FORT MYERS, Fla. — J.D. Martinez shifted the Red Sox culture when he arrived in 2018. His attention to detail and preparation rubbed off on a lot of players, including Mookie Betts, who early in that season attributed his growth as a hitter to Martinez.
“J.D. has helped me out a lot,” Betts said during the team’s West Coast swing in April of that year.
At the end of that season, the Red Sox won the World Series, and Betts was named American League MVP. Success had established their culture.
Failure, too, has marked the Red Sox’ identity. As the Sox faded down the stretch in 2019, and a possible Betts contract extension and trade talks loomed, it was Xander Bogaerts who stepped into the role as the team’s voice. Bogaerts, like Betts the previous season, was in the midst of a career season and had agreed to a team-friendly contract extension earlier that year. Not only had Bogaerts established himself as one of the best shortstops in baseball, but he was the face of the Red Sox, often answering questions for his teammates.
But that identity, while there are still remnants of it, has entered a new era this spring. Betts and Martinez have been reunited in Los Angeles, and Bogaerts is down the road in San Diego.
At Fenway South, meanwhile, it’s clear Kiké Hernández relishes the idea of being a team leader. Hernández played an important role in recruiting Justin Turner, too, believing that he could be a Martinez-type figure for this team. Manager Alex Cora is encouraged that Turner can be that voice.
“I hate comparing situations, but it feels similar to what happened in ‘18, bringing J.D. to that group,” Cora said Tuesday. “With Turner here, it feels the same way. Just talking to him, [hitting coach] Peter [Fatse] having conversations with him about approaches and preparation and all that stuff. I think it’s very similar, but very different. Hopefully we can accomplish the same things when J.D. was here.”
Martinez’s process involves more technique and mechanics. It’s not for everyone. Sometimes, Bogaerts said, it could become too much for his brain to process. Turner’s process, though, is more about approach.
Yet Turner matching Martinez’s impact in the clubhouse isn’t a guarantee. The exodus of Martinez and Bogaerts, and a distant third in Betts, disrupted the Sox’ periodic table.
But does that matter?
“It all depends on who is coming in,” chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said. “From my standpoint, really over the last number of years, we brought in a lot of guys that I think are high-character guys that are really good guys in the clubhouse. I think we tried to focus on that this winter. I think we ended up bringing a lot of really good people to this group.”
It’s fair to question, though, if Hernández, a career .239 hitter who has built most of his career on being a valuable utility player, should be the one leading the pack in baseball’s most daunting division, one governed by superstars. But Bloom pushed back on that notion.
“From my standpoint, you can look at some of the really good Red Sox teams that we’ve seen here in the past, and the guys who set the tone in the clubhouse are not necessarily always the guys with the most All-Star appearances, or the longest résumés,” Bloom said.
Hernández hasn’t shied away from voicing his opinion on the team’s shortcomings. He said he felt the Red Sox needed a mentality shift, adding that they “got comfortable in that spot [last place in the division]. I don’t think this is an organization that should settle for last place.”
Cora and Bloom disagreed with that statement.
“When I saw it, I was like, no, I wasn’t comfortable,” Cora said. “I don’t think the group was comfortable. If you talked to [Rafael Devers], he’d be very, very clear that, that wasn’t acceptable.”
It’s worth noting, too, that Hernández missed more than two months last season as he dealt with a hip injury. So, his pulse of the team might not have been what it was in 2021.
Said Bloom: “I wasn’t [comfortable]. I’m not, but I’m actually glad he feels that way. I’m glad he’s taking a leadership role.”
Let’s see how long it can last.