Now with their fourth World Series ring since 2004, we can safely say that any remaining curse on the Boston Red Sox has been exorcised with extreme prejudice. Surprisingly, their 108-win, 2018 season was the first hundred-win season for the franchise since 1946, back when Julio Franco was about 35.
This World Series-winning Red Sox team should probably considered part of a new dynasty, rather than as the final installment of the one that won three World Series championships in the 21st century. Obviously, the players are different; 14 years have passed, and even awesome players are subject to the ravages of time. But the front office also has a very different look.
Theo Epstein has now been gone for nearly a decade, but in the years after his departure — and the brief interregnum featuring a dashing escape from Fenway Park dressed in a gorilla suit — the front office had a distinct flavor of the Epsteinian dynasty, with Ben Cherington, Jed Hoyer, and Mike Hazen all having ties to Epstein.
When Dave Dombrowski took over as President of Baseball Operations at the end of 2015, the ultimate responsibility for the day-to-day decision-making shifted for the first time to someone without ties to the 2004 champions. The Epsteinians ended with less bloodshed than a lot of great dynasties; Hazen getting a job in Arizona is hardly comparable to the violent end of Andronikos I Komnenos. (I swear I’ll stop now before the rest of the article is just me comparing Red Sox transactions to Byzantine battles.)
It’s easy to forget in the wake of a trophy in 2013 — flags fly forever, yada yada yada — but that victory was sandwiched between three last-place finishes in the AL East. To find the last time the Red Sox had consecutive losing seasons, you’d have to look back to around the strike.
The 2016 roster looked very different than the 2013 one. Only two starting position players remained from 2013, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz, and the latter was in his grand farewell procession. The 2013 rotation was gone, except for Clay Buchholz, and of the main bullpenniérs, only Koji Uehara remained.
After adding David Price and Chris Sale in consecutive offseasons, the 2017-2018 winter had its own big highlight: the team’s re-signing of Mitch Moreland. OK, we all know that’s a lie; Boston successfully waited out a winter during which many of the other big market teams did little with their cash, and brought in J.D. Martinez on a six-year, $110 million contract. It was the rare signing of a star free agent on Martinez’s side of the defensive spectrum that ZiPS didn’t immediately start digitally laughing at.
With a young offensive core — 30-year-old J.D. Martinez was the old man of the valuable parts of the lineup — and a hopeful return to health and form from David Price, Boston rightly felt that they didn’t have to add too much else. Unlike some of those other high-revenue teams, Boston was on no quest to get under the luxury tax threshold for 2018, already having reset its penalties in 2017 (the Red Sox payroll resulted in a nearly $12 million luxury tax payment).
ZiPS projected Boston to be in a close battle with the Yankees going into the season, with a two-win deficit that could evaporate by simply making a slightly different set of assumptions. The computer projected Boston to have a 78% chance of making the playoffs, far better than any projected runner-up, with the next-best being the St. Louis Cardinals at 53%.
ZiPS did see some weaknesses in the team, viewing the catching situation as a bit of a mess and believing Mitch Moreland and Hanley Ramirez to be rather unambitious choices at first base. ZiPS wasn’t super-confident about the depth at the back of the rotation, either, and was concerned the No. 4 and 5 starter situation could unravel very quickly with a few Nasty Surprises in the health department.
Well, they won 108 games and the World Series, so you could say that there was definitely some more-than-passable adequacy going on. The weird thing about the Red Sox season is that as 108-win teams go, it really wasn’t all sunshine, lollipops, and Mike Trout Everything.
Unusually, you could see a lot of what-ifs scenarios, none of which were all that crazy, in which Boston could have easily finished with even more wins. The catching Cerberus hit like a three-headed hot dog, Moreland and the released Ramirez were in fact rather mediocre at first (though Moreland, as usual, wore his surprise breakout costume for a couple of months), and the back of the rotation did in fact have a couple of Nasty Surprises. Rafael Devers growing from his rookie season instead of regressing from it could have added a couple more wins as well.
