BOSTON — The Red Sox are formidable. They won 108 games and beat the Yankees out for the American League East title. Their lineup is the most fearsome in baseball and they have a dangerous top of the rotation. For the last three months, they have made the case that they are the best team in baseball.
As the Yankees begin their best-of-five game American League Division series against this powerhouse, however, two scouts who spent part of the last month advancing the Red Sox, say they are not unbeatable.
“First, the pressure is on them,” an American League scout said. “They won 108 games, have been the presumed best team in baseball for the last three months, all the pressure is on them now. Some teams don’t respond to that, so we’ll see how they handle that, especially with a first-time manager.”
The Red Sox have responded well to Alex Cora this season. The 42-year-old former big leaguer has some experience not only playing in the playoffs, but was the bench coach for the Astros when they won the World Series a year ago.
“I think Alex has done a great job this season,he’s handled everything that has come up really well. He’s done a good job in game.” the AL scout said. “But you never know how a guy is going to react in the playoffs until you see it, maybe he tightens up. We have to see first.”
A National League scout who spent the past two weeks advance scouting the Red Sox for a possible World Series matchup, said that he thinks Cora’s veteran bench coach, Ron Roenicke, will steady him through the playoffs.
One of the biggest tests that Cora will have in these playoffs is how he manages the Red Sox’s biggest weakness: their bullpen. Both scouts we talked to said that the Boston’s Achilles Heel is middle relief.
“The biggest problem they have? six-seven and eight,” the NL scout said, referring to the innings the Red Sox are the most vulnerable. “If they don’t get eight innings from their starter every night, they have real trouble getting to (closer Craig) Kimbrel. The guys they are trying in those innings are unreliable.”
The Red Sox bullpen finished ninth in the majors with a 3.72 ERA and a .235 batting average against. They had a troubling 4.84 ERA in the month of September.
“And Kimbrel has been good, actually, he’s been really, really good for them,” the NL scout said, “but he hasn’t looked like himself. He has not been really good by his own standards, meaning his stuff doesn’t look the same.”
This season, Kimbrel suffered a severe drop in strikeouts, just 96 in 62.1 innings pitched this season compared to 126 in 69 innings in 2017. He allowed a career-high seven home runs this year and issued a career-high in walks.
“He’s the best they have and he’s really, really good,” the AL scout said, “but you see guys get to him a little more. He’s not dominating them.”
Defense could also be an issue for the Red Sox, particularly on the left side, the NL scout said.
“Rafael Devers is not a good third baseman, he’s like a 30 or 40 defender right now,” the NL scout said referring to the 20-to-80 scale they use to evaluate defense. On that scale, 50 is the major league average.
“Devers got hot offensively at the end of the season and they made the decision to ride that,” he continued. “They have an incredible line up, they didn’t need him in there, I think it will bite them at some point.”
Devers led all major league third baseman with 24 errors this season — even more than the Yankees’ mistake-prone rookie Miguel Andujar (15) — and has a brutal -13 defensive runs saved.
Those are areas the Yankees can try to exploit. But both scouts admit the Red Sox are pretty formidable. In the end, both see the Red Sox winning this division series if their starters go deep.
And both agree that they don’t think the Red Sox will be in the World Series, seeing them likely to fall to the AL Central champion Astros.
“In the end, I think the Astros are the best team in baseball,” the scout said. “I think in the end you will see the Astros beat the Red Sox and go back to the World Series.”