Boston Red Sox 2023 Season Preview
There are a lot of bald spots in Red Sox Nation because of all the head-scratching that took place over the offseason. Boston started the offseason with 13 Major League free agents and only signed one - utility infielder Yu Chang. That list included Xander Bogaerts, who signed a massive 11-year deal with the San Diego Padres. Instead of giving $280 million to the 30-year-old Bogaerts, the Red Sox extended 26-year-old MVP candidate Rafael Devers for 13 years and $331 million. Locking up Devers was the least head-scratching move of them all.
Instead of signing a big free agent on the open market in the United States, the Red Sox opted to give five years and $90 million to Japanese import Masataka Yoshida. Time will tell if that move works out, but Yoshida will be joined by Kenley Jansen, Corey Kluber, Justin Turner, Adam Duvall, Jorge Alfaro, Chris Martin and Joely Rodriguez for one of the older rosters in the league.
Barring any changes or injuries, the Red Sox look to go into the season with four starting pitchers over 30, including two significant injury risks, a lineup with boom or bust potential and a bullpen that could go any number of ways. Depth is virtually non-existent for the Red Sox, so they’ll have to stay healthy to come close to their ceiling.
Explanations of the stats used in this preview can be found in my “MLB Stats to Know” article.
2023 Boston Red Sox Odds
(odds from DraftKings as of Mar. 6, click for updates)
World Series: +6000
AL Pennant: +2800
AL East: +1700
Win Total: 78.5 (-115/-105)
Make Playoffs: Yes +300 / No -370
Boston Red Sox Offense
If the choice was between Bogaerts and Devers, I’d rather own the Devers stock long-term, as he’s four years younger and has more room to improve. However, the Red Sox are going to miss Bogaerts in a big way. In this era of low batting averages, Bogaerts had a .307 average with a .377 on-base percentage. His .362 BABIP was ripe for regression, but he filled every box on offense and also had one of the best defensive seasons of his career.
Bogaerts led the way with 6.1 fWAR, which was 1.2 more than Devers, who didn’t have the same defensive numbers, but had a better offensive season because of his better power production. The problem isn’t Devers. With a power uptick and a launch angle adjustment, he has a great shot at really being in the AL MVP conversation after posting his second straight season with a Hard Hit% north of 50%.
The problem is everything after Devers. JD Martinez posted a 119 wRC+ and he’s gone. Christian Vazquez posted a 110 wRC+ and got traded to Houston last July. Of the other players on the roster with at least 200 plate appearances, the only ones left on the roster with a wRC+ over 100 are Alex Verdugo (103) and Christian Arroyo (102). Trevor Story was exactly league average at 100, but he’s out until at least the All-Star Break after having internal brace surgery on his elbow.
Suddenly, the Red Sox are asking a ton from Yoshida, who is projected for a wRC+ between 127 and 140 in his first MLB season after slashing .326/.419/.538 in seven seasons for the Orix Buffaloes in Japan. He walked 120 times more than he struck out, but there is a big gap between pitching in Nippon Professional Baseball and Major League Baseball, so we’ll see how he adjusts.
Verdugo is a decent bat with a career 107 wRC+, but finding a position for him is a challenge to say the least, which leaves him somewhere around a 2.0 fWAR on an annual basis. Turner has been a really good hitter throughout his career, but he’s 38 now and there were declines in his contact quality numbers last season, which still graded above average, but the aging curve hits in mysterious ways sometimes. Duvall is coming off of his worst season since 2018, while Enrique Hernandez couldn’t replicate his 3.9-fWAR season from 2021 with just 0.5 fWAR in 2022.
At least Triston Casas is one of the most promising prospects in the org. He had 95 plate appearances last season and drew 19 walks with five homers, but also struck out 23 times. He’s been a good hitter at every level and the 23-year-old should start as the Opening Day first baseman. He’s a quality player and a guy to watch closely for Rookie of the Year with left-handed power to the short corner at Fenway and some of the visiting parks in the division, but his price at +900 is pretty low. He’s had a really impressive spring thus far.
Collectively, the Red Sox had a 102 wRC+ last season, but it was top-heavy with Bogaerts and Devers. One of those guys is now gone and this could very well be an average or below offense in 2023. As it is, the Red Sox only hit 155 homers last season (20th) and were a bottom-five defense by FanGraphs’ all-encompassing Def metric, even with an outlier season from Bogaerts.
Boston Red Sox Pitching
I can talk myself into the Red Sox having a good lineup, but this pitching situation is scarier than a prostate exam from Wolverine. Rich Hill is now a Pittsburgh Pirate and Michael Wacha is a San Diego Padre. Those two combined for 3.3 fWAR last season, with Hill leading the entire team with 1.8. Boston’s starting pitchers accumulated 8.6 fWAR total.
Nick Pivetta made 33 starts and worked 179.2 innings with a 4.56 ERA and a 4.42 FIP, but that only tells part of the story. He was outstanding in May and June, posting a 2.18 ERA over 78.1 innings of work, but had a 4.62 ERA in his other 101.1 innings pitched. He limped to the finish line with a 5.29 ERA over his final 32.1 innings and gave up 13 home runs in 71.2 innings after the All-Star Break.
