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Sox Season Preview

Starting strong isn't a necessity for making a championship run but it sure helps.  Unfortunately, these Sox will need some real luck to get off to a great start.  They're starting off the year without their #2 starter, starting their 3rd best catcher, lacking a platoon partner for either 1B or 3B, missing their two best set-up guys, and expecting All Star caliber play from a rookie.  That said, all these issues should resolve themselves by mid-June and even a bad Sox '17 team should be in fine position to make a second half run.  But Sox fans will likely be pulling out their hair for the first month or two.

Things do have a way of working themselves out with good teams.  Last year, the Sox started the year with a pronounced lack of home runs, their best pitcher was the last guy to make the rotation (Wright) and we had gone through 2 catchers and lost a live Panda.  Things turned around with the team ending up 7th in the AL in homers - and by far the most runs - the league's best hitting catcher (who's best asset is defense), and, well, a mess at 3B but you can't win them all.

This season, the Sox need a rock solid start to the season from their starters.  Namely, they need Porcello to not regress, Wright to keep each game winnable and eat innings, E-Rod to be late-season 2016 E-Rod not pre-Pawtucket E-Rod, and Price to come back soon or Pomeranz to show he's almost worth the price we paid for him.

Bullpen - Sure, you always need good starting pitching.  But the start of this year is really reliant on that because last year's acquired set up man, Carson Smith, and this year's, Tyler Thornburg, are both starting the season on the DL.  It looks like Thornburg may be back around May 1, and Smith more like June.  If they come back full strength, that's two of the best bullpen arms in baseball getting added to your team a month or two in.

Meanwhile, the Sox will be asking Joe Kelly or Heath Hembree to step up.  Kelly has all the talent and the big mouth of a gunslinging closer, but he also thought last year he might win the Cy Young.  I think eventually he'll be solid, but I worry about him early in the season.  He's wild and has had America's most hitable 100 mph heater.  I'll go on record as the one guy who thinks Hembree should get the first shot.  He was solid last year.  He has a late inning guy's swagger - and hair (Rod Beck is jealous somewhere).  And he's been working hard at his one major weakness: lefties.  Meanwhile, Matt Barnes is probably the best of the lot, but I think Farrell values his ability to clean up messes left by others so they will likely deploy him in the 6th and 7th innings, with hopefully an effective Fernando Abad taking on a single lefty here and there, or Robbie Ross doing a lefty-righty to hand off a clean inning to Hembree or Kelly.

Anyway, this is not a solid group without Thornburg or Smith.  There's absolutely reason to believe that Kelly and/or Hembree can flourish in this career changing opportunity, but also a lot of reason to doubt it.  Kelly has never lived up to his hype/potential, and Hembree is a good-not-great talent.

Catcher - The next big question is catcher.  Sandy Leon deserves every chance to keep his job.  If he hits nearly as well has he did last year (let's say over .240 with a little pop), then he's valuable with that glove and game calling.  If instead he regresses to the guy who hit .184 in 128 plate appearances in 2015, he can't start for a team pursuing a championship.  If that's the case, I expect they'd at first just give Christian Vazquez more time as the starter.  In an ideal world, by the All Star break, Blake Swihart has worked out many of his defensive and game calling kinks and is ready to compete for the job down the stretch.  They'll be at their best with Swihart hitting and playing decent defense, and Vazquez doing the opposite.

Righty Platoon - It's not great when losing Josh Rutledge is a major blow, cause he's not all that great himself.  With Panda and Mitch Moreland looking good, maybe the Sox are best off just letting them both play every day.  But neither has a great track record against lefties.  The hope was for Hanley to play first against lefties with Chris Young either DHing or giving one of the outfielders a DH day, but Hanley can't throw and his bat is too important to risk it.

This may well be wrong by the time this is published, but I'd expect that the Sox will keep Steve Selsky for the first few week of the season.  He can play 1B, corner OF, and maybe even a little third.  Marco Hernandez is the best player available, but he won't play at all with Brock Holt taking up the super sub / middle infield duties.

Anyway, the most important point is the Sox productivity against lefties.  Panda and Moreland are significantly better against righties.  JBJ's slugging percentage was almost 180 points lower against lefties last year.  And we'll see how Benintendi adjusts to major league lefties.

The Rook - The leads us to the last slow-start concern: Benintendi.  There is no reason not to believe he'll be very very good, aside from some prospects just don't succeed.  I think he will and I'm a big fan of advanced college hitters for having high floors.  But you don't know.  There's a reason everyone has heard of a "sophomore slump".  He has not yet had to adjust to pitchers adjusting to him.  You just don't know and they are expecting a lot from a rookie batting him second.

All that said, the Sox should be over .500 by the time Price is back, Smith and Thornburg are back, Benintenti has counter adjusted, and the catcher situation has solidified.  But, I didn't mention the real threat to the season: the unknown injury or unexplained collapse.  It happens, often, maybe usually to a team.  That's why Hernandez, Swihart, Brian Johnson, Chris Young and Steve Selsky are so important.


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