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Know Your Enemy: 2021 Boston Red Sox

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MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Boston Red Sox Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

2020 marked the Boston Red Sox’ worst season, by winning percentage, since 1965. The preseason trade of Mookie Betts and David Price, combined with Chris Sale’s spring training UCL tear and J.D. Martinez going through a brutal down year left a squad with few reminders of 2018’s 108 win, World Series champion juggernaut. Dustin Pedroia’s retirement this winter, after years of barely being able to take the field due to constant injuries, severed the last link to the early days of the franchise’s post-curse dominance. At the same time, Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers’ struggles at the plate and in the field and Eduardo Rodriguez’s scary battle with COVID complications cast the future into doubt.

Heading into 2020, the Sox look likely to bounce back from last year’s lows. It’s hard to say how far, though, with the division only getting tougher and a roster that possessed both real potential and major flaws.


Notable Departures:

Hitters:

Dustin Pedroia (2B), Jackie Bradley jr. (CF), Andrew Benintendi (LF), Kevin Pillar (CF), Mitch Moreland (1B), Jose Peraza (2B), Jonathan Lucroy (C)

Pitchers:

Brandon Workman (RP), Heath Hembree (RP), Collin McHugh (SP), Ryan Weber (RP)

Notable Arrivals:

Hitters:

Enrique Hernández (2B/Util), Hunter Renfroe (OF), Marwin Gonzalez (Util), Franchy Cordero (OF),

Pitchers:

Garrett Richards (SP), Adam Ottavino (RP), Matt Andriese (RP), Hirokazu Sawamura (RP)


Roster:

Catcher:

Christian Vázquez discovered power for the first time in his career in 2019, and carried that over to 2020 by hitting .283/.344/.457. Paired with his usual superb defense, that newfound thump makes Vázquez one of the better catchers in the American League. His main partner will be Kevin Plawecki. The 30 year old had a brief but spectacular run with the Red Sox last season, hitting .341/.393/.463 in 89 PA. That line is entirely a product of a .403 BABIP, though, and in 2021 Plawecki should return to his usual role as a roughly replacement level backup with little impact at the plate and mediocre defense. Multi-position prospect Connor Wong has produced big power and bigger strikeout totals on his way up the minor league ladder and might get some run later in the season.

First Base:

Bobby Dalbec debuted last year and hit 8 home runs in 92 PA while striking out 42.4% of the time. Scouting and his minor league track record suggest the power is real, but he’ll have to adjust and make more contact to stick as an everyday player. Dalbec’s competition is Michael Chavis, whose profile is similar but who hasn’t consistently gotten to his power in the major leagues, with 23 home runs in 540 PA not being enough to outweigh a 33% strikeout rate.

Second Base:

Christian Arroyo looks to be the starter. The 2013 first round pick is on his fourth major league team in five years and has yet to really show much promise. His .240/.296/.440 line in 54PA in Boston last year was still below league average, but was a significant improvement on his career line New addition Enrique Hernández played every position but catcher in his six years with the Dodgers, but will likely get most of his playing time at second in Boston. His hitting fell off last year (.230/.270/.410), but he’s been a steadily adequate utility man throughout his career. Longer term, Jeter Downs, the main prospect prize in the return for Mookie Betts, could force his way into a cup of coffee in September.

Shortstop:

With Dustin Pedroia’s retirement this winter, Xander Bogaerts is the strongest remaining link to the Red Sox’ glory days. His defense at short has never been better than about average, but he’s an excellent and well-rounded hitter who produced a .300/.364/.502 line in 2020. Although he seems to be less hyped than some of the other elite young shortstops in baseball, his 26.5 WAR through age 27 puts him on a borderline Hall of Fame trajectory.

Third Base:

Rafael Devers’ 2019 breakout (.311/.361/.555 with 32 HR) gave hope that much hyped third basemen with dubious conditioning and some early career struggles can figure it out. He wasn’t able to build on that foundation in 2020, though, posting a .263/.310/.483 line and his usual poor defense.

Left Field:

Franchy Cordero came over from Kansas City in the Andrew Benintendi trade and looks to take over his job in left. Cordero is a spectacular athlete, with raw power and speed that both clock in as 70s on the 20-80 scouting scale. A combination of huge strikeout rates and nagging injuries have kept him from turning those tools into much major league impact, though. If the Astros’ trashcan banging scheme has a poster boy, it’s Marwin Gonzalez, who hit .303/.377/.530 in 2017, all marks he’s never really approached in any other season. Signed away from the Twins this winter, at 32 years old, he projects as a below average but passable hitter who can play good defense in an outfield corner and adequate D in several other spots.

Centre Field:

Alex Verdugo, the centerpiece of the return for Mookie Betts, looks to move over from right to centre this season. Verdugo hit .308/.367/.478 in 2020. Regression in his .371 BABIP will drag that line down in 2021, but he still projects to hit about .285 with 15 or so home runs. His defense has graded out very well in the corners and around average in center. Prospect Jarren Duran reached AA in 2019 and should debut this year. Duran has excellent speed and should be solid defensively while adding value on the base-paths. He has very little power, though, and will have to rely on a slap and dash approach to drive his offense.

Right Field:

Boston picked Hunter Renfroe up after the Rays non-tendered him. Renfroe has big power (averaging 37HR per 600 PA for his career) and walks some but is held back by strikeouts and a chronically low BABIP. He had posted a terrible .156/.252/.393, but should rebound closer to his .228/.290/.486 career line in 2021. His defense has been pretty solid in right for his career.

Designated Hitter:

Was last year a blip, or did we watch J.D. Martinez get old before our eyes? After two monster seasons to kick off his tenure in Boston during which he hit .317/.392/.593 and garnered MVP votes, his production fell off a cliff in 2020. He should top his .213/.291/.389 line easily, but at 33 it’s hard to know by how much.

