The Red Sox are putatively building a team that can compete in the American League East — and building a mystery. It’s hard to know what to make of the 2022 edition. They have the patina of a playoff team, but it doesn’t feel like a club that’s all in on this season or its current core.
This feels like, dare I say, a Bridge Year. Somewhere Theo Epstein just felt a chill go down his spine. If the Sox aren’t fully invested in this team, how much should we be?
The Sox are straddling competing and remaining relevant in the present and preserving and executing chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom’s vision for a sustainable future. That “tightrope,” as Bloom has called it, is a difficult baseball balancing act. It feels like the Sox are leaning toward the future.
The uncertainty of the future casts a shadow larger than the Green Monster over this season, with shortstop Xander Bogaerts eligible to opt out at the end of the season, Opening Day starter Nate Eovaldi ticketed for free agency, and DH J.D. Martinez and center fielder Kiké Hernández also in the last year of their contracts.
Even the big-ticket signing of Trevor Story to play second base feels transitory. He’s obvious insurance should Bogaerts be unwilling to accept another hometown discount and/or a position change. Enjoy an infield with Bogaerts, Story, and Rafael Devers (who leads the majors in total bases and extra-base hits since 2019) while you can. It’s not built to last under the disposable-player doctrine Bloom brought from the Tampa Bay Rays.
Both Bogaerts and Devers, a free agent after the 2023 season, don’t appear close to contract extensions, and they’re going to be asked about those ticking contractual time bombs all season.
Before Story was brought aboard as Bloom’s biggest expenditure to date, inked to a six-year, $140 million contract, the marquee offseason acquisition was a tossup between reacquiring defensive whiz Jackie Bradley Jr. and bringing home Milton’s Rich Hill for another spin in the rotation.
Last season, the Red Sox regained their relevance and reclaimed a spot in the playoffs after two subpar seasons, registering the second-largest increase in win percentage in baseball. With the Sox advancing all the way to the American League Championship Series, Fenway Park was rocking in October like the days of yore. It was peak baseball theater. An autumn encore would be great, but the AL East is deeper than the Mariana Trench.
In a loaded division, the Sox are loaded with more questions than one would like.
Eovaldi will make his third straight Opening Day start Thursday at Yankee Stadium, but the rotation behind him is amorphous. The Sox are betting it will take shape. But it feels like there are a lot of arms being thrown against the wall, hoping someone will stick.
Erstwhile ace Chris Sale would provide a huge boost if healthy. I may or may not have just cut and pasted that sentence from a previous column.
Sale has rarely been healthy since signing his $145 million extension in 2019. The ROI on that deal for the Red Sox is disastrous. The lithe lefty won’t take the hill until June 6 at the earliest after landing on the 60-day injured list with a stress fracture in his right rib.
Nick Pivetta as a No. 2 starter hardly inspires my confidence, and the Sox are rounding out the back of the rotation with the 42-year-old Hill and retread righty Michael Wacha, who is 4-9 with a 5.39 earned run average the last two seasons.
In between the three aforementioned pitchers is Tanner Houck, he of the wipeout slider and short leash. Houck’s longest outing last season was 5⅓ innings, his high pitch count 90. Lefty James Paxton, recovering from Tommy John surgery, could provide a lift, but there are a lot of ifs, buts, and well-wishing involved in projecting the rotation.
A recipe for disaster in the bubbling cauldron of Boston baseball is uncertainty in the closer role. Ostensibly, this should be Matt Barnes. But after being an All-Star in the first half, Barnes unraveled like cheap clothing in an industrial washing machine. His second-half ERA was 6.48 and the Sox left him off the initial ALCS roster.
Young Garrett Whitlock, a revelation last season, could fit the bill at the back end of the bullpen, but the Sox are best served with him deployed as a multi-inning, middle-inning weapon — he made 32 multi-inning appearances last season — or eventually sliding him into the starting rotation.
A lineup that led the majors in extra-base hits (572) and ranked third in OPS (.778) should still rake, but the Sox desperately need a righthanded outfield bat to pair/platoon with JBJ in right field. Yet they seem in no hurry to fill this void with an external option such as, say, Whit Merrifield from the Royals or a lesser player.
The Sox appear to be a team built on a pile of contingencies while they wait for their farm system to bear fruit with the likes of mega-first base prospect Triston Casas and pitcher Brayan Bello. The Sox placed four prospects in the Baseball America Top 100. There is the facade of a playoff contender to placate fans while the real Next Great Red Sox team is being constructed behind the scenes.
Everything about the 2022 Red Sox feels like it’s constructed around placeholders, not finishing in first place. That would just be a bonus.
Credit to Bloom, though; he’s proven he’s capable of pivoting and prioritizing the present. There were some similar vibes last season as the Sox went from seeking respectability to a team that won 92 games and spent 85 days with at least a share of first place. In-season, Bloom landed slugger Kyle Schwarber, who became a cult hero in his short time in Boston.
Even then, though, he was careful not to jeopardize what he was brought in to build — a sustainable, economical, consistent winner. That doesn’t happen overnight or without sacrifice.
The Sox are making progress on that front. They jumped up 10 spots to No. 11 in Baseball America’s farm system rankings.
If you ask me, the Sox are more committed to having one of the best dozen farm systems in baseball — and the flexibility that provides — than they are claiming one of the 12 spots in MLB’s expanded playoff field this season.
They can’t say that, but the unsettled state of their team entering the season does it for them.
More 2022 Red Sox season preview stories
- Join the Globe staff as we preview the Red Sox season in a special subscriber-only Zoom. Sign up here.
- The Globe staff makes its predictions for the 2022 baseball season
- How does J.D. Martinez do it? The Red Sox slugger reveals the secrets of his “toy bag.”
- For Nate Eovaldi, Opening Day starter for a third time, it has all come together with the Red Sox
- Meet the team: 2022 Red Sox roster at a glance