After the Boston Red Sox acquired Chris Sale on Tuesday, the consensus on Twitter, on TV and from my neighbor is that they are now the team to beat in the American League. You can argue about not giving the Cleveland Indians enough respect, but for now, let's have a little fun and compare the Red Sox to the world champion Chicago Cubs, position by position, with projected WAR numbers for 2017 via the Steamer projection system listed at FanGraphs.
Contreras shuttled between catcher and left field after his call-up last season but should get the bulk of the playing time next season, with spiritual leader David Ross retiring. After injuries decimated Red Sox catchers, Leon was pressed into service and had the best six weeks of his life, hitting .386 through his first 46 games. He hit .206/.277/.243 over his final 121 PAs, however, and had never really hit before, so Christian Vazquez could end up reclaiming this job.
Hey, Moreland won a Gold Glove! Per 600 PAs, Moreland created about 69 runs in 2016. David Ortiz, whom Moreland is essentially replacing with Hanley Ramirez going to DH, created 125 runs over 600 PAs. So that's a 56-run difference. Sale had better be good.
That's a bet on Baez, considering he was worth 2.7 WAR in 2016. That projection predicts no improvement on offense and seems to underrate his defense. Pedroia is coming off a 5.2-WAR season and has a chance to match that if he stays healthy next year.
You don't usually expect an MVP to get better, but Bryant cut his strikeout rate from 30.6 percent as a rookie to 22 percent in his second year. If he cuts that a few more percentage points, you're looking at a .300 season with 40 home runs. As for Sandoval, the Red Sox have committed to him after trading Yoan Moncada and Travis Shaw, and guess what? He's in the best shape of his life!
I'm curious to see how both players adjust as Russell enters his age-23 season and Bogaerts his age-24 season. After a monster first half that included a .395 batting average in May, Bogaerts fell off to .253/.317/.412 in the second half, as his BABIP fell from .369 to .290. Russell is the superior defender but needs to cut down on the swings-and-misses in his game and learn to spray the ball a little more to raise his average; he had just five extra-base hits to right-center or right field, with none of them home runs. Given his age, I think there's more to come from Russell. I'm taking the over on that WAR.
Steamer projects a .269/.359/.503 line for Schwarber over 532 PAs and a .282/.338/.439 line for Benintendi. That sounds about right for Schwarber, especially because he'll probably get platooned at least part of the time against southpaws. I'll take the over on Benintendi, and that projection and his plus defense should push the WAR higher.
Jay is a stopgap to give Albert Almora Jr. more time in the minors if needed (or to work in a platoon) with Jason Heyward also figuring into the mix in center. As with Bogaerts, Bradley's numbers slid in the second half (.926 OPS to .728) because of a big drop in BABIP. He's probably not a .926 OPS guy, but splitting the difference and repeating his 2016 line seems reasonable, though Steamer projects a 50-point drop in his slugging.
Both won Gold Gloves, but Betts ascended into baseball royalty with an MVP runner-up campaign, whereas Heyward struggled at the plate all season. The projection forecasts improvement for Heyward, especially given that he's only 27, but we saw in the postseason that he simply couldn't catch up to good fastballs. A swing overhaul is in order, but who knows if he can dig himself out of this descent. Betts' season was not a fluke; he'll be in the MVP discussion once again.
If Baez takes over at second base because of his defensive prowess, Zobrist will become a super-sub, filling in at second base, left field and right field with his outfield duty ramping up now that Jorge Soler was traded for Wade Davis. Holt will fill the Zobrist role for Boston, just not as effectively, and Young should continue to see a lot of time against left-handers.
WAR SO FAR: Cubs 27.3, Red Sox 23.6
How would you rank these six guys? I'm inclined to agree with Steamer and go exactly in the order of their projected WAR. Only Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw have more strikeouts the past five seasons than the pitchers in this group. Among pitchers with at least 600 innings, only Kershaw, Johnny Cueto, Zack Greinke and Madison Bumgarner have a lower ERA, and they all pitched in the NL. Plus, Sale was a victim of poor pitch-framing last season with the White Sox, and he allowed 21 of his 27 home runs at home, so moving to Fenway could even be beneficial. The more you study some of the numbers, the more you see the potential for Sale to have a huge season. Anyway, all six of these guys are good, and you could arguably arrange them in any order, especially if you're buying Hendricks' ability to limit hard contact.
WAR: Red Sox 13.1, Cubs 11.7
The Red Sox have the depth advantage with Steven Wright and Clay Buchholz still around. I like Rodriguez as a breakout candidate; he posted a 3.24 ERA over his final 14 starts after tweaking his mechanics a bit after going to the minors.
WAR: Cubs 4.7, Red Sox 4.0
Now that the Cubs completed their trade to get Davis, the two groups look like this:
WAR: Cubs 3.7, Red Sox 2.7
Bullpen WAR can be misleading, but both groups look pretty solid. Thornburg is coming off a huge season with the Brewers -- 90 K's in 67 innings -- so I think he's underrated here and Kelly, finally in the pen where he belongs, could be a dominant force. The Red Sox could also get Carson Smith back in the second half.
TOTAL WAR (not including bullpen): Cubs 47.4, Red Sox 43.4.
It's close! I like Boston's depth in the rotation, but I don't like the potential holes at first base with Moreland, who projects as one of the weakest-hitting first basemen in the majors, and at third base with Sandoval, who was terrible two seasons ago, before he missed almost all of 2016 with a shoulder injury. The Cubs were extremely healthy in 2016, especially in the rotation, and if that happens again, they could win 100 games for the second season in a row. Amazingly, despite all their success, the Red Sox haven't won 100 since 1946. Maybe this will be the year.