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Friday, January 1, 2016

5 Big Questions and Predictions for the 2016 Boston Red Sox

As the last notes of Auld Lang Syne evaporate into the atmosphere, and 2016 stretches its wings for the first time, the realization that spring training is mere weeks away starts to settle in. Although the Boston Red Sox made a significant splash this offseason to upgrade their roster after consecutive disappointing seasons, they are still a work in progress. Let’s take a look at five of the biggest questions facing the team, and some predictions of how it will all play out.

How will David Ortiz finish his career?: Earlier this offseason, the Boston slugger announced that 2016 will be his 20th and final major league season. Even at 39 this past year, he was still the most valuable Red Sox hitter, contributing a .273 batting average, 37 home runs and 108 RBIs. Barring injury, there’s little reason to believe that he won’t go out on a high note.

Despite his climbing age, Ortiz has remained remarkably consistent, posting an OPS+ of at least 140 for the last five years. Not only did he play in 146 games in 2015, but he even got stronger as the season wore on, as evidenced by his .231/.326/.762 and .325/.401/1.102 batting average/OBP/OPS splits for the first and second halves, respectively. A continuation of such production will be important since he represents the only true masher in their lineup, and barring injury, there’s little reason to think it won’t happen. He is also a fiercely proud man who has always taken extreme pride in his numbers. One final typical season could leapfrog him from his current position of 27th all time in home runs (503) to inside the top 20—including passing Red Sox legend Ted Williams (521).

Can Rusney Castillo live up to his $72 million contract?: To say that the first two seasons for the 28-year-old Cuban outfielder have been a disappointment would be an understatement. During that time he has appeared in just 90 major league games, hitting a combined .262 with 7 home runs and 35 RBIs. He has also battled injuries and equally uninspiring production in the minors. He enters 2016 projected to receive significant playing time, though he may share duties with the likes of Chris Young and Brock Holt.

Unfortunately, there is no true road map to what Castillo’s future should be. Scouting reports like his tools but have mostly shied away from pegging him as a star. Although his career to date provides a relatively small sample size, there is the alarming possibility he may just be a platoon player. The right-handed batter has produced a .239/.283/.631 split against right-handed pitchers but has looked much better versus lefties at .313/.343/.791. Anything is possible but the likelihood is that he has already largely shown what he is—a toolsy but not great player. There’s nothing wrong with that but it also doesn’t reconcile well with his big contract.

Will shortstop Xander Bogaerts find his power?: The young right-handed hitter is coming off a great season by any measure, finishing second in the American Leaguer with a .320 batting average. Perhaps the only thing that may have had any tinge of disappointment was that he hit just seven home runs, which was far less than his projections would have you believe he is capable of.

Although he may not have put many over the fence last year, the signs are positive that Bogaerts is not only one of the best young hitters in the game, but that his power is still developing. From April through the end of the season, his monthly OPS trended positively (.694; .705; .771; .795; .761; 876). Saving his best for last, he banged out three homers and nine doubles over the final 29 games. He may not hit 30 home runs in 2016 but it would appear that he is primed to take a big step forward in the power department.

What player will take the biggest step forward in 2016?: With the team having so many young players, there are many possibilities. However, right-handed starter Rick Porcello appears to have the inside track if his finish this past year is any indication.

Coming over from the Detroit Tigers last offseason, there were big expectations for the hurler, but he disappointed, contributing a 9-15 record and a 4.92 ERA. Then why the optimism you might ask? There are actually two compelling reasons. The first is that with David Price being signed last month to anchor the rotation, there is no longer any need for him to play the ace—a role for which he did not seem well suited. Additionally, Porcello was actually very good down the stretch, posting a 3.53 ERA in his final 11 starts, and struck out nearly a batter per inning (70 punchouts in 71.1 innings), which was a career-best clip. Now that he has experience pitching in the Hub, and some of the pressure has been removed, the 27-year-old may be a very pleasant surprise in 2016.

Who will be the fifth starter?: The first four spots in the rotation seem fairly set in stone, with Price, Porcello, Clay Buchholz and Eduardo Rodriguez leading the charge. There are several candidates for the final slot (Joe Kelly, Henry Owens and Roenis Elias) but without them even stepping on a spring mound, the favorite should be Owens.

The 22-year-old southpaw had a reasonable rookie campaign this past year, going 4-4 with a 4.57 ERA in 11 starts. Long a top prospect, he has the most upside of the three and has shown he deserves an opportunity to build on his debut season. Elias looks like a good fit as a sixth starter/long man if he makes the team, while Kelly has been riding a recent swell of opinion that believes he could flourish as a reliever. At the very least, the team has options—and decent options at that—which is different than what could be said at this time last year.

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