has shifted him from leadoff to the two-hole to get him more RBI opportunities, so we won’t be surprised if Betts is flirting with the triple crown come September.
Xander’s Contract Year
We’ve heard an awful lot about Mookie becoming a free agent in two years, but Xander Bogaerts is set to hit the open market after this season. The Xander hype took a backseat last year with Martinez’s arrival and Betts destroying the baseball, but Bogaerts had a stellar 2018 season himself.
Imagine what a 26-year-old potential star could do in a walk year. Look out, baseball.
It’s stellar and we can’t wait to see it in action again. So why wait?
Breakout Year For Devers?
Devers remains a work in progress, but one that has some monster upside. Most of that is thanks to his monster swing, which mashed 21 homers in 121 games last season.
But as most in their early 20s do, Devers lacks consistency and discipline. He hit just .240 last season while striking out 121 strikeouts. He was slowed at times by a hamstring injury, which many thought was the results of his weight.
Devers appears to have shed some of those pounds over the offseason, and if he can to the opposite field more, he could turn into a deadly bat near the middle of the Boston order.
As for his defense… well let’s just focus on one thing at a time here.
Behind The Plate
Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart are Boston’s backstops, at least to start the season. Sandy Leon won’t be too far behind, as he’s expected to head to Pawtucket sometime in the next few days, giving the Sox a solid veteran in the system should the need arise.
Vazquez is great defensively, but suspect at the plate. Swihart is solid offensively (coming off a .406 spring over his 14 games), but suspect behind the plate. Neither can call a game as well as Leon.
Swihart deserved a spot on the team because of his bat, as Vazquez did because of his defense. It’ll be interesting to see how Cora splits up their duties, and how the pitching staff handles each catcher behind the plate. Don’t be surprised if Leon is back with the team at some point this season.
What Can We Expect From Pedroia?
The team is hoping to get 120 games from the 35-year-old second baseman who is in year two of his recovery from a torn meniscus in his left knee. That is a lofty ask for a 35-year-old second baseman who played in just three games last season, and is in year two of his recovery from a rare knee procedure.
Pedroia said recently that he came back too early last season. Now he can’t wait to return, but it’s the Red Sox who are telling him to pump the brakes. So the little leader will start the season on the injured list and get in some extra work in Fort Myers.
What can we expect when (if?) Pedroia returns? Who really knows, but there is there is some hope that he still can contribute at the plate. He slashed .318/.376/.449 in 154 games in 2016, and hit .293 with his sore knee in 2017. But his play in the field is a major concern; imagine Pedroia having to deal with all that goes with being a second baseman, with all that mileage on his balky left knee.
Perhaps 120 is a bit too adventurous of an expectation for the Red Sox, but maybe they can get something out of Pedroia in 2019. And if not, that’s why Brock Holt and Eduardo Nunez are back.
The Competition In The A.L.
After meeting in the last two postseasons, the Red Sox and Astros have a nice little rivalry going. The Astros were the victors in 2017 en route to their title, and the Red Sox returned the favor last year (not to mention, they stole Houston’s bench coach). Alex Bregman calls out the Sox any chance he gets, which adds a little more juice to the mix.
And then there’s the Yankees, the team everyone in Boston loves to hate again. The Yankees won 100 games last year but didn’t stand a chance against the Sox in the ALDS. So they went out and acquired lefty James Paxton to bolster their rotation, and signed Zach Britton and Adam Ottavino to strengthen their bullpen. And with Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton at the heart of their order, well the Yankees are also going to be pretty good.
The Cleveland Indians have their holes, but will be in the conversation thanks to their strong rotation. And if not, maybe Trevor Bauer will spout off again about a Sox pitcher and make things interesting.
And the Tampa Bay Rays are a plucky bunch, one that could play a role in deciding the AL East even if they aren’t contending themselves.
The AL is top-heavy with three legit contenders. The competition is getting closer, but the Red Sox are still on the top of that bunch.
When a team is looking to repeat, individual awards don’t really do it anymore. But like last season, the Sox should have a handful of MVP candidates by season’s end.
Betts will be in the running, because he’s always in the running. Martinez will be in the convo too if he puts together another 40-100 campaign. And with Xander in a contract season, who knows what he’ll be capable of.
They’ll all start the season behind Mike Trout, because it’s his award to lose every year. And if Aaron Judge can stay healthy, and cuts back on the K’s a bit, he’ll be a contender as well.
We’d add the annual Cy Young watch for Chris Sale, but those never seem to work out in the end.
Will Kimbrel Ever Sign???
If he does before June 1, the Red Sox get that team’s draft pick. If he signs after June 1, well they do not. So when Kimbrel signs is more important than where to the Red Sox.
Happy Dan Roche
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