By Kyle Schroeder – Contributing Writer
The 2016 regular season for the Red Sox went as well as anyone could have expected. There was so much excitement, not only from the team winning the AL East, but in the way David Ortiz played out his farewell season, and the emergence of the young players on the roster. The Sox entered the playoffs as the trendy World Series pick, but once the playoffs started, everything went wrong. The Cleveland Indians swept the Sox and Ortiz’s career failed to achieve the storybook ending everyone had hoped for.
The 2017 season launches a new era in Red Sox baseball. Ortiz will not be on the team for the first time in 14 years, newly-acquired Chris Sale will be leading the pitching staff, and Mookie Betts will be the face of the team. The answers to five key questions can help tell who the Red Sox will be this season.
1. What is the biggest concern heading into the season?
The health of David Price. In Early-March, after throwing a simulated game, Price developed elbow soreness and hasn’t pitched since then. He is not expected to be out long term, but pitchers and elbow injuries are unpredictable. If he is out more than a month, it will be a significant problem for the Red Sox. With Price slotted as the third starter, Boston arguably has the best rotation in the league. With Eduardo Rodriguez in that spot, there is significant drop-off in production.
2. What should Red Sox fans be most excited about heading into the season?
Watching Chris Sale pitch in a Red Sox uniform. Boston gave up two highly-touted prospects in Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech to get Sale, but the hefty price should be worth it. In the last five seasons, Sale has been an All-Star, in the top six in the Cy Young voting, and boasts an average ERA of 3.01. Sale has three elite pitches: his fastball, slider and change-up. His wizardry on the mound will keep fans glued to their televisions.
3. What position player should get the most attention?
21-year-old leftfielder Andrew Benintendi is the answer to this question. Benintendi had an excellent debut in the MLB last season, batting .295 with two home runs and 14 RBI in 118 plate appearances. He was arguably the best hitter on the team during the playoffs batting .333 with one homer in nine plate appearances. The confidence with which he carried himself was encouraging. Whenever he stepped to the plate, he had this calmness about him as if he had been playing in the majors for 10 years. This could be one reason why he adjusted so smoothly moving straight from Double A to the Majors.
With Ortiz out of the lineup, Benintendi’s production will be pivotal to the strength of the offense. Given his youth and the potential he showed last season, it will be interesting to see how much better he gets in 2017.
4. Who is the biggest X-Factor on the team?
There is no doubt the biggest X-factor is Pablo Sandoval. Sandoval was a laughing stock last season. He showed up out of shape and went 0 for 7 with four strikeouts before missing the rest of the season due to injury. This off-season Sandoval has gotten himself into good shape and at 30-years-old, he has a chance to get back to the player he was in San Francisco. With the Giants, he had a batting average of .287, 19 home runs, and 83 RBIs per season. If the Giants version of Sandoval plays for the Red Sox this season, he gives the lineup a huge boost. If last year’s Red Sox version of Sandoval comes back for 2017, the Sox will continue to have a weakness at third base.
5. Where should the Red Sox be expected to finish this season?
With Toronto losing Edwin Encarnacion, the Red Sox clearly have the best roster in the division, even if there are long-term health issues with Price. When you examine the rosters across the American League, the only team that looks better than the Red Sox is the Cleveland Indians. The Indians have Andrew Miller for a full season. Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco are back healthy, Encarnacion has been added and they lost no one of significance in free agency. All of this being said, the Red Sox should be expected to win their division and reach the ALCS for the first time since 2013.