FORT MYERS, Fla. — MLB Network has made it an offseason project over the last 14 years to rank the top 10 players at each position. In a media landscape overloaded with hot takes and contrived debate, it’s a refreshingly straightforward evaluation based on performance.
The results were striking this year when it came to the Red Sox.
That was it. Outside of Devers, no Sox player was viewed as a premier talent.
As spring training gets underway Wednesday with the first workout for pitchers and catchers at JetBlue Park, gone are the days when photographers would line the sidewalk to get images of players such as Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Chris Sale, and other All-Stars walking into the clubhouse from the players’ parking lot.
Now the Sox have a roster of players only the most dedicated fan would recognize. The team hasn’t been this anonymous in decades.
“It’s a different team,” said shortstop Trevor Story, one of the few notable players still remaining. “We need new guys to help us win.
“Of course you want to add all the great players. That’s natural. More talent never hurts. But we feel very confident in the talented group that we have.
“It’s up to us, we have to play better. It’s not our job to talk about who we should have or shouldn’t have.”
But that has been the main topic of conversation since 2020, when the Red Sox embarked on the still-unfolding rebuild of their roster.
The 2021 Sox still had enough talent remaining to qualify for the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, then advance to the American League Championship Series. The only players remaining in the organization from the postseason roster that year are Devers, infielder Bobby Dalbec, and pitchers Tanner Houck, Nick Pivetta, and Garrett Whitlock.
The Sox are 12 games under .500 since then, with two last-place finishes. The franchise has not finished last in its division or league for three consecutive years since a six-season run of ineptitude from 1925-30.
With the Blue Jays, Orioles, and Yankees having made significant offseason improvements and the Rays riding a five-year streak of qualifying for the postseason, ending that skid will be difficult.
Red Sox manager Alex Cora, entering the final season of his contract, is choosing to focus on the avenues to success, not the roadblocks.
“From my end, I expect these guys to be better and see where it takes us,” he said. “We can have a good baseball team. Like I said at the end of last season, it starts with me and the coaching staff.
“We have talented players and they need to take a step forward.”
The Sox do have a short list of players who could emerge as stars in their empty galaxy.
Story, an All-Star with the Rockies in 2018-19, had an .863 career OPS before he signed with the Sox. Injuries limited him to 94 games in 2022. He then had elbow surgery before the ’23 season and did not return until Aug. 8.
Story hit .203 with little power, the long layoff leaving him overmatched against fastballs. He’s been able to prepare normally for this season and is confident of a rebound.
Righthander Brayan Bello, 24, was 12-11 with a 4.24 earned run average last year in his first full season in the majors. He had six starts of at least six innings with one earned run.
Bello has worked to refine the command of his slider in the offseason. Mastering that pitch would give him an effective weapon to go with his sinker and changeup, and increase his modest career mark of 7.9 strikeouts per nine innings.
As director of pitching for the Cubs, new Red Sox chief baseball officer Craig Breslow was adept at honing raw talent. He was among those who played a role in the development of Justin Steele, a fifth-round draft pick who finished fifth in the National League Cy Young Award voting last season. Bello is a talented lump of clay for Breslow and new pitching coach Andrew Bailey to mold.
Outfielders Jarren Duran and Tyler O’Neill also have promise.
Duran, 27, had 44 extra-base hits and 24 stolen bases over 102 games last season. He also vastly improved his defensive play. His season ended Aug. 20 when he tore a flexor tendon in his left foot trying to make a catch at Yankee Stadium. He’s now fully healthy.
“I’m a full go. I’m really excited,” Duran said. “I had a good season last year. I’m my hardest critic, so I’m never satisfied with what I did.”
O’Neill finished eighth in the NL MVP voting in 2021 while a member of the Cardinals. Injuries and a personality conflict with manager Oli Marmol then derailed his career. At 28, he could experience a renaissance.
“The big thing for me is just staying healthy,” O’Neill said. “Once I get into a rhythm and get consistent everyday at-bats, then I start to feel comfortable and be that player again. I’m looking forward to getting there.”
There is also the possibility the Sox could make a notable acquisition during spring training. It has happened before.
J.D. Martinez agreed to a five-year, $110 million deal Feb. 26, 2018, and helped lead the team to a championship that season.
Far less effective was the six-year, $140 million contract Story finalized March 23, 2022. He has played only 137 games since and hit .227.
But there is little indication the Sox will venture into such territory this year despite a clear need for rotation help. Any additions at this stage are expected to be lower-priced complementary players.
It is more likely that the Sox trade their one All-Star from last season, 36-year-old closer Kenley Jansen. He is due $16 million this season, a needless expense for a team with low expectations.
Trading Jansen would be on brand for the Red Sox at this stage in their evolution. You can see all the stars as you walk down Hollywood Boulevard, but you won’t see them at Fenway Park this season.