Witness the roller coaster the Red Sox have been riding the past handful of years:
- They came in last place two straight years after winning the 2013 World Series — and they finished last in 2012 as well.
- They then won the AL East but were bounced in the first round in 2016 and 2017.
- They won the 2018 World Series after a 108-win regular season.
- They flopped to 84 wins in 2019.
- They traded superstar Mookie Betts the following offseason.
- They got lumped into the sign-stealing scandal with Houston.
- Manager Alex Cora was fired in the wake of it.
- They were terrible in 2020 out of the gate, dropping to 6-18 after a nine-game losing streak.
- They have now re-hired Alex Cora as manager.
A funny thing about that bad Red Sox team from last year is that it could hit. The Red Sox led the AL with a .265 average. They were third in the AL in on-base percentage and slugging percentage. This came with J.D. Martinez hitting .213/.291/.389 and, again, it was the first year without Mookie Betts.
Also, they weren’t that bad after the aforementioned 6-18 start. They were actually 18-18 the rest of the way. Who knows what happens in a full 162-game season, though their pitching staff was such a mess that it would be folly to assume they would’ve been a decent playoff team.
Can the offense keep on track while the pitchers get their house in order to combine with the good Cora vibes to get the Sox back to the postseason?
Let’s preview the upcoming season for these Boston Red Sox.
Win total projection, odds
- 2021 SportsLine projection: 77-85
- World Series odds (via William Hill Sportsbook): +5000
- 2020 Record: 24-36 (fourth in AL East, missed playoffs)
- Alex Verdugo, CF
- Xander Bogaerts, SS
- Rafael Devers, 3B
- J.D. Martinez, DH
- Christian Vazquez, C
- Bobby Dalbec, 1B
- Hunter Renfroe, RF
- Franchy Cordero, LF
- Enrique Hernandez, 2B
Utility man Michael Chavis is in the mix as well here.
Cordero swings lefty while Arroyo is right-handed and Gonzalez is a switch-hitter, so there’s a platoon option in left field. That is the biggest question mark here.
Hernandez gets an everyday job at one position, in all likelihood, for the first time in his career, unless they need to end up using him both in left field and second base while mixing in someone else at second at times.
Projected rotation, bullpen
The biggest thing to mention here, right off the top, is the return of Chris Sale to the rotation. He underwent Tommy John surgery last March, so there’s no chance he’s around for April or May. More likely, we can point to August and September as the months where it’s possible he has an impact on things here. If the Red Sox are in the race and Sale comes out firing like he can, it would be like adding an ace at the trade deadline without having to give anything up. There’s your pie-in-the-sky scenario, Boston.
Next up, four of these relievers — Barnes, Ottavino, Sawamura, Brasier — are late-inning types. Manager Alex Cora has said he’ll have a set closer this season, we just don’t know who it’ll be. I’d expect it to be either Barnes or Ottavino, but this bullpen is full of question marks.
Here are three things to know about the 2021 Red Sox.
1. There’s offensive upside
With Betts long gone and this version of Martinez in the middle, there’s some cache gone from the Red Sox’s offense, but there’s plenty of punch and good potential in here for more. https://0a3e0460e44bdd30ddba05203b39f03c.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
First off, Martinez is only heading to his age-33 season and he’s one of the guys who was vocal about losing video access last season. With in-game video access back, it’s entirely possible he bounces back with a 2019-like season (.304/.383/.557, 36 HR, 105 RBI) even if he’s not 2018 JD.
Then there’s the pride of Aruba, the underrated Bogaerts. In the last three seasons, he’s hit .300 with a 137 OPS+. He finished fifth in AL MVP voting in 2019.
Even more underrated is Bogaerts’ left-side mate, Devers. Did you know he led the majors in total bases in 2019 at age 22? Or that he had 201 hits, 54 doubles, 32 homers, 115 RBI and 129 runs that year? How that line from a Red Sox player flies relatively under the national radar eludes me.
That’s some serious firepower in the 2-4 spots in the order. Setting up for those three would be Verdugo, who hit .308 with a .367 OBP last season. Expect him to pile up the runs scored this year.
Past that potentially robust top four, Vazquez was a very good offensive catcher last year (114 OPS+) and Dalbec hit eight homers with a .600 slugging in his 92 plate appearances last season, his first taste of the bigs. He’ll need to make good on his promise in a much bigger sample, but the talent is there.
