This Red Sox season, which comes to a welcome conclusion Sunday in Atlanta, will forever be distinct in team history because of the pandemic.
A 60-game schedule was played without fans in attendance as players adjusted to a rigorous set of protocols that for the Sox included using the airy concourses and suites of Fenway Park as their clubhouse.
There’s never been anything like it.
But from a baseball standpoint, these Sox in many ways mirrored the 2015 team in that they had an above-average offense but were held back by a pitching staff with the second-worst earned run average in the American League.
That season had its off-the-field challenges, too. Manager John Farrell learned he had cancer in mid-August and missed the remainder of the season. The Sox then fired general manager Ben Cherington a few days later. Uncertainty abounded.
But the organization recovered quickly, strengthening the pitching staff during the offseason and winning the division in 2016.
Can the Red Sox follow that same path again? Here’s a look at where the roster stands going into what should be an eventful offseason:
▪ Rotation: Other than Martin Perez, no starter remained in the rotation all season. The team holds a $6.25 million option on the lefthander, and bringing him back seems like an easy call given his 4.50 ERA.
Nate Eovaldi is signed for two more years at $17 million annually. He has not made it through a full season without an injury since 2014, so it’s hard to expect any more than 20-25 starts.
Chris Sale missed this season recovering from Tommy John surgery. An optimistic timetable would have him back in the major league rotation in late May.
Eduardo Rodriguez missed the season with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart that was a byproduct of his having had COVID-19. The Sox said Friday he’s been cleared to begin light workouts in preparation for building up to pitch again next season. But how many innings he’ll be capable of remains uncertain.
Righthanders Tanner Houck and Nick Pivetta showed enough late-season potential to suggest they should get more opportunities. But Houck’s lack of major league experience and Pivetta’s 5.42 ERA in 71 starts for the Phillies suggest it’s far too soon to award them a rotation spot.
Coaches have praised 21-year-old righthander Bryan Mata, who could emerge as a midseason call-up candidate. The same could be true for 24-year-old Connor Seabold.
The Sox have a large group of potential starters but precious few who could give them 150-175 innings. External help will be required, and this could be where chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom invests.
Trevor Bauer unquestionably is the top free agent starter and perhaps an attractive one if he sticks by his vow to sign only a one-year deal.
The free agent class drops off there to Mike Minor, Jake Odorizzi, Jose Quintana, Marcus Stroman, Ronnie Ray, Masahiro Tanaka, and Taijuan Walker.
Picking out the right free agents will be critical if the Sox are to compete for a playoff spot, which team chairman Tom Werner has said is the plan.
▪ Bullpen: The Sox had a dreadful bullpen, statistically among the worst in the majors in ERA and WHIP. That was due, in part, to overwork. But there was a distinct lack of talent, too, as Bloom ran what amounted to a tryout camp for borderline big leaguers.
Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier were generally reliable late in games. Darwinzon Hernandez and Josh Taylor were used sparingly after recovering from COVID-19. They should return to the core group next season.
Austin Brice, Jeffrey Springs, Phillips Valdez, and Ryan Weber were the best of the second wave. Domingo Tapia, a 29-year-rookie with a 100-m.p.h. fastball, had mixed results in the minors.
The Sox need external help here, too.
▪ Catcher: Christian Vazquez has a .790 OPS the last two seasons, is an above-average defensive catcher, and is under team control for two more seasons at $13.25 million. That’s a good value.
Kevin Plawecki hit so well as a backup that he picked up at-bats as a DH. He will be a free agent.
▪ Infield: The left side is in place with Xander Bogaerts at shortstop and Rafael Devers at third base. But Devers needs to prove he can handle the position defensively after an erratic season.
“Raffy has got the tool set to be a good third baseman,” manager Ron Roenicke said. “If he can be even an average third baseman defensively, with the way he swings the bat, it’s a huge value for a team. But at times there are some lapses. He knows it.”
One solution would be to make first baseman Bobby Dalbec the third baseman and move Devers across the field.
A better solution would be to convince Devers to commit to an offseason of defensive work similar to what he did before the 2019 season.
Dalbec could challenge Mike Napoli’s team record of 187 strikeouts if he’s a lineup regular. But he’ll produce plenty of runs along the way. He has more potential than Michael Chavis.
Christian Arroyo, a well-traveled former first-round pick who played well down the stretch at second base, has gained a lot of fans in the organization.
“He’s impressed not just me but all the coaches and the guys upstairs, too,” Roenicke said. “He’s done everything he could to impress us.”
Arroyo was a below-average hitter in 83 MLB games before arriving in Boston via a waiver claim. Given what will be a large free agent market, low-cost competition should be readily available. Or it could come from Yairo Munoz, a versatile righthanded hitter.
▪ Outfield: Alex Verdugo had an impressive season, hitting for power and average while playing Gold Glove-level defense. His enthusiasm never wavered.
“We lose Mookie [Betts], which is a huge loss as everybody knows, and Dugie slips right in there and did a really good job,” Roenicke said.
Verdugo would start in center or right depending on whether Jackie Bradley Jr. returns. Bradley will be a free agent and plans to see what the market holds for him.
Bradley’s body language during the season’s final game at Fenway Thursday was that of a player who didn’t expect to be back.
Andrew Benintendi had a lost season, going 4 for 39 before landing on the injured list. He has been a below-average hitter for two years and could be a trade candidate. He seems to need a fresh start.
Munoz could fit in the outfield, too.
▪ Designated hitter: J.D. Martinez can opt out of his contact. But he’s unlikely to give up a guaranteed $38.7 million over the next two seasons to test an uncertain free agent market coming off a down season at the age of 33.
Martinez never seemed to get comfortable this season, party because of the limitations players had on pregame work. He’s a good candidate to bounce back.
▪ Manager: Roenicke, a 64-year-old traditionalist, is not a manager you’d envision working long-term under Bloom. But when Alex Cora was prodded out, Roenicke gamely stepped in and guided the team through an unpopular trade, the pandemic, and a rash of injuries.
But the season was not a success outside of the Sox managing to steer clear of positive COVID-19 tests. The Sox were often ragged on the field, particularly early on.
Roenicke has earned the right to manage a team with a representative pitching staff and has said he wants to return. But Bloom was hired to make changes and at some point that will mean bringing in his own manager.
Of course, Cora could be rehired a day after the World Series when his suspension ends, and Roenicke could return as bench coach. Bloom has dismissed the idea of bringing Cora back. But if ownership wants to recharge the fan base, that would be the quickest way.
Peter Abraham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.