The contours of the Red Sox season weren’t surprising, but the magnitude of the good things were. The Twitter Baseballosphere all joked about a specific article written before the season, in which a Boston-area writer said Mookie Betts was as good as Mike Trout (I was one of the sarcastic quippers, naturally). But Betts actually was as good as Trout in 2018, as weird as that claim appeared at the time.
Betts and Martinez gave the team two MVP candidates and Chris Sale was, as usual, a legitimate Cy Young candidate. One could argue that the Boston Red Sox were a bit like a very sunny version of the Colorado Rockies, a team that also had two MVP candidates and a legitimate Cy Young candidate, but surrounded their core with an Ian Demond-Gerardo Parra Imagination Christmas.
Unlike Colorado, Boston never stopped trying to find opportunities to deal with their team’s limited weak spots. Steve Pearce gave the team a legitimate right-handed role player who could do at first base what Hanley proved too inept to accomplish. Ian Kinsler was brought in to patch the hole at second, even if the move failed to be all that profitable. And Nathan Eovaldi solidified the back of the rotation and finished the season having completely resurrected his career.
Boston’s regular-season pummeling of the league continued, with the team steamrolling over the Yankees, Astros, and Dodgers — the majority of the teams ZiPS that thought were better going into the season — and only dropping three games over the entire postseason.
And while he didn’t have a Cy Young-type season, it was nice to see Price eviscerate that laziest of baseball storylines, that of the postseason choke-artist. After a lousy start against the Yankees in the ALDS, Price only allowed seven runs over his remaining 24.1 innings. And after having to make an appearance in that crazy 18-inning Game 3, Price allowed just one run in seven innings, on one day’s rest filling in for Chris Sale, who was hospitalized with a stomach ailment.
What Comes Next?
Over the next few years, the Red Sox will likely have harder decisions to make than their eternal rivals, the New York Yankees. Chris Sale, Rick Porcello, and Xander Bogaerts are free agents after the 2019 season, and if he plays just as well as he did last season, Martinez may very well join them by using his 2019 or 2020 opt-outs. Mookie Betts hits free agency after the 2020 season as well.
That’s a lot of talent to see leave, and keeping that group together will be expensive; the team has already hinted that it will pose a great challenge to sign all of them. This team blew through the luxury tax threshold and that’s with Sale, Betts, and Bogaerts making under $30 million combined. If Martinez doesn’t opt-out, the Red Sox already have a hair under $110 million baked in the 2020 cake for just six players. If you bring back Sale for $30 million, and Bogaerts for $20 million, even with letting Porcello walk, that’s $159 million with 17 roster spots left to fill.
And those spots won’t be cheap to fill. Using the framework developed by Craig Edwards, and the pre-2018 prospect ranks of Kiley McDaniel and Eric Longenhagen, Boston had the second-least value in their farm system, ahead of only the Mariners. While the McDongenhagen analysis for this winter isn’t out yet, I daresay that there weren’t enough victories in the minors (Michael Chavis was suspended, Sam Travis was terrible, and Triston Casas can’t single-handedly turn around the farm system) to drastically change this ranking for the better.
As Boston sees its young core become expensive without easy answers from the farm, the team will have to be creative (or get much more comfortable with the luxury tax) in the coming years to not have a significant down turn in the franchise’s fortunes. Transitioning to the team’s next core without spending $300 million a year may be the biggest challenge for the dynasty of the Dombrowskii.
ZiPS Projection – Mookie Betts
Let’s just bask in the Mookie-y goodness and hail to whatever we find in the sunlight that surrounds him.
I asked ZiPS to give me all Betts’ remaining four-WAR seasons in the projections, and it returned a nice little collection of superstar seasons. All-told, ZIPS sees 52 WAR remaining for Betts, which puts him above 80 WAR, a definite Hall of Fame trajectory. Even if his defense doesn’t age as well as ZIPS thinks it will, knocking off ten runs a year from his defense starting in 2019 would still leave him at nearly 70 wins, and that’s way too harsh and adjustment.
That wraps up the Elegy for ’18 series; next year’s series will commence with the Orioles sometime in late March. Thanks for joining me in my final goodbyes to the 2018 season, even if they went week past when I’d intended!
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.