The Red Sox will have an opportunity to calm the noise soon. They have seen their share of criticism this offseason, notably at a Winter Weekend event where even diehard fans seethed with anger.
Yet the team remains confident and believes that it has what it takes to compete. That in spite of significant roster turnover and cornerstone players lost, it can forge a path toward winning in baseball’s toughest division following a down 2022 season.
But does the team truly have reason to feel that way?
Let’s assess where the Red Sox stand.
Rafael Devers will be the leader of this offense, but it won’t have the same firepower. The Sox never depended on just the home run ball to win games, but the threat of it from 2018-21 — when they were one of the best offensive teams in baseball — certainly didn’t hurt. During that four-year stretch, the Red Sox ranked eighth in homers with 753.
But hitting just 155 homers last year, which ranked 20th in the majors, hurt their chances of coming from behind to win.
Bat-to-ball skills also were an issue last year, particularly when they needed those most. With at least one out and one runner in scoring position, the Sox were tied for 15th in the majors in batting average (.252). The first four hitters in the order failed to produce in those situations, registering a .748 OPS (22nd in the majors) while batting .250 with a 21.5 percent strikeout rate (eighth-worst).
“We’re going to really prioritize dominating the strike zone,” hitting coach Pete Fatse said. “We’re playing in the toughest division in baseball. We’re facing really good arms up and down the division, but for us to continue to get to where we want to go, that’s like one of the most important things in terms of converting runs consistently.
“Your slug is going to go up and down, but, really, it’s about getting on base. You have to continue to push the guy in front of you.”
That is a huge reason why the Sox felt so strongly about adding Masataka Yoshida, known for his bat-to-ball skills and high on-base percentage in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball Organization. It’s also a large reason why the Sox acquired Justin Turner, who puts together tough at-bats and can lift the ball to the pull side. Turner was a natural fit, the Sox believe, for that reason but also for his clubhouse presence.
Kiké Hernández, who was a teammate of Turner’s with the Dodgers, said, “In hitters’ meetings, we preached a lot about grinding at-bats and being nine hitters, but becoming one lineup and becoming one offensive unit. And it seemed like in every single meeting he was the guy leading that, voicing that.”
While the Sox will have to manufacture runs — and have the weapons to do it — they still need players to hit doubles in the gaps and homers.
Yoshida’s season high in homers is 29 in 2019. That number seems like a lofty one to reach, but if the Sox can get 20 out of him (Fangraphs forecasts he will hit 19), it would be a huge plus.
The defense had its sloppy moments last year. Though the Sox cut down on errors from 2021, when they made 108 (second-most in the majors), to 85, the mental lapses in 2022 were pronounced.
From players not seeing balls in the outfield to losing games after the ball is loosely thrown around the horn, the Sox’ most embarrassing moments lined up with their embarrassing year.
In part, it was because players were playing out of position. Early on this year, at least up the middle, the Red Sox will be in a similar predicament as Trevor Story recovers from a right elbow surgery. Hernández will pair with Christian Arroyo up the middle, and both are excited for the opportunity, with Hernández noting that shortstop is his natural position.
“It feels like riding a bike, and I mean that in the most humble way possible,” Hernández said. “I am an infielder that’s capable of playing outfield. I’ve always said that if you can play short, you can play anywhere.”
Hernández has never started more than 17 games at shortstop in one season. He’s coming off a hip surgery, too, and is 31 years old. Adalberto Mondesí will help take a load off both Arroyo and Hernández, but the return of a healthy Story is important for this team to be truly competitive.
At first base, Triston Casas should provide some stability that the Sox did not have last year with Bobby Dalbec and Franchy Cordero. He proved himself to be nimble around the bag after being called up from Triple A in September and was sure-handed.
The outfield is a real concern without Hernández. Adam Duvall is capable of playing center but has spent most of his time at the corners. Yoshida grades as a below-average defender, while Alex Verdugo is coming off a below-average year in the grassy area.
Defensive concerns are even more apparent behind the plate, where the Sox will use some combination of Reese McGuire, Connor Wong, and perhaps Jorge Alfaro. It’s difficult to believe that the catching defense will see improvement as things are currently constructed.
If you had put Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, and James Paxton in the same rotation five or so years ago, you would have been talking about a playoff contender.
But the Red Sox won’t get that version of any of the three. Sale, 33, hasn’t pitched much the last three seasons because of injuries. Paxton, 34, has missed a large chunk of time because of injuries, and while Kluber, 36, can eat innings and is a dependable starter, he is unlikely to recapture his Cy Young form.
Garrett Whitlock seems to be a lock for the rotation, while Tanner Houck might be better suited in the bullpen.
The Sox will go into spring training with potentially seven starters, including Brayan Bello and Nick Pivetta, who made 33 starts last year.
But the key is Sale. If he’s healthy, he can set the tone for a group that’s in dire need of stability. Sale’s health woes have put pressure on the other starters the last few years. That can’t happen again.
The Red Sox have quietly assembled what could be a dominant bullpen. After a putrid 2022 season in which their relievers accounted for 27 blown saves, per Fangraphs (tied for eighth-worst in the majors), and a 4.59 ERA (fifth-worst), the Sox have accumulated some quality arms.
Kenley Jansen, Chris Martin, and John Schreiber will command the back end of the game, with Jansen as closer. If Houck is a part of the mix, he will be a huge addition to that high-leverage group, with Joely Rodríguez and Richard Bleier as the lefthanders.
So long for Ryan Brasier in high-leverage moments. If the Sox carry eight relievers, Brasier and Kaleb Ort are in line for the last two spots, but likely for mop-up duty, a good thing.
If there’s an area the Sox clearly attacked and improved, it’s the bullpen.
Overall, the Sox might be convinced that they are in a good position for 2023, but they are alone on an island on this one.