Ordinarily, Thursday would mark one of the most eagerly anticipated rites of spring, the start of the baseball season. The Red Sox would have been taking the field in Toronto against the Blue Jays, the opening of a six-month plot.
But nothing is ordinary about this time, with the COVID-19 pandemic altering daily life and postponing the start of the season indefinitely. There is a hope rather than a guarantee that some normalcy will return and permit games to be played this year.
All the same, it’s still startling to step back and examine the Red Sox roster at what would have been the start of the campaign and to examine how drastically the team was reshaped over the winter — in a way that has invited perhaps more scrutiny than any offseason since the team’s current owners took control of the club in 2002. The team is being examined — or at least would have been examined — by a large segment of the fan base not with excitement but with a mix of resignation and anger.
The offseason has represented a succession of punches to the face, at least one of them willingly absorbed. Manager Alex Cora and the team parted ways after Major League Baseball released its findings about his role in a sign-stealing scandal by the 2017 Astros. The Red Sox chose to trade stars Mookie Betts and David Price to the Dodgers, after which chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom acknowledged, “It’s reasonable to expect that we’re going to be worse without them.” The club announced last week that Chris Sale will require Tommy John surgery, making its outlook even drearier.
“Needless to say,” Bloom said, “losing Chris for 2020 is not going to make our task any easier.”
Already, the Sox faced what appeared to be an uphill task after a disappointing 84-78 performance last year. Since the end of that campaign, the team has lost Betts, Price, Sale, and Rick Porcello as key contributors.
While losing that group, the team’s primary additions have been outfielders Alex Verdugo — whose ongoing recovery from a lower-back stress fracture never permitted him to play a spring training game — and Kevin Pillar, infielder Jose Peraza, and starter Martin Perez. The talent drain has been far more extensive than what’s been brought in. Aside, perhaps, from bullpen depth, the team appears to have downgraded in every respect while featuring a lineup and defense without Betts and a rotation without Sale and Price.
The resulting projections for the Red Sox are as subdued as any season in recent memory. With Sale lost for the season, Fangraphs projects an 80-82 record for the Sox and a 33.7 percent chance of making the playoffs. In six available seasons of past playoff odds projections by the website, the Sox had never before entered a year with less than a 60 percent chance of reaching the postseason. At this point, if a season is played in some form, it would be less surprising if the Red Sox were sellers at the trade deadline than if they were buyers.
That said, projections are far from certainties. Last year, five of the 10 teams that reached the postseason (Rays, A’s, Twins in the American League; Braves and Brewers in the National League) were given odds of worse than 40 percent of making the postseason on Opening Day.
It’s also worth noting that the Red Sox last decade made an almost annual practice of massive departures from projections — whether exceeding or falling short of them. The team defied projections in the collapse of 2011, the last-place finishes of 2012 and 2014, and the 24-win dropoff of 2019; it likewise blew past all reasonable limits for its performance in the championship runs of 2013 and 2018.
Is there reason to believe that the roster features the talent to exceed its projected mediocrity in order to contend? Here’s a look at some of the players who could exceed their Fangraphs projections to push the Red Sox toward contention:
▪ Though Xander Bogaerts has a hearty 4.5 WAR projection, he posted a 6.8 WAR last year and has averaged 4.9 WAR over the last five years.
▪ J.D. Martinez has a 3.4 WAR projection; in 2018, he posted a career-best 5.9.
▪ Andrew Benintendi, whom Fangraphs projects as a 2.3 WAR player, was a 4.4 player in 2018 — with potential upside beyond that based on what he showed in the first half of that season, when he was a 3.6 player.
▪ Rafael Devers has a 4.4 WAR projection for 2020. He was a 5.9 player last year, and is young enough to allow visions of a player capable of taking a step forward.
▪ While projecting Jackie Bradley Jr.’s performance has often proven akin to grabbing a wet bar of soap, that fact suggests he could blow well past his 1.9 WAR projection. After all, in 2016, he had a 5.3 WAR in an All-Star season.
▪ Nate Eovaldi projects as being worth 1.8 WAR. In 2014 and 2015, he surpassed 3 Wins Above Replacement — and obviously, in September and October 2018 he performed at an elite level.
▪ Darwinzon Hernandez projects as a 0.0 WAR player; in his debut last year, he was worth 0.6 WAR in less than a half-season and showed traits that create elite swing-and-miss late-innings potential.
▪ Perhaps a strategic deployment of an opener boosts the Red Sox’ success. A year ago, including the postseason, the Rays — when Bloom was their vice president of baseball operations — went 27-17 (.614) in games started by an opener, and 71-52 (.577) in games with a traditional starter.
So, yes, there are rose-colored glasses that permit a picture of a team that contends. At the same time, it’s also not hard to envision a downward spiral.
An injury to Eduardo Rodriguez (projected as a 3.1 WAR pitcher coming off a 3.9 WAR season) or Eovaldi could leave the Sox in the same rotation scramble that afflicted the team down the stretch last season, when Sale and Price were out. Regression by Devers or an injury to Devers, Bogaerts, or Martinez likewise could drag the team further in the standings.
Thursday was supposed to represent an opportunity for the Red Sox to crumple paper forecasts and to start providing on-field evidence of the kind of team they could be. Instead, the wait for such evidence will continue.