Rotation:

Nathan Eovaldi signed an above market four year, $68m deal in the afterglow of the World Series win that immediately looked awful when he posted a 5.99 ERA in 2019 and lost his rotation job. He rebounded very well in 2020, though, making nine starts and posting a 3.72 ERA with peripherals that back it up. Eovaldi has battled injuries through his career, and hasn’t topped 125 innings or 21 starts since 2015.

Eduardo Rodriguez missed 2020 after a COVID-19 led to myocarditis and essentially forced him to rest in bed for months. He apparently has the green light to go full speed for 2021. Between 2018 and 2019 he posted 333 innings with a 3.81 ERA and 359 strikeouts. Coming off an injury we don’t really have any precedent for, it’s hard to know whether he can get back to that level.

Garrett Richards hasn’t pitched more than 76 innings in a season since 2015. When he’s on the field and 100%, he’s usually very good and can be a near ace. His stuff has faded a little since his peak, but his fastball still averaged over 95 last year and he still missed plenty of bats. Add him to the pile of high variance starters.

Martín Pérez is the opposite of the last three guys. He pitches 180 innings almost every year with an ERA that’s somewhere between average and 10 percent worse than that. He’s the kind of starter you can depend on, but not the kind you’d want to.

Nick Pivetta, the pride of Victoria, B.C., has always struck a lot of guys out (24.5% of the batters he’s faced in his career), but batters who manage to make contact have tended to hammer him, to the tune of a .324 BABIP and 1.62 home runs allowed per 9 innings. Those are, respectively, the worst and 6th worst among starters who’ve averaged at least 100 innings over the past four seasons. Right-handed hitters treat him even worse than lefties, so he probably won’t enjoy the Fenway experience.

Pitchers who could factor in later in the season: Chris Sale had Tommy John surgery last March after struggling for the first time in his career in 2019. His rehab is on track for a mid-season return, and how he looks will go a long ways towards determining the Red Sox’ fate in 2021 and going forward. Tanner Houck, the Sox second best pitching prospect, debuted last year and struck out 21 while walking 9 over 17 innings. Houck features a 93mph fastball and plus curve but fringy command. Bryan Mata, the best pitcher in the system, made it as far as AA in 2019 and features a plus fastball and change with average command. Connor Seabold came over with Pivetta from Philly at the deadline in exchange for relievers Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree. He possesses a plus change-up and above average command, and posted solid results in 7 starts at AA Lehigh Valley, but his stuff is otherwise bland.

Bullpen:

Matt Barnes will look to bounce back from a mediocre 2020, but his walk rate has been trending in the wrong direction for four years. Adam Ottavino’s ugly 5.89 ERA hid typically solid peripherals, and he should be a quality setup man if not a potential closer. Matt Andriese was useful in a multi-inning/opener role the past few years with the Rays, but has never posted a better than average ERA. Darwinzon Hernandez has struck out 37% of the MLB batters he’s faced, but has also walked a hilarious 18%. Phillips Valdez has posted a strong 3.50 ERA over parts of the past two seasons, but his mediocre walk and strikeout numbers make it look like a mirage. Ryan Brasier has been a solid setup man over the past 3 seasons, with a collective 3.58 ERA and solid peripheral stats. Josh Taylor had a very promising debut in 2019 but battled shoulder problems last year. He’s healthy in camp. Hirokazu Sawamura signed this winter after 10 seasons in the NPB, mostly with the Yomiuri Giants. He boasts a fastball that can touch 99 and a quality splitter.


2021 Outlook

Fangraphs projects the Red Sox to 85 wins and third place, behind the Jays and ahead of the Rays. Baseball Prospectus is more conservative, forecasting 79.5 wins and a fourth-place finish. Personally, I side more with BP. This isn’t a bad team, really. They have four starters who have track records as #2/3s or better, and the bullpen looks decent. The offense has major holes, but it has at least one star level player in Bogaerts, and Martinez, Devers, and Verdugo could be a solid supporting cast. Every important player on the roster, with the exceptions of Bogaerts and maybe Vázquez, is very risky, though, and there isn’t depth behind them. If all the fragile starters are healthy and Devers and Martinez bounce back well, this could be a dangerous team. That’s a series of big ifs, though, and it seems more likely that the Sox are headed towards a frustrating year in which they’re never quite healthy enough at one time to get above .500.

Longer term, it seems like a decision about when and how thoroughly to blow it up it up is looming in Boston. Bogaerts is a guy you can build around, but he’s also making $20m a year already. Sale might be, but he turns 32 just before opening day and makes $29m. Rodriguez will be a free agent in November, and Devers and Verdugo will need to be paid soon if they’re part of the future. The farm system ranks 20th according to Baseball America and features only two consensus top 100 prospects. In some ways, this team feels like Chris Sale’s last squad, the mid 2010s White Sox. They had bona-fide stars in Sale, Jose Quintana, Jose Abreu, and Adam Eaton, but no way to build depth around that core. In the end, they had to tear it down and start over. As Jays fans, we can only hope that if the Red Sox do the same it doesn’t go as well as it has on the south side.


Poll

The Red Sox will win:

This poll is closed

  • 19%
    Over 80.5 games
    (19 votes)
  • 81%
    Under 80.5 games
    (81 votes)
100 votes total Vote Now

Poll

The Red Sox will finish ___ in the AL east

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    First
    (2 votes)
  • 1%
    Second
    (2 votes)
  • 10%
    Third
    (15 votes)
  • 84%
    Fourth
    (119 votes)
  • 2%
    Fifth
    (3 votes)
141 votes total Vote Now