We are now just 11 days away from the BOSTON RED SOX PLAYING IN A REGULAR SEASON GAME THAT COUNTS!!! There are three games on Sunday April 2nd but the Sox, along with most of baseball, open the season a day later on Monday April 3rd (at 2:05 against the Pirates). The WBC is officially over so we now have a week and a half of meaningless spring training games before getting to Opening Day. With that mind here are some thoughts on the Sox entering 2017:
--The biggest baseball story in Boston right now is the status of David Price's elbow. You can be upset with him for last season's ERA, the playoff struggles, and his bizarre handling of the Boston media - but the Red Sox are a better team with him than without him. In 2016 he posted the second highest ERA of his career, and his highest since his rookie season. Aside from being an obvious bounce back candidate losing Price could be a blow to the Sox because of all the innings he ate up last year - innings that may now go to Henry Owens if another staff member goes down. Ultimately if Price misses a few weeks the Sox are still in the AL East driver's seat. But if he ends up needing Tommy John we are in trouble. Then you look at the fact that he has (gulp) six more years left on his contract and this situation could go south quickly. Stay tuned.
--For some reason there is this track record of big name players coming to Boston, sucking early on and bottoming out with the fan base, and then rebounding back to all star level performances. We've seen it happen with Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Rick Porcello, and Hanley Ramirez. So far this spring it looks like Pablo Sandoval will become the next of this group. After a disastrous 2015 Sandoval was somehow even worse in 2016, showing up out of shape and playing in just three games before requiring season ending shoulder surgery. It turns out that this was the best thing that could've happened to him. He came to camp in shape this year and has a real chance to get back in the good graces of Red Sox fans if he plays well and with the right attitude. The team will never receive full value from the five year, $95 million contract he signed but a .270 batting average with 15-20 homers is a reasonable expectation for him this season. Should the Sox make it to the playoffs the 2012 World Series MVP will bring an experienced postseason bat to a lineup in its first season without the most clutch hitter who ever lived.
--Sandy Leon was great last year. He took over a dumpster fire catching situation for Boston and was everything the team could have asked for. In 78 games he hit .310 with a .369 OBP. The only problem is that it's very easy to see he was playing above his head, as evidenced by the fact he was a career .148 hitter entering last season. But Leon played so well that he has the right to the starting job entering 2017 despite many expecting him to lose it by Memorial Day. Best case scenario he hits well again and everything is fine. Worst case scenario the Sox have two solid replacements in Chrisain Vazquez and Blake Swihart.
--Craig Kimbrel had a weird season in 2016. He got off to a slow start and he ended poorly, but in-between was as lights out as he's ever been. When he was on last year he was ON. His 14.1 K/9 were his most since 2012. This suggests he hasn't lost his "stuff" but what he may be losing is his control. At first glance his 5.1 BB/9 from his first year in Boston is an alarmingly high number. An optimist would say that most of these free passes came during his meltdowns, and that the real Kimbrel is who we saw from May through August. A pessimist would point out that the walks have been on a steady rise since he allowed just 2.0 per nine back in 2012. As noted with Sandoval sometimes stars struggle with their first taste of Boston. Thus Kimbrel should be expected to regain his status as one of the top five closers in baseball this year, but if he gets off to another slow start and the walks don't improve it could be time to hit the panic button.
--Over the past six seasons Hanley Ramirez has played in more than 128 games just twice. Since he was able to stay healthy for most of 2016 there is a sense that we can once again pencil him in for 150 games this year. We're only in Spring Training and already Hanley is dealing with a shoulder injury. It hasn't been bad enough to where he needs to be shut down but it has prevented him from playing first base for most of March. That's not the end of the world, because he is going to primarily DH this season and only play first against lefties, but it's certainly not ideal. The injury hasn't slowed down his hitting but if he's playing at anything less than 100% all it takes is one aggravation to turn this into a multi week DL stint. Since the news of his shoulder broke the same time as Price's elbow the story has been somewhat overlooked. Simply put the offense cannot afford to be missing Hanley for an extended period of time. His health is a legitimate concern and will be all summer.
--We are now just a little over a week away from 2017 regular season baseball yet there doesn't seem to be much hype surrounding the Red Sox in Boston. Reasons for this might include the disappointing ending to the 2016 season, the Patriots' free agency moves stealing sports headlines, and how cold it's been in the city. I just hope fans realize we are at the start of a two or three year championship window. Since taking over at the end of 2015 Dave Dombrowski has been extremely aggressive in trading away prospects for proven major leaguers in Kimbrel, Pomeranz, and Sale. If the Sox win a World Series within the next few years then it'll all be worth it. But there's a chance things don't work out and the team could be left with a lot of big contracts and without the cheap, young talent necessary to supplement the roster. 2017 was supposed to feature a three headed starting pitching monster (and it still might) but the Price injury should remind fans how fragile championship windows can be. The moral? Don't take this season for granted.