FORT MYERS, Fla. — A largely unplanned and wholly unanticipated offseason upheaval has left the Red Sox with tons of questions about their on-the-field product. Who, if anyone, can cover Fenway Park’s right field the way Mookie Betts used to? Who, if anyone, can soak up the innings David Price and Rick Porcello used to? And how, if possible, will Ron Roenicke make up for the absence of three huge pieces of what was once a championship baseball puzzle?
Fair questions all. Yet this is so much more than a matter of analytics. Never mind losing baseball skill, the Sox lost three big personalities too, locker room leaders who were willing to use their voices (Price) or their example (Betts) or perhaps a combination of both (Porcello) to back the message and tone set by a hugely popular and well-respected manager in Alex Cora.
Oh, and the charismatic Cora? Also gone.
So who’s going to bring the fire now?
Much as it is on the field, the answer is neither simple nor limited to one person. For Roenicke, a more even-keeled personality than his predecessor (the 19 years he has on the 44-year-old former manager could have plenty to do with that), the key is allowing veterans in the room the freedom to find their voices and their way of leading.
It could be the way others watch J.D. Martinez so studiously break down his at-bats for any edge. It could be how Mitch Moreland uses the comfort of returning for a fourth season to speak up more confidently. It could be following the lead of polished shortstop Xander Bogaerts. It could be in asking the last ace standing to take the room.
Chris Sale knocked his first chance out of the park. He addressed his teammates Sunday.
“Chris, his personality, he really probably prefers not to be that guy who is outspoken, but it’s incredible, the things that he says and the feel that he has for when to say it, it’s right on,” Roenicke said.
“He spoke a little bit to the guys in the meeting, and I was, like, ‘Geez, I’d rather you speak every day. You can speak for me. I don’t need to, you just do it.’
“He’s really good, really intelligent on the game, really has a good feel for not just ‘This is your stuff and this is how you pitch,’ but the mental part of it. I tell you, I walked out of that meeting feeling great.”
As wild as the offseason has been for the franchise, it wasn’t so conventional for Sale either. Since going on the injured list with elbow soreness last August, Sale has spent more time on the shelf than he has in all the time he could remember in baseball, and when you throw in the pneumonia that interrupted his preparation for spring training, he’s had an awful lot of time to reflect on his career, and to remember more than ever to value the time with the people you have by your side.
“We obviously love AC, we love Mookie, we love DP, and I think everybody here hated to see them go,” Sale said. “My golf foursome got shook up a little bit.
“We have a lot of respect for those guys. They brought a championship here. Rick won a Cy Young here as well, and they were leaders in the clubhouse.
“It’s weird. It’s always weird when a big person in our clubhouse leaves, with anything. David Ortiz four years ago, and every year, it feels like someone else. Like I said before, it’s part of the business. In the back of your mind, you’re always prepared for it. There’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t dwell on the past because you have something in front of you to do.”
A team’s collective mind-set does more to set the locker room tone than any one voice, and for this group, the combination of last year’s flameout in defense of their World Series title coupled with the craziness of the offseason leaves a decided edge in the room, one that works to unite rather than divide.
“I think we’ve come more together because we’re all in it together and we all feel like we’re a family here,” Martinez said. “If one of your family members is accused of something or talked bad about, you’re going to stick up, defend, and come together.
“I think that’s what it’s done to our team. I think we’re getting tighter by it. I know we’re excited just to move past this and get ready for the season.
“I definitely think a lot of guys are a little bit more hungry I feel like than last year. I’m not saying our team was complacent last year, we were just a little bit more relaxed coming in. I think last year was kind of a slap in the face, a reality check for us, and I think a lot of guys are coming in a lot more determined and ready to go.
“The team we put on the field last year wasn’t us, wasn’t our team.”
The whole 2020 team is here now, the clubhouse in Fenway South teeming with players who reported in full Monday. Locker stalls where Betts once sat, where Price hung out, or where Porcello talked fishing have been reassigned, and Roenicke isn’t making his first-day mistake of going to the coaches room instead of the manager’s office to get ready anymore.
Knowing where you are is one thing. But knowing who you are is another. It’s time for some new Red Sox leaders to fill the leadership void.