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Baseball 2021 | Dan Shaughnessy

Red Sox will be better this year, but irrelevance awaits if they don’t start quickly

Red Sox manager Alex Cora is a symbol of the good old days, and his players love him.
Red Sox manager Alex Cora is a symbol of the good old days, and his players love him.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

There have been other years when the start of the Red Sox season was awkward and critical:

▪ Six months after winning 99 games, Don Zimmer was booed when he brought out the lineup card at Fenway on Opening Day 1979.

▪ The 1987 Sox were urged never to speak of their previous season, in which they advanced to the seventh game of the World Series; they responded with a fifth-place follow-up.

▪ In the wake of the 2012 Bobby Valentine train wreck, the 2013 Red Sox theme was “Please don’t hate us,” and the Local Nine rebounded with a championship season, winning the World Series on the Fenway lawn for the first time in 95 years.

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Dreamers and fanboys of today are promoting the notion that the 2021 Red Sox might be worthy progeny of the bearded brotherhood of 2013. Spring training this year has been played to the soundtrack of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” and NESN’s never-subtle messaging during Grapefruit League telecasts has been, “You ready for a comeback?”

FanGraphs had the Sox at 89 wins a month ago (it’s 85 now), free agent starter Garrett Richards predicts the Sox are going to be “sneaky good,” and manager Alex Cora’s mantra has been, “This is a good baseball team. We can contend in 2021.”

Color me cynical, but I have a hard time buying into “contention” for this crew. They are coming off the franchise’s worst season since 1965, a 60-game stink bomb in which sacrificial-lamb manager Ron Roenicke was handed the worst pitching staff in the 120-year history of the franchise. It was embarrassing and insulting.

After the Mookie Betts/David Price February salary dump, Boston baseball boss Chaim Bloom — who cannot tell a lie — conceded that the team was going to be worse. The ball club’s performance mirrored management’s message that the Sox were not trying to win. Last place seemed inevitable from the first day.

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This year has to be an improvement. As John Lennon told us on the Sgt. Pepper’s album, “It can’t get no worse.”

In a quest to return to relevance and respectability, the Sox have reintroduced Cora, who piloted the world champion Sox in 2018, fell back to earth in 2019, then was relieved of his duties after news broke of his role in the Houston Astros cheating scandal. The Sox offended some longtime fans by bringing back a documented cheater, but management determined that Cora’s positives outweigh the baggage, and his reentry has thus far been seamless. He reminds everyone of the good old days, and his players love him.

The starting rotation is better than last year’s, but still shaky and thin. Eduardo Rodriguez is back from a bout with COVID and myocarditis, which wiped out his 2020 season. The rest of the rotation is Nate Eovaldi, Richards, Martín Pérez, and Nick Pivetta.

Eovaldi gets more praise than anyone this side of Jackie Bradley Jr. (did you hear Eovaldi threw 100 miles per hour in Florida?), but has won a grand total of nine games in 2½ seasons with the Red Sox. He makes $17 million per year, a gift from Dave Dombrowski, who was really happy after Eovaldi’s great relief stint in the 2018 World Series.

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Richards is a $10 million-per-year free agent who throws a lot of wild pitches and has won eight games since 2015. Pérez eats innings and “pitches to contact.” Pivetta has a 5.40 career ERA.

Not what I would call “sneaky good,” but better than the minor league stuff the Sox threw out there last year. Veteran Adam Ottavino should bolster a fairly deep bullpen. Matt Barnes is still here, and Ryan Brasier will be back when the broken bone in his hand heals.

The Red Sox will hit. They always hit. Kiké Hernández and Marwin Gonzalez — a couple of versatile veterans who’ve played for winners — are good pickups.

Shortstop Xander Bogaerts remains the infield anchor and team leader. Rafael Devers will play better under Cora, and let’s not worry so much about his defense. Devers is a legitimate big league slugger who’ll be moved to DH or first base if he can’t make the routine plays at third. First baseman Bobby Dalbec hits homers and strikes out and should be fun to watch, at least for a while. Christian Vázquez gives Boston an above-average catcher.

The outfield is a mess. There actually is no outfield. While the Red Sox have their coveted payroll flexibility (when will that be reflected in ticket prices?), Betts is in Los Angeles, JBJ is in Milwaukee, and Andrew Benintendi is in Kansas City. In their place you have Alex Verdugo, Hunter Renfroe, and Who Knows?

Verdugo showed some nice things last year, but he has been prematurely anointed as Fred Lynn. We don’t know. Carl Crawford looked good for a while, too. Renfroe strikes out and hits an occasional homer. Gonzalez will start the season in left. I can’t wait to see Franchy Cordero, the Sam Horn of the new millennium.

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Designated hitter/part-time outfielder J.D. Martinez has his PlayStation back in the dugout, so he’ll have no excuse if he hits .213 again this year. He’s going to get a steady diet of outside fastballs until he reestablishes his ability to crush them.

It’s good that these Sox play the moribund Orioles six times in the first nine games of the season. A strong start is crucial for this bunch. After trading Betts, finishing last, and eschewing big-splash acquisitions over the winter, they’ve used up all their hall passes.

If these Red Sox don’t jump out quickly, irrelevance awaits.


Red Sox season preview


Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at daniel.shaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.