FORT MYERS, Fla. — The Red Sox were doomed before spring training ended last season.
Mookie Betts and David Price were traded on the eve of camp opening, three weeks after Alex Cora was fired as manager. Chris Sale’s left elbow gave out a few weeks later.
The Sox were left filling holes in their rotation with borderline big leaguers not up to the task.
New manager Ron Roenicke became captain of a ship heading for an iceberg and a last-place finish followed.
“I know there’s been a lot of things over the last year-plus that have been downers for our fan base and really our organization,” chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said Sunday via video conference.
But as the Sox gather for their first full-squad workout on Monday, the darkness is starting to pass. The Sox are not viewed as contenders beyond the gates of Fenway South, but they’re well beyond the dispirited bunch that somehow finished 16 games out of first place in a 60-game season.
“We’re more versatile; we’re more athletic; our pitching staff is deeper,” Bloom said. “I don’t want the stain of last year to have people look past the talent that we have. We’re here in spring training. This is a time for hope, for renewal.”
That’s valid. Newcomers Marwin Gonzalez, Kiké Hernandez, Adam Ottavino, Garrett Richards and Hunter Renfroe aren’t star players, but they’ve all been contributors to playoff teams.
Sale is on track for a mid-season return from Tommy John surgery and Eduardo Rodriguez is back from a season lost to COVID-19.
The Sox were trying to survive last season and many of Roenicke’s options were poor ones. Now they have the tools to compete.
“It doesn’t matter who needs a day. It doesn’t matter who’s banged up. We can put a lineup out there that we can feel good about,” Bloom said.
That’s particularly true with the rotation. Counting Sale, the Sox have seven legitimate starters in camp. They had two for most of last season. More than half the games were started by a collection of journeymen who have since been broomed from the roster.
Roenicke often had no idea last season who was starting the next day’s game. That should change this year and fixing the rotation is always the first chore in fixing a bad team.
“There’s a lot of talent here. I’m excited for what this group can accomplish,” Bloom said.
Cora’s return should be part of the solution, too. His hyper-competitiveness led to a suspension and plenty of shame. But when channeled correctly, it makes a difference.
Consider how Cora successfully challenged players — notably Rodriguez, Rafael Devers and Christian Vazquez — to improve during his first stint as manager.
A younger roster plays to Cora’s strengths because a young player can be molded.
The Sox see 22-year-old Jeter Downs, one of the players acquired for Betts, as a potential star. When asked an innocuous question about Downs on Sunday, Cora said defense seems to come easily to him.
“Sometimes too easy and maybe that’s where he makes errors or the lack of concentration happens,” Cora said.
So, yes, this camp will be eye-opening for Downs. It’s clear that has already been the case for Bloom, who needed some convincing on the idea of bringing Cora back.
“People feel lifted up by being around him,” Bloom said. “That’s a great thing in somebody you have leading your group. That’s what we’re looking for in a manager. He connects as well as anybody that I’ve seen.”
Bloom put together a roster on the run last season, making a flurry of low-cost addition. There was more of a plan and a better process this time around.
“When I look back at how we set out to do this and some of the moves we made along the way, the various decisions we made and some of the players we brought in, I feel pretty good about how our group in the front office, working with the field staff, getting opinions, how we were able to put the information together and bring some players in here who can help us,” he said.
Bloom was asked what he would consider a successful season beyond a particular number of victories.
“Any year when you don’t win the World Series, you’re disappointed. That is always the goal,” he said. “But we’ve talked about having a goal of putting this organization in position to do that every year or feel like we can do that every year. Some of those things are achieved over time.”
However it plays out, Bloom wants to see a core of players at the end of the season who can be the nucleus of a long-term contender.
The Sox aren’t there yet. But at least it seems possible.