The Red Sox are coming off a 2020 season in which they finished last in the American League East (24-36). In what feels like a bridge year in chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom’s second season with the club, there have been a ton of moving parts. Yet this year, unlike last, the Red Sox have a clean slate without the internal — and self-inflicted — distractions.
Alex Cora is back in the manager’s seat after his yearlong suspension for his role in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal in 2017. The Red Sox are no longer under investigation for their own sign-stealing scandal in 2018, and they are also a year removed from the blockbuster trade that sent Mookie Betts to the Dodgers and brought back much ridicule from the public.
A new beginning for the Sox with a clearer path forward starts this week. Here’s a breakdown of what that looks like:
Five areas of concern
▪ Starting pitching — The Red Sox’ starting pitching remains the team’s biggest concern heading into the 2021 season. No Chris Sale until at least July as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. Plus, there’s no telling what Eduardo Rodríguez will look like after he missed all of 2020 with myocarditis in relation to his bout with COVID-19 (more on that later).
With Sale and Rodríguez absent last year, Red Sox starters had the sixth-worst ERA (5.34) in baseball. The Sox will have a good, long look at Nick Pivetta and Garrett Richards, who has huge upside that the Sox believe they can unlock. Martín Peréz proved himself to be serviceable last year, pitching 62 innings with a 4.50 ERA.
Nate Eovaldi will return to the rotation and likely will claim the ace or No. 2 role. Questions about health, though, still loom. In the 60-game season last year, Eovaldi was impressive, tallying a 3.72 ERA in nine starts and 48⅓ innings.
▪ Rodríguez’s health — Baseball aside, Rodríguez’s health was a huge concern last year. If there was any lesson the public and fans should have taken from Rodríguez’s absence, it was that the coronavirus doesn’t just affect the elderly. The 27-year-old Rodríguez contracted the virus in July; he was cleared to walk on a treadmill in September. Now, roughly five months later, Rodríguez is expected to go out and perform at an elite major league level.
Just two years ago, Rodríguez had a career season. He made all of his starts (34) and carried a 3.81 ERA, striking out 213 batters in 203⅓ innings. Heading into spring training, Rodríguez has had a normal offseason of workouts and is expected to be a full go. But returning to his 2019 form out the gate — or at all this year — isn’t a guarantee.
▪ The bullpen — Red Sox relievers had a 5.79 ERA last season, fourth worst in the majors. However, the lack of starting depth and lackluster production might have played a part. Certainly, though, the loss of Darwinzon Hernández and Josh Taylor for a chunk of the season because of injuries and COVID-19 affected the bullpen. The Sox added to their bullpen, namely with Adam Ottavino, but the overall production of the pen — including more consistent outings from Matt Barnes — is imperative.
▪ The outfield — Betts has enjoyed sunny Southern California for roughly a year. Now, Andrew Benintendi is gone. Jackie Bradley Jr. probably isn’t coming back. The loss of those three would mark the official end of an era.
Alex Verdugo is a solid candidate to take over center field. Verdugo has 76 games played at that position, but the dropoff from Bradley to Verdugo is significant. Furthermore, if you look down the list of outfielders the Sox did acquire this offseason — Franchy Cordero and Hunter Renfroe — while they project well, it remains unclear whether they can be everyday players.
Granted, the Sox did a solid job of adding versatile players in Marwin González and Kiké Hernández, who are both capable of playing the outfield. Still, after years of Bradley, Betts, and Benintendi as fixtures in the outfield, their presence will be something the Sox will undoubtedly miss.
▪ Cora’s reintroduction — The players wanted Cora back. But how will the rest of baseball receive him, and will it be a distraction to the club?
Five players to watch
▪ Jarren Duran — Duran, 24, will be a hot topic during spring training. He started to make a name for himself last spring, and despite losing a minor league season, his name became even bigger at the team’s alternate site. Duran carried that over to winter ball, when he was named MVP of the LBPRC finals. He hasn’t played above Double A, nevertheless he’s a dynamic outfielder with speed whom the Red Sox believe can be a game changer in due time.
▪ Tanner Houck — The 24-year-old righthander was impressive in his debut season last year. He was dominant in his three starts, registering a 0.53 ERA in 17 innings, while striking out 21. Houck offers a glimpse into the future and will likely be in play for some sort of role with the big league club.
▪ Franchy Cordero — The Sox acquired Cordero in the Benintendi trade. Cordero is known as a huge-upside guy. He has immense power and speed, but can he play?
▪ Rafael Devers — The third baseman entered summer camp out of shape last year. It will be interesting to see if he’s locked in from the start.
▪ Jeter Downs — Even though Hernández can patrol second base, top prospect Downs, who was a part of the Betts trade, is seen as the long-term option.
More new faces
▪ Adam Ottavino — When on his “A” game, Ottavino is seen as one of the best relievers in baseball. He had a great season with the Yankees in 2019, pitching 66⅓ innings to the tune of a 1.90 ERA. But in 2020, his ERA ballooned to 5.89 and he was a non-option in the playoffs. He can serve multiple roles, including closer, which isn’t out of the picture.
▪ Kiké Hernández — He can play multiple positions but is looking for a full-time role at second with the Sox.
▪ Hunter Renfroe — He’s a big power guy that fits well at Fenway.
▪ Marwin Gonzalez — He has a history with Cora and will play multiple positions. The 31-year-old utilityman is coming off a forgettable 2020 in which he hit just .211, but he is still seen as a productive veteran.
▪ Garrett Richards — The king of spin rate. The Red Sox believe they found a diamond in the rough who can get back to some of the success of earlier years.