Now that we’ve covered the three non-rebuilding teams in the AL West, why don’t we move on to the other big names in the American League that will be in conflict with the Astros in 2019? And what better interdivisional opponent to focus on first than the one that’s faced the Astros in the postseason for two years running, the Boston Red Sox.
The Boston Red Sox
2018 in Review
The Red Sox rolled through the season, breaking a 106-year-old franchise record with 108 wins, more than all but a handful of teams throughout history and the most anyone has managed since the Mariners’ record-setting 2001. They turned that dominance into an 11-3 postseason that saw them capture the team’s ninth World Series title, tied for third-most in MLB history.
What’s New in 2019
Almost all of the core players from 2018 will be back this year. The single biggest exception is probably closer Craig Kimbrel, who’s still a free agent but could conceivably come back. The bullpen depth behind him is also thinner, with set-up man Joe Kelly heading to the Dodgers and swingman Drew Pomeranz going to the Giants. Neither was great in 2018, but they’ve both been really good as recently as 2017 (and Kelly seemed fine in the postseason, at least). Swingman knuckleballer Steven Wright will also be missing half of the season on a PED suspension.
On the flipside, midseason acquisition Nathan Eovaldi will be sticking around for a full season. Fellow midseason pickups Ian Kinsler and Brandon Phillips are gone, however. Outside of Eovaldi, the closest thing to a significant signing the Red Sox added this winter were a bunch of minor league deals. The most notable of those is probably Jenrry Meija, the once-promising Mets closer who has thrown just 7.1 innings in the majors (and only 20.1 counting the minors) over the past four seasons due to repeated PED suspensions. In fact, he was the first player to draw a permanent suspension under MLB’s drug testing policy, but is back following appeals for reinstatement. Who knows how good he’ll be after four years, but it’s interesting if nothing else.
Key Players in 2019
Since the team is largely the same as the 2018 version, and most of the players are still young, expect to see a lot of the same stars leading the way this year. Chief among them is reigning AL MVP Mookie Betts. Some regression is likely just because of how good he was last year (both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference WAR have it at over 10 wins), but there’s still a lot of room to be worse than that and still be All-Star level, so the Sox should be fine either way there.
Similarly, the top of the rotation is set with Chris Sale, who has finished in the top-five in Cy Young voting for the last six years running. And while David Price hasn’t looked totally like the Cy Young winner he once was since signing with Boston, he’s still an above-average starter, and forms a formidable 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation. Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Eovaldi help round out an overall pretty strong rotation.
Back on the offensive side of things, J.D. Martinez has found another gear the last two years, and had a career year in 2018 at age 30. Even if age keeps him from repeating that mark, Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi are both still young and above-average starters with the potential for more, and 22-year-old Rafael Devers is still early enough in his career to fulfill that early potential he showed in his first call-up two years ago.
Really, if there are any weaknesses on this team, they’re in the depth. The bottom-third of the lineup seems pretty weak (which could suddenly become a much bigger problem if there’s an injury, or Devers and Jackie Bradley Jr. struggle to hit again), and the bullpen has gotten even sparser after being mediocre last year (up until the postseason, that is).
How do they measure up to the Astros?
This is a little tougher question than it is for divisional rivals. The only way the Red Sox will be competing directly with the Astros for a playoff spot is in the Wild Card standings. The Red Sox might need that, given the strength of the best AL East teams, but no one in the AL West looks as good as even the Rays, let alone the Yankees. And even in the playoffs, there’s a less-than one-in-three chance of facing the Red Sox in the Division Series.
There’s no sense in worrying about October right this second, though. I think these two teams are close, but I would definitely take the Astros to go further in the postseason (if only because they’re less likely to need to go through the Wild Card round). And while it’s hard for me to totally separate this ranking from my biases as a fan, I also think they’re the stronger team going into this year as well.
The Red Sox had a lot go right last year, while the Astros had a lot go wrong, yet they still only came out five games apart. And that’s not even getting into the fact that the two’s Pythagorean records were actually flipped (the Astros’ run differential had them at 109 wins, while the Red Sox were at 103). Plus, it feels like Houston made more moves to improve this offseason, while Boston felt like they were mostly just treading water and left some spots on their roster feeling slightly thin.
It’s not the lopsided comparison that we saw with the other AL West teams, but I still like the Astros’ odds in 2019 versus one of the strongest teams they’ll be up against.