Thursday was supposed to be the home opener at Fenway Park, a 2:05 p.m. tilt against Yoan Moncada and the newly competitive Chicago White Sox.
The sellout crowd would have been eager to see the Red Sox regardless of how they played in the first seven games of the season. For one day, just being back in Fenway and seeing those crisp white home uniforms would have been enough.
But if there is a home opener this year, it’s not going to be for a long time. Major League Baseball has officially pushed the season back until at least mid-May because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a more realistic appraisal is sometime in June or July.
The idea of a brief spring training in June and then a July 4 Opening Day is something MLB officials privately believe is plausible. Their goal is to start the season when fans would be allowed at ballparks, but the idea of playing in empty stadiums has been discussed.
It’s impossible to say how it will turn out, given how quickly the news about the pandemic changes.
But as eager as we all are to see baseball, playing an abbreviated season could be an advantage to the Red Sox. They’ll never acknowledge that, but it’s true.
Fewer games would mean less exposure for a shaky rotation that was further weakened Monday when Chris Sale had Tommy John surgery.
Eduardo Rodriguez and Nathan Eovaldi are a solid combination at the top. Then it falls off sharply to Martin Perez and Ryan Weber. There’s no apparent fifth starter.
Over the course of 162 games, it’s inevitable that a weak rotation will get exposed. But over 81 or even 100 games, the Sox conceivably could hit well enough to overcome that and get into the postseason.
Even without Mookie Betts, a lineup with Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez, Rafael Devers, Andrew Benintendi, Mitch Moreland, and Christian Vazquez will score plenty of runs.
Jackie Bradley Jr., in his free agent year, has ample motivation to improve his hitting. The same is true for newcomers Kevin Pillar and Jose Peraza, who are both on one-year deals.
A late start to the season also works out well for right fielder Alex Verdugo, who would have been on the injured list this week if games were being played.
Verdugo, the centerpiece acquisition of the Betts trade, arrived in Fort Myers still recovering from a back injury that knocked him out of the Dodgers lineup last August. But he is doing well and should be back by the time the season starts.
Verdugo had an .817 OPS in 106 games for the Dodgers last season with 14 defensive runs saved in the outfield. He is potentially a very valuable player for the Sox.
Before spring training ended so abruptly a few weeks ago, a scout told me that he believed Verdugo’s absence contributed to the Dodgers getting knocked out of the playoffs in the first round last season.
“He plays with an edge, and they missed that,” the scout said. “He’s not afraid of a big situation, and he’ll like Fenway Park. He’ll be a good East Coast player.”
What that means is Verdugo won’t be intimidated by large crowds, high expectations, or obscene hecklers in the Bronx. The Red Sox wanted the most talent they could get for Betts. They also may have gotten a player who will fit well in Boston, and that’s not always easy to accomplish.
Verdugo can’t replace Betts. But get him on the field and the Sox have a dangerous lineup.
The delayed start to the season also gives Collin McHugh a chance to further recover from his elbow injury and join the rotation. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who was in spring training on a minor league contract, should benefit, too, considering he had neck surgery over the offseason.
Teams also will have expanded rosters when the season gets going, likely 29 or 30 players, to ease the burden on pitchers. That should give the Sox a chance to exploit what should be a deep bullpen group.
The fewer games played this season means the fewer starts Sale will miss. It also improves the value of the Betts trade. The Dodgers gave up Verdugo, Jeter Downs, and Connor Wong believing they would have Betts for an entire season. They wouldn’t have made that deal for half a season.
It’s a shame there won’t be any baseball played at Fenway Park on Thursday. But it actually could work out pretty well for the Red Sox in the long run.