There were flashes from Brayan Bello, who finished on a high note with a 3.12 ERA and 2.64 FIP over his last eight starts covering 40.1 innings, but other bright spots were few and far between. With Hill, Wacha and Nathan Eovaldi all gone, the Red Sox have to replace 361 innings in the starting rotation. To do that, they’ll hope Chris Sale, James Paxton and Kluber can stay healthy. Bello is also expected to start the season on the IL.
Sale has pitched all of 48.1 innings across 11 starts at the MLB level since August 14, 2019. He was on-site in Fort Myers early for Red Sox Spring Training and is said to be healthy, but he is really hard to count on at this point in time. The game is better when Chris Sale is out there shoving, as he was one of the best pitchers on the planet from 2012-18, but those days are so far in the rearview mirror that you can’t see them anymore.
Paxton has thrown 21.2 MLB innings over six starts since the end of the 2019 season and he missed all of the 2022 campaign except for two-thirds of an inning at Boston’s Spring Training complex. He was working his way back from his second Tommy John surgery when he tore a lat muscle. He’s also already slated to miss Opening Day with a bum hamstring. I’m not sure I’d count on anything from him.
Kluber was marginally effective with the Rays last season, but his home/road splits make me feel queasy. He pitched to a 3.71 ERA and a .291 wOBA against in 87.1 innings at Tropicana Field, but allowed a .341 wOBA and had a 5.05 ERA in 76.2 road innings. The Trop is one of the best pitcher’s parks in the game. He will no longer be pitching there for more than half of his innings. Furthermore, after a pretty solid first half, he had a 5.14 ERA after the All-Star Break. He did get unlucky with a 3.77 FIP in that span, but this is still a stock I’d sell rather than buy.
Pivetta is an average dude. Garrett Whitlock and/or Tanner Houck might be solid starters, but are not enough to offset the downside risk of this rotation looking ahead to the season. Also, the Red Sox have arguably the worst minor league system from a pitching standpoint, so reinforcements will not be arriving as the season goes along. Even the most optimistic projections of this group would account for some injury attrition.
The bullpen wasn’t very good last season either. The Red Sox finished 26th in ERA and 22nd in FIP. They did have the third-lowest LOB%, so there was an element of bad luck in there, especially league average K%, but that was partially negated by the sixth-highest BB%. The relief corps also allowed the highest Hard Hit% in baseball at 40%.
Therefore, it makes sense that the Red Sox would go out and get Jansen, Martin and a quality southpaw in Rodriguez. Unfortunately, we’re talking about two more guys over 35 in primary relief roles. Jansen had the highest Hard Hit% and second-highest Barrel% of his career last season while running his highest average exit velocity ever. He worked around it with a 3.38 ERA and a 3.21 FIP, but we may be seeing some signs of age.
Martin was outstanding, but was also dominant for the Dodgers, who are the best organization in baseball for pitching at this point in time. At least there is some upside with this group. I really like Houck long-term as a reliever (though it appears he’ll be forced to start) and John Schreiber was terrific over 64 appearances, but I wonder how many leads they’ll have to protect.
The Red Sox had two winning months last season. They went 20-6 in June and 3-2 in October. It could help to see the AL East a lot less, as the Red Sox were 16-41 against the Yankees (6-13), Rays (7-12) and Blue Jays (3-16). They were also 31-19 against teams below .500, while struggling to a 47-65 record against teams .500 or better.
Usually four or five runs is a magic number for teams to have a good chance at winning. The Red Sox needed six. They were 13-3 when scoring six runs, but just 13-14 when scoring five and 12-12 when scoring four.
Player to Watch
SP Brayan Bello: In a rotation that has a disproportionate amount of risk to ceiling, Bello is a guy with a high ceiling. He’ll turn 24 in May and got a crash course in MLB life last season over 57.1 innings. As I mentioned, his first three starts were ugly, with 14 runs allowed on 22 hits in just 12 innings. He allowed just 14 earned runs on 47 hits in his last seven starts, including two against the Yankees and two against the Blue Jays. Reports are that Bello is adding a curveball to offset his elite changeup and worm-killing sinker. Adding another swing-and-miss pitch could help him take a leap.
Bello has had forearm trouble in Spring Training, which is never good to hear. Hopefully he’ll be able to navigate the season healthy.
Boston Red Sox Season Win Total Pick
What I wrote about the Orioles rings true here that it helps Boston to play fewer games within the division. The Red Sox were 26-50 in the division last season, so they were 52-34 against everybody else. Injuries are inevitable in baseball, but the Red Sox have a lot more injury risk than more teams because of age and medical history. Furthermore, if Casas struggles to adjust to big-league life and Yoshida doesn’t translate as well as projected to MLB, this lineup is pretty poor beyond Devers.
The Red Sox have some solid position player prospects coming up, like C Connor Wong, OF Ceddane Rafaela and SS Marcelo Mayer, but they don’t have anywhere near the same upside with the pitching beyond Bello. Remember the Red Sox started 42-31 last year through 73 games and went 36-53 the rest of the way. I don’t think this roster is better. Several players are also priced to move at the Trade Deadline or have contract situations that fit the mold of guys likely to get traded.
It seems like there are some supporters of the Red Sox and we may get a better number than this, so I’m waiting. PECOTA has them at 79.5 wins and FanGraphs says 83, so I’m hoping to maybe squeeze another win or two and then play the under. I’ll admit that this is a high-variance team that has a wide range of outcomes and the ceiling is probably higher than the floor, but I don’t really like this roster very much.
Strong Lean: Under 78.5