Red Sox 2019 Preview: X Factor, Breakout Star, Three Notable Storylines


Mar 28, 2019

The Red Sox will begin their World Series title defense Thursday night, and expectations are sky-high for the reigning champions after a dominant 2018 campaign in which Boston won 108 regular-season games before steamrolling the New York Yankees, Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers in the Major League Baseball postseason.

The World Series hangover has doomed many previous champions, but the Red Sox look poised for sustained success, especially given how little roster turnover they had this winter.

That said, the slate has been wiped clean for Boston and every other team across MLB. So let’s officially turn the page and focus on 2019. The Red Sox will kick things off with an 11-game, West Coast road trip.

Here are some thoughts on Boston’s upcoming season.

Three key storylines
1. Bullpen
If the Red Sox falter in 2019, there’s a good chance it’ll be because of the bullpen, which comes with a ton of uncertainty after losing closer Craig Kimbrel and standout playoff performer Joe Kelly in free agency. (Kelly signed a three-year, $25 million contract with the Dodgers, while Kimbrel remains a free agent.)

This isn’t to say there’s no talent in Boston’s ‘pen. The unit features several hurlers with upside, including Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier, who seem like the leading candidates for early save opportunities despite manager Alex Cora declining to name an official closer before Opening Day. It’s just hard to figure out the direction of Boston’s reliefs corps, which currently consists of Heath Hembree, Brandon Workman, Colten Brewer, Tyler Thornburg, Brian Johnson and Hector Velazquez in addition to Barnes and Brasier. And it won’t be surprising to see some early-season experimenting when it comes to specific roles.

2. Catching situation
The Red Sox will start the season with Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart handling the club’s backstop duties, as Boston outrighted Sandy Leon to Triple-A Pawtucket after the 30-year-old cleared waivers. Now, the attention shifts to how Cora will divide the playing time between Vazquez and Swihart, and whether one of the young catchers will emerge as Boston’s go-to guy.

The Red Sox received very little offensive production from their catchers last season, ranking 29th in average (.202) and 30th in OPS (.547) from the position. Swihart, a former top prospect, might provide a boost in this area, while Vazquez, long lauded for his defensive work, is a bounce-back candidate at the dish following a 2018 season in which he missed time with a fractured pinky.

3. Offensive distribution
The Red Sox ranked first in runs (876), average (.268), on-base percentage (.339), slugging percentage (.453) and OPS (.792) last season, and there’s little reason to believe Boston’s offense won’t be among baseball’s elite again.

But keep in mind Mookie Betts hit .346 (54 points higher than his career average before 2018) with a 1.078 OPS (239 points higher than his career OPS before 2018), and J.D. Martinez batted .330 (30 points higher than his average from 2014 to 2017) with a .402 on-base percentage (40 points higher than his OBP from 2014 to 2017). How much of that otherworldly production is sustainable?

Maybe Jackie Bradley Jr. will replicate his 2016 success. Maybe Andrew Benintendi and/or Rafael Devers will tap further into their potential. Maybe Xander Bogaerts will find another gear as he eyes a massive contract in free agency next offseason.

The Red Sox’s offense might be just as good this season, but it’s possible the lineup’s gaudy numbers will be again more evenly than they were in 2018, when Betts and Martinez went toe-to-toe for the American League MVP Award, which the former ultimately won.

Now, let’s go rapid fire…

One X factor no one is talking about: Eduardo Nunez.
Nunez was pretty bad last season, posting the worst WAR (-0.3) of any Red Sox player with at least 500 plate appearances. But he clearly was hindered by injuries. Let’s not forget Nunez’s awesome stretch run in 2017, when he was a spark plug for Boston’s offense and ranked third on the Red Sox in WAR (1.1) — behind Betts and Vazquez — in the second half. If Dustin Pedroia doesn’t rebound after returning from a knee injury, Nunez could have more opportunities to leave his mark.

Breakout star: Matt Barnes.
Devers is the most logical choice on the offensive side given his youth (turned 22 in October) and pedigree as a highly touted prospect. Eduardo Rodriguez, who turns 26 in April, seems like a good pick on the pitching side given the flashes of brilliance he has shown and Cora’s tough-luck approach with the left-hander. But let’s go outside the box a bit and roll with Barnes, who turns 29 in June but has a great opportunity to become the Red Sox’s closer this season.

Barnes was excellent at points last season, finishing sixth among MLB relievers with 14.01 strikeouts per nine innings — trailing only Aroldis Chapman, Josh Hader, Dellin Betances, Edwin Diaz and Corey Knebel, and ranking ahead of Boston’s former ninth-inning strikeout specialist, Kimbrel. He owned a solid groundball rate, and his FIP (2.71) was better than his ERA (3.65), suggesting he even was a bit unlucky.

One prospect who could make an impact: Durbin Feltman.
The Red Sox intend to be careful with Feltman, a third-round pick last June who turns 22 in April. But the right-hander features a mid- to high-90s fastball and a wipeout slider. He posted a 1.93 ERA, a 0.99 WHIP and 13.9 strikeouts per nine innings in 22 relief appearances across three levels (High-A Salem, Single-A Greenville, Low-A Lowell) in 2018 and could make his way to Boston in 2019, especially if the Red Sox endure struggles and/or injuries in their bullpen.

One bold prediction: Steven Wright will return to pitch meaningful innings down the stretch, only to be ineligible for the postseason.
This is a shot in the dark, obviously. Wright already dealt with injury issues before MLB slapped him with an 80-game suspension for a positive performance-enhancing drug test. But hey, why not?

Odds of Red Sox repeating as champs: 10 percent.
The Red Sox again have one of the league’s most talented rosters. They should be really good, even with some regression, and so one absolutely shouldn’t rule out a fifth title in 16 years.

But repeating is hard, man. And the AL East could be a pain in the rear given the Yankees’ championship aspirations, the Tampa Bay Rays’ upside and the Toronto Blue Jays’ potential to be sneaky-decent based on the young studs they have waiting in the wings.

Thumbnail photo via Jason Getz/USA TODAY Sports
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