Every time I’ve pecked out some Red Sox ruminations the past year, the collective response has been overwhelmingly negative toward the franchise. And you know what? The Red Sox have earned every fluid ounce of the vitriol.
The goodwill from the 108-win World Series champions of 2018 was lost faster than a tourist expecting Boston to have a logical street grid.
The 2019 team never found a cure for the championship hangover while getting busted for using its video room to steal opponents’ signs.
The trade of the incomparable Markus Lynn “Mookie” Betts to the Dodgers in February 2020 alienated passionate fans only slightly less than trading Carl Yastrzemski in, oh, November 1968 would have.
And last season, that abbreviated debacle? At a time when it would have been quite helpful for the Red Sox to be a small distraction from real life, they were a talent-challenged, injury-plagued, soulless mess. They won 24 games, or as many as Roger Clemens did in 1986.
This run of lousy decisions, lousy performance, and lousy luck — I’ll put the Chris Sale injury in this category — has led to a fan base that is angry when it is not apathetic.
After trading Betts — the return, including Alex Verdugo, was not bad; the rationale was offensive — and then fielding a roster that at the back end often looked like a WooSox tryout camp, the response was deserved.
Which brings us to a curious little situation: The 2020 Red Sox were so annoyingly bad in every way, we’re ignoring that they’ve gotten better — perhaps much better.
Many fans aren’t going to restore their commitment until this team proves worthy of it. Chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom and the front office have spent the offseason improving the depth, not just in the minor leagues, but on the major league roster too. Yet the understated but compelling progress that has been made has largely been greeted with a shrug, if noticed at all, because the embers of fury left over from last season’s debacle are still burning.
It didn’t help that Red Sox president Sam Kennedy was honest in a January column by Dan Shaughnessy, when he acknowledged the team was “building back up” rather than going all-in to win this year.
Nor did it help last week when the popular Andrew Benintendi, still a beacon of promise even though he hasn’t hit much for 2½ seasons, was traded to the Royals for enigmatic outfielder Franchy Cordero and four prospects, three of whom remain players to be named later.
But for those of us obligated to pay attention, or just can’t quit the Red Sox even when it seems the Red Sox have quit on us, well, let’s just acknowledge that there are genuine reasons for optimism.
Some you know. Xander Bogaerts is a cornerstone and a leader, a player easily admired. Rafael Devers and Verdugo are excellent hitters with the promise of big years to come. J.D. Martinez should recover from a lost season. Christian Vazquez is one of the better catchers in the American League. Bobby Dalbec and Cordero have light-tower power.
But the intrigue comes from the unfamiliar. Bloom has loaded up on respected, established major leaguers to bolster the middle and back end of the roster. Hitters Enrique Hernández, Marwin González, and Hunter Renfroe, along with pitchers Garrett Richards and Adam Ottavino.
I’m not saying we’re getting a redux of 2013, when then-general manager Ben Cherington signed a bunch of mid-level free agents (Shane Victorino, Koji Uehara, Mike Napoli, and Stephen Drew among them) and almost all of them contributed mightily to an improbable World Series championship. But the approach, while Bloom simultaneously builds up the farm system, is similar, and perhaps even wise.
There’s not a lot of star power in the new arrivals, but there is steady competence, and let’s admit it: The 2020 Red Sox, who used 47 players in 60 games, often had players on the roster who did not belong in the major leagues. That will not be the case this year, with Bloom already turning over 19 spots on the 40-man roster since the start of last season.
The lack of talent was especially true on a pitching staff that used 27 pitchers (as well as three position players). When the Red Sox won the World Series in ’18, they used 23 pitchers in 162 games. The ’20 Red Sox had a staff earned run average of 5.58, far and away the worst in franchise history. Thirteen pitchers had an ERA over 5.00. Nine had an ERA over 7. That wasn’t a pitching staff. It was a cry for help.
Eduardo Rodríguez will be back after missing the season with COVID-19, and Sale should return from Tommy John surgery sometime in the summer. Richards reminds me of Nate Eovaldi — great stuff, mediocre results, frequent injuries — but he’s an analytics darling with legitimate potential. Tanner Houck and Nick Pivetta offer more promise than any other young pitcher that started last season with the Red Sox; they combined to go 5-0 with a 1.33 ERA in five starts, striking out 34 in 27 innings.
The bullpen will be better with the addition of Ottavino, the return of Darwinzon Hernandez and Josh Taylor from seasons abbreviated by the virus, and the intriguing signing of 32-year-old Hirokazu Sawamura from Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league.
I know, there are still flaws, and the Yankees, Rays, and Blue Jays have superior rosters. Everything is not repaired, and I’m not saying the Red Sox will be a World Series contender. But if a few reasonable things break right, they can make the playoffs. And they’re going to be likable, even if many fans try to resist noticing.