The Red Sox exceeded expectations during the 2021 season. With Alex Cora back at the helm in the dugout and chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom navigating his way through his first 162-game season with the Sox, the team fell two wins short of the World Series.
Their 4-2 series loss to the Astros in the American League Championship Series ended a roller-coaster season that ultimately featured more highs than lows. It gave a rabid fan base some optimism moving forward, after Bloom’s motto of long-term sustainability didn’t quite sit well initially.
What did that actually mean? Did it mean become a championship team, a necessity in a city that only cares about being the last team standing? Or was it about just competing every year?
The Red Sox answered the bell, at least for 2021. Bloom silenced some of his critics. The team culture is set.
“We have young players who have never tasted this before,” Bloom said at Monday’s end-of-the-year news conference at Fenway. “For the [young players] to go through this, whether it was as a critical participant or even being an off-roster guy that was here on the taxi squad, once you experienced this, it will never seem like a real complete season ever again unless you’re back on the stage. I think that’s really important for these guys going forward.”
Bloom was seated alongside team president Sam Kennedy, Cora, and general manager Brian O’Halloran. The group still has some unanswered questions to address.
Bloom hasn’t delivered yet because the Sox’ vision — the city’s vision — isn’t built on participation trophies. On the field there are some questions, too. First and foremost, with the rotation. Will Chris Sale return to his old form with more time removed from Tommy John surgery? Will the Red Sox extend Eduardo Rodriguez a qualifying offer?
Time will tell, but the Red Sox like the position they are in heading into 2022.
“I think obviously with Chris being healthy, that’s a plus,” Cora said. “I think everybody here in this organization feels very positive about his offseason program, what’s going to happen next year.
“There are some young guys that we liked. And we’ll make decisions over the course of the offseason on how we’re going to use them next year. But we feel very comfortable where we are pitching-wise.
“I think we made some huge strides over the course of 162 and the playoffs. Going into the offseason, we’re pleased.”
Garrett Whitlock and Tanner Houck are candidates to join the rotation. Houck was a part of it early on, but was moved to the bullpen as a long reliever out of necessity. Whitlock was the Sox’ best reliever, capable of filling any role. There were times when he was the closer, the setup man, or the reliever required to go multiple innings.
“Those are both guys that have very high ceilings,” Bloom said. “They both have the capability to be really good major league starting pitchers. Now, what that means for next year, in terms of what they did this year, I think that’s something we have to talk about.
“Obviously, we want to have as much depth as we possibly can. We shouldn’t sit here and stop at five or six or seven [starters]. We should have as many options as you possibly can.”
The 2022 season still has little definition. The Red Sox got a huge boost from José Iglesias at second base down the stretch. The veteran infielder hit .356/.406/.508 with a homer in 64 plate appearances, but he was ineligible for the postseason because he wasn’t on the roster prior to Sept. 1. The Red Sox could likely sign him to a cheap deal; Iglesias voiced on a number of occasions that he would like to be back. with the Sox if the two sides can come to some sort of agreement.
Christian Arroyo is a plus defender at second base and hit a respectable .262, but he also played in just 57 regular-season games because of a plethora of injuries and COVID-19. Health remains a question, yet from an ability perspective, the Sox think Arroyo can be an everyday second baseman.
Kiké Hernández was the team’s best option in center field, but came to the Red Sox with the hope that he could play second every day. He’s valuable at both positions, but even more valuable for the Sox in the outfield, helping to stabilize an otherwise shaky defense.
The Sox have a team option on Christian Vázquez for next season that draws a $7 million tab. Vázquez has been in the organization since 2008, when the Sox selected him in the ninth round. He had an inconsistent year, hitting .258 with a .659 OPS in 498 plate appearances. Behind the dish, Vázquez is inconsistent, too, with his game-calling. Starter Nate Eovaldi, for example, preferred working with Kevin Plawecki.
Yet the Sox know the catching spot is a hard position to find a solid starter. Vázquez, at the very least, is that.
“He is a really important guy to us,” Bloom said. “We know how much the organization means to him and it’s a hard position to check all the boxes.”
The Red Sox have something to build upon. Their vision toward long-term sustainability, however, must coincide with winning now. For Sox fans, this year can’t just be a tease, but a clear path toward winning another World Series in the near future.
“I have never seen anything like what we witnessed at Fenway Park toward the end of the season and into October,” Kennedy said. “It was an electric, amazing, amazing atmosphere. That’s obviously a credit to play on the field. But the fans brought something special. And we’re really excited to build on that as we go into 2022.”