ARLINGTON, Texas — In February, Major League Baseball proposed pushing the season back by a month because of what at the time were worrisome rates of COVID-19 in Arizona and Florida just as spring training was about to start.
The Players Association rejected the idea, saying the sport had demonstrated the previous year that it could play through the pandemic.
The players had it right. There have been a few games postponed because of testing protocols but the season has been close to normal, especially with fans back in the stands and increasing numbers of players and coaches being vaccinated.
The decision to start the season on time worked out better than anybody could have expected for the Red Sox, who emerged from the first month of the season with the best record in the game, a half-game ahead of the Royals, Brewers, and Giants.
The Sox opened May with an 8-6 loss against the Rangers on Saturday night and fell to 17-11. They failed to hold a 5-3 lead as Matt Andriese allowed three runs in the sixth inning.
Sox manager Alex Cora supported the idea of moving back the season. But in retrospect, having what amounted to a traditional spring training benefited a team that flipped a third of its 40-man roster during the offseason and had Cora returning as manager.
“It was very important for us to, first of all, let them know what we have to do as a team,” Cora said. “I come in; we have a lot of new faces. We did a lot of different things for this group in spring training.
“Defense drills, offensive drills. There was a lot of competition. I think that really helped . . . we made a conscious effort to play clean baseball.”
It will be a surprise if the Sox, Royals, Brewers, and Giants are in the same position in the standings come Oct. 1 when the final weekend of the season starts. But it’s not a wholly outrageous goal for the Red Sox given the moves still to come.
The Sox have come this far without Chris Sale, who recently returned to the team complex in Fort Myers, Fla., to continue his rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery.
The Sox have been oddly evasive when asked about his progress. Sale has yet to throw off the mound, but the expectation continues to be that he will join the team at some point in the second half.
The rotation has been strong to this point. But needs always arise and Sale’s return could be the most significant addition any team makes.
By then, you could see a much different outfield, too. Through Friday, the Sox were fourth in the American League with 4.78 runs per game and first in OPS at .759. That has come despite their outfielders hitting only six home runs and having a .651 OPS, the fifth lowest in the league. Outside of Alex Verdugo, the Sox don’t have a productive outfielder.
Hunter Renfroe hit his second homer of the season on Saturday but has only a .563 OPS. Franchy Cordero was 0 for 3. He has one hit in his last 31 at-bats and is hitting .167. He looks overmatched.
Kiké Hernández has played well defensively in center field. But a .259 on-base percentage has negated the impact of his 10 extra-base hits. Cora is sticking with Hernández as his leadoff hitter for now, but that experiment can’t go on indefinitely.
The Dodgers, who know Hernández best, hit him seventh, eighth, or ninth in 30 of the 32 games he started last season.
Danny Santana, a utility player with 247 games of outfield experience, was signed to a minor league contract in March and will start playing for Single A Greenville this week. Santana hit .283 with an .857 OPS, 28 home runs, and 81 RBIs for Texas in 2019, the best season of his career.
A shoulder injury limited Santana to 15 unproductive games last season. He’s finally healthy and could be a good fit in left field within a few weeks, maybe sooner.
“He’s in a good spot. He’s a full go,” Cora said. “It’s just a matter of the progression to do it right so we don’t push him too hard.”
The start of the minor league season also should push outfield prospect Jarren Duran closer to the majors. He had an impressive spring training but needed further development.
The Sox have flourished with J.D. Martinez, Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, and Verdugo carrying the lineup. But a contender has to go better than four deep.
The rotation — 12-8 with a 4.05 earned run average — has been unexpectedly strong and durable. Only one start has been missed so far, that coming when Eduardo Rodriguez was delayed coming out spring training.
The depth will be tested in time, as will the quality of the bullpen beyond Andriese, Matt Barnes, and Adam Ottavino. Where rookie surprise Garrett Whitlock ultimately fits will be a factor, too.
“I like this bunch,” Cora said in spring training.
A month into the season, we have seen why.