No matter who you ask, the Boston Red Sox are expected to be anywhere from pretty good to very good in 2017. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system projects them to win the American League East. The general betting consensus has them as favorites to win the American League and tied with or slightly behind the Cubs in terms of favorites to win the World Series.
In other words, no one is exactly slighting the Red Sox as the 2017 season approaches.
But that doesn’t mean the individual members of the team aren’t out to prove something. In fact, nearly every member of the Red Sox core group seems to be entering 2017 with something to prove.
The starting rotation has perhaps the best top-three in baseball, with reigning Cy Young winner Rick Porcello, former Cy Young winner David Price, and somehow-not-a-Cy-Young-winner Chris Sale. But each of the three enters 2017 looking to prove certain doubters wrong.
Porcello’s Cy Young win last season was met with a fair amount of backlash, and not just from the significant others of those who didn’t win. He received only eight first-place votes to Justin Verlander’s 14, winning the award on the strength of his other down-ballot votes. He enters 2017 not only as one of the least-heralded Cy Young winners in recent memory, but looking to prove that his season wasn’t a mirage. There’s a better-than-not chance he doesn’t even end up starting opening day for the Red Sox despite that Cy Young win — and a fair enough argument he shouldn’t. As much as any award-winning pitcher can enter the following season with a chip on his shoulder, Porcello will.
David Price enters 2017 on the flip side of the coin; he’s coming off his worst season since 2009, and spent the season answering questions about his ability to pitch in one of the sport’s most notoriously-difficult markets. Small dust-ups with fans on social media only added fuel to the fire.
Price would likely be the first to admit his 2016 wasn’t up to his own high standards. Now, he’s in a position to prove it. Though his woes were somewhat exaggerated (he still posted a sub-four ERA and 3.60 FIP), under the microscope in Boston, every start — every pitch, really — will be scrutinized. Just one year into a massive contract, the chirping from media and fans alike won’t stop until his performance is that of a top-dollar ace again.
The newest member of the rotation, Chris Sale, will face all the same questions Price did a year ago. Every bad outing, every home run allowed, every snippy answer after his starts, will be analyzed and re-analyzed ad nauseum. He’ll have to “prove he can pitch in Boston” just as Price did, and any poor outing will only add to the (ridiculous) narrative that he doesn’t have the makeup to do it, whatever that means. Add in that Boston forfeited its top prospect to get him, and the pressure will be great; the outcry if he fails to perform to expectations will be massive.
In the bullpen, Craig Kimbrel is very much like Price. The Red Sox gave up a lot of capital (prospects in this case) to get him, and he played below his typical baseline last season. He’ll have to prove he is every bit the stud closer the Red Sox thought they were getting; with every blown save, that need to prove himself will grow. That’s true of any closer, sure, but even more so for a five-time All-Star in a market like Boston after the team gave up several pieces to get him — pieces that will likely be getting their first real MLB experience across the country with San Diego in 2017. God help him if he blows a save the same day Manuel Margot hits a home run for the Padres.
In the lineup, perhaps no player is under more scrutiny this season than Pablo Sandoval. Coming off a season lost to injury on the heals of one lost to complete ineffectiveness, he has probably the biggest chip on his shoulder of all. Add in the constant remarks on his physical appearance in addition to his actual play, and he has as short a leash as a player can, at least in terms of fans turning on him (though many have already). Now on year three of his deal and with very little time to prevent it from being a total disaster, he’s going to have to work hard not to prevent being in the proverbial doghouse, but to get out of the one he’s already in.
You might think an established, productive veteran like Dustin Pedroia would have nothing left to prove, but with the departure of David Ortiz, he’s the de facto voice of the clubhouse now. Anything from poor play to poor attitude — whether by him or anyone else — will affect how people view Pedroia as a leader, fair or not. It will be up to him to right the ship, so to speak, at the first sign of trouble.
The list goes on and on. Mookie Betts will be looking to prove his breakout in 2016 was a stepping stone, not a once-off. Jackie Bradley, Jr. will have to do the same. Hanley Ramirez, in yet another new role as the presumtive full-time DH, is already at a disadvantage, as his production on the field will be compared to the departed Ortiz’s, even though before a single pitch has been thrown, we know he won’t be able to put up the same numbers Ortiz did.
Being a World Series favorite is well and good, but with it comes, obviously, high expectations, internal and external. With nearly a dozen players listed here who have something to prove on a personal level in 2017, and the team as a whole looking to prove it is as good as projections and betting lines seem to agree it is, this season in Boston will be one of vindication; at least, it’d better be.