FORT MYERS, Fla. — Alex Verdugo is always talking. If he isn’t, that means something is wrong.
You can hear him early in the morning, playfully shouting toward his teammates around the clubhouse. You can hear him during warm-ups, explaining why the rows of his teeth are now covered in diamonds. During the 2020 season, when no fans were in the stands because of COVID, you heard Verdugo over the pumped-in crowd sound.
But when it comes to explaining a subpar 2022 season, by his standards, and how he plans to improve, Verdugo has had enough of talking.
“I’m not going to be talking about it too much after this,” Verdugo said Thursday, following batting practice at JetBlue Park. “This will be the last time I’m talking about results and [expletive] like that.”
OK. One last time. Verdugo couldn’t help himself, so he grabbed the microphone.
Remember back to 2020, when the Red Sox acquired Verdugo. From the Sox’ perspective, he was the key piece in the Mookie Betts trade with the Dodgers, above prospects Jeter Downs and Connor Wong. Verdugo, despite a hairline fracture in his back, was supposed to help the Red Sox win now.
Verdugo was the Sox’ best player that year, batting .308/.367/.478 with an .844 OPS and six homers in the 60-game season. Even though the Red Sox finished last in the American League East and were one of the worst teams in baseball, Verdugo represented a bright spot for a franchise trying to emerge from Betts’s shadow. The following year, Verdugo played a significant role in the Sox finishing two wins from the World Series.
Verdugo got his first taste of a full season as an everyday player and proved he could handle the load, batting .289 in 146 games. Verdugo showed a knack for the bright lights, too, batting .310/.383/.452 during the playoffs.
But 2022 arrived and Verdugo became just a guy. And while the numbers were similar to the year before, .280/.328/.405 aided by a hot second half, the impact wasn’t the same. And Verdugo’s defense took a step back.
It led to questions. Had Verdugo reached his peak? Is he truly just another guy? A quality player, indeed, but can he consistently impact winning on a team trying to contend in a market such as Boston?
“I don’t care what people say,” Verdugo said. “In that aspect, I don’t give an [expletive]. I play hard. I work my ass off and I’m out here doing it every day. Any fan can say whatever they want, they don’t know [expletive] about what happens on the daily grind. There are some fans that are very smart and understand the game, which I’ll give them that, but they don’t know what it takes every single day to come in here and to do it.”
The grind weighed on Verdugo. He revealed that he played last year with a broken toe. He dealt with shoulder inflammation all season, which hampered his ability to throw. Verdugo still played in 152 games, the most on the team.
“I wanted to play every day,” Verdugo said. “I didn’t want to miss time and, you know, really that’s kind of how it was. I played through a lot of stuff.”
Verdugo changed his workout routine in an effort to cut down on soreness following competition and minimize recovery time. At the plate, he knows there’s more he can accomplish. He can walk more. He can hit for a higher average, utilizing his high contact rate. That, though, will only come if he stops occasionally selling out for power, leading to ground balls to the right side.
“The last couple of years, I’ve been hitting in the .290s, .280s,” Verdugo said. “I’m close to that .300. That’s only like a separation of 10 hits. The home runs, man, that’s going to come. I’ve got to stop worrying about them. And honestly, I have to get to a point where I stop giving an [expletive] about homers.”
This team needs Verdugo. The Red Sox need him to make that leap. He’ll get the majority of the playing time in right field with Masataka Yoshida profiling solely as a left fielder. Fair or unfair, Verdugo will always be attached to the Betts trade. Living up to the Betts trade will never happen. Not when the other player is a six-time All-Star.
Downs, meanwhile, was designated for assignment. Wong is a big league backup. Those two were always projections. Verdugo was the sure bet.
“I don’t think I’ve been bad,” said Verdugo, reflecting on his Red Sox tenure. “I don’t think I’ve been great. I think I’ve been good. I’ve had flashes. My thing is just to play hard. Play hard. Play fast. I’m supposed to be a five-tool player. It’s time to do it.”
Verdugo’s done talking about it. At least for now.