How about Renfroe? He hit 33 homers in 2019 for the Padres. The Red Sox love how his bat profiles in Fenway Park. Check this out (note the number of gray dots that would actually be home runs in Fenway): https://platform.twitter.com/embed/Tweet.html?creatorScreenName=MattSnyderCBS&dnt=false&embedId=twitter-widget-0&features=eyJ0ZndfZXhwZXJpbWVudHNfY29va2llX2V4cGlyYXRpb24iOnsiYnVja2V0IjoxMjA5NjAwLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjpudWxsfSwidGZ3X2hvcml6b25fdHdlZXRfZW1iZWRfOTU1NSI6eyJidWNrZXQiOiJodGUiLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjpudWxsfX0%3D&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1338544141647679493&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cbssports.com%2Fmlb%2Fnews%2Fred-sox-season-preview-2021-projected-lineup-rotation-and-three-things-to-know-as-alex-cora-returns%2F&sessionId=4e38bded0fb8b161c8efed32e665c2d7fcae3da6&siteScreenName=cbssports&theme=light&widgetsVersion=1ead0c7%3A1617660954974&width=550px
His pull-heavy power is going to play huge for doubles in addition to the homers, too.
The bottom line: It isn’t difficult to talk yourself into seeing the Red Sox as one of baseball’s best offenses in 2021.
2. But is there enough pitching?
Things were so bad on this end in Boston last season that the Red Sox used 16 different pitchers as starters in a pandemic-shortened 60-game campaign. Sixteen is a lot for 162 games and consider that Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodriguez were not even on that list. It’s pretty jaw-dropping.
Getting a full season from Rodriguez (he was 19-6 with a 3.81 ERA in 2019 and is back after missing last year due to a coronavirus-related heart issue) and two months of Sale already means an upgrade. Perez works fine as a mid-to-back rotation guy. The problem was last year he was generally the one or two.
Eovaldi is a big wild card. We know the ability is there, but his career is littered with injury and inconsistency. He was very solid last year in his nine starts, but had a brutal 5.99 ERA in 2019 (perhaps a deep playoff run hangover?).
What can they get out of Richards? From 2014-17, Richards made 70 starts and pitched to a 3.06 ERA (123 ERA+). He’s since had Tommy John surgery and was pretty good last year for the Padres. His velocity wasn’t what it once was, though the key might be his increased slider usage (he held opponents to a .147 average with it last season).
Pivetta was great in two starts for the Red Sox last season after a very rough three outings for Philly. He’s never been even an average big-league pitcher, but it’s possible the Red Sox nudge him into the territory of an acceptable fifth starter until Sale returns.
Ottavino was a disaster last season, but he was a near-elite reliever the previous two seasons and it’s pretty reasonable to throw out 2020 results for many players. Barnes is plenty capable of being an above-average reliever. And, really, as a whole relievers are volatile and finding the right mix through the course of the season is work most teams have to do. You can squint your way to a bullpen where Ottavino is a great closer with Barnes a good setup man and things shaking themselves out after that. A reasonable outcome is to believe it’s a serviceable pitching staff overall.
The bottom line: There’s a path to this being a very productive pitching staff if things break perfectly, but just as likely is a complete meltdown. Bet somewhere in the middle. The fate of the season likely lies in which way they lean between the best and worst possible outcomes.
3. Welcome back, Cora
The Red Sox should totally dismiss the 2020 season as something that wasn’t even really a season. They don’t even need to tell anyone else. Just sell it internally. There are good reasons for it. It was only 60 games. Once they started to play better, their faux-season was already over anyway. They couldn’t use in-game video and now they can again. They were without their top two pitchers and by the end of this year they’ll have both back. They were adjusting to life after Mookie. Et cetera.
Oh, and they lost their manager right before the spring and had an ongoing MLB investigation as a nice little distraction in addition to everything above.
Few teams needed to turn the page from 2020 more than the Red Sox.
Not only have they done so, but now they have Cora back in the dugout as their leader. Last time he took over, they won 108 games and were barely challenged in the playoffs en route to a World Series title.
This doesn’t mean they will automatically just become awesome again. Look at the pitching situation above. Still, baseball is a game steeped in mental conditioning and if a good portion of that locker room believes Cora brings with him the good vibes, he does. He’s a very adept manager on top of that.
It certainly feels like he’ll make a difference.
The AL East, outside Baltimore, is very tough, but there’s a true path to contention here with the offensive upside, the likely-improved pitching staff and Cora back in the dugout. Don’t sleep on the Red Sox as contenders.