Red Sox show value of right mix of stars and role players

Heath Hembree (left) pitched 2/3 of an inning in Wednesday’s victory.MICHAEL DWYER/AP

By Alex Speier

APRIL 6, 2017

Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski isn’t afraid to admit it. He believes in building a roster around elite players.

“I’ve seen that you win with stars,” he said last summer.

Yet while stars transform a team’s ceiling, it is the overall shape of the roster that defines its floor. The best player in the sport, Mike Trout, has barely tasted October, not because of his own shortcomings but instead because the Angels roster surrounding him has been inadequate.

On Wednesday, left-hander Chris Sale delivered everything the Red Sox could have hoped to see in his Red Sox debut. He proved overpowering (13 swings and misses) over seven shutout innings in which he made the Pirates look helpless with his fastball/slider/changeup combination.

Yet Sale was long gone by the time the Red Sox broke through in the bottom of the 12th inning for a 3-0 victory over Pittsburgh. Ultimately, by the time the game was decided, it was thanks to the contributions of the complementary members of the roster rather than the cornerstone stars. Foremost, Sandy Leon showed that his strange and unlikely magic show has at least a hint of another act, as the catcher went 3-for-5 with a walk-off three-run homer – the first walk-off hit of his career – as well as a double.

While the expectation entering the year was that the Red Sox seemed comfortable sacrificing offense from the catcher’s spot in the order, instances in which they do not have to do so can prove enormous in the shaping of a team’s fortunes, as the Red Sox witnessed a year ago while benefiting from his unexpected emergence.

Leon’s cluster of five hits in two games – in tandem with the fact that pitchers love throwing to him – will help him stave off suspicions that his hold on the starting catching job is tenuous.

Additionally, the emergence of late-innings weapons from a group that lacks substantial track records of relief dominance has the potential to transform the team. In that regard, the two scoreless innings from Joe Kelly in which the righthander sat at 98 m.p.h. with his four-seam fastball and threw a solid 17 of 27 pitches for strikes (63 percent) represented an encouraging early-season development, as have the two scoreless appearances by Heath Hembree and Robby Scott.

Scott now has 10 consecutive scoreless games to his credit to start his career, the longest career-opening stretch of any Red Sox in at least the last 100 years. There will be setbacks, of course, and over time, roster shortcomings will be exposed. The degree to which relatively unheralded members of the roster prove capable of approaching something like their ceilings – or, as Leon did a year ago, surpassing them – will determine how costly those shortcomings are, and how much the Red Sox will have to give up in trades in order to address them.

Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.