AL EastAnalysis

Season Preview: Boston Red Sox

As we prepare for the 2021 season, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s off-season and previewing the season to come. Today, Matt O’Halloran takes a look at the Boston Red Sox!

The Red Sox are in a bizarre position. They are just a few years removed from the most dominant year in franchise history, capped off by their fourth Championship since the turn of the century. Yet, they are just a single year removed from a last place finish. 2021 will be a true test as to whether the team is simply “retooling” or if a fully fledged rebuild is in order.

2020 Season-In-Review

2020 Record: 24-36, 5th Place in AL East
Team MVP: Xander Bogaerts
Team Cy Young: Nathan Eovaldi

There was certainly a lot of bad in 2020, but there was some good sprinkled in. Xander Bogaerts continued to be one the game’s best and most underrated shortstops. His 1.9 fWAR was good enough for 2nd most among American League shortstops. Alex Verdugo proved to be a great addition to the team, as his 2.2 bWAR led the roster. Some of the system’s top prospects, most notably Bobby Dalbec and Tanner Houck, debuted and immediately made an impact. Dalbec belted 8 home runs in just 80 at-bats, including a homer in five straight games from September 5th through 10th. Houck was just as impressive, allowing just one earned run while striking out 21 across his first 17 big league innings.

Off-season Review

Key losses from 2020: OF Jackie Bradley Jr.

Notable Free Agent Additions: RHP Matt Andriese, Garret Richards, Hirokazu Sawamura, UTIL Kiké Hernandez, Marwin Gonzalez, OF Hunter Renfroe

Notable Trades:
Acquired RHP Adam Ottavino and Frank German from NYY for PTBNL or cash considerations
Acquired OF Franchy Cordero, RHP Josh Winckowski, 3 PTBNL from KC and NYM for OF Andrew Benintendi
Acquired C Ronaldo Hernandez, SS Nick Sogard from TBR for RHP Jeffrey Springs, Chris Mazza

Chaim Bloom was busy this winter. He wasted no time before making possibly the team’s biggest move of the offseason, by signing former manager Alex Cora to a two year contract to lead the team. Cora brings with him not just his ability to relate to players and create a strong clubhouse environment, evident given the amount of praise he receives from his players, but also a familiarity with this organization in particular. Cora became beloved by players and fans as the man at the helm of the 2018 Championship. Rafael Devers has even referred to Cora as a ‘father figure’. Cora will revitalize the Boston clubhouse after an entirely forgettable 2020 without him.

After finding his manager, Bloom got to work addressing the areas of greatest need on the roster. The most glaring hole from last season was a lack of depth in the starting rotation. The good news is that this area was already improved for 2021 without a single roster move. Neither of the team’s two best pitchers, Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodriguez, threw even a single pitch in the 2020 campaign. Both should be back for 2021, with Rodriguez expected to be ready to go by opening day, while Sale should join the team sometime this Summer.
There will still be plenty of new faces in addition to the old. Bloom brought in Matt Andriese ($2.1M/1 year), a pitcher he is familiar with as the two spent time together in Tampa Bay, as well as Garrett Richards ($10M/1 year). Whereas Andriese is more of a depth piece, Richards may prove to be a very valuable addition. The former first round pick has proven an effective pitcher at the Major League level, posting a 3.62 ERA for his career. His health is what has kept him from reaching his true potential, as he has exceeded 150 innings just twice in 10 seasons, last doing so in 2015. Additionally, the team managed to reach an agreement with fan favorite Martín Pérez ($5M/1 year), after declining his option for $6.5M earlier in the offseason.
The bullpen got some aid as well. RHP Adam Ottavino, along with prospect Frank German was acquired from the rival Yankees in exchange for a PTBNL or cash considerations. This was entirely a salary dump on the Yankees’ side, as they sought to clear payroll to be able to bring back outfielder Brett Gardner. Joining Ottavino in the back end of the bullpen will be Japanese pitcher Hirokazu Sawamura. Sawamura signed a $3M, 2 year deal with the team in mid-February. The 32-year-old right hander has struggled with command at times, but brings strong strikeout stuff and a knack for home run suppression to a bullpen that has the potential to be sneaky good.

Thankfully, the lineup got some much needed love as well. Hunter Renfroe was the first addition, after he was non-tendered by the Rays. He will earn $3.1M in 2021, and is under team control through the 2023 season. Joining Renfroe in the outfield will be the toolsy Franchy Cordero. Entering just his age 26 season, Cordero has earned notoriety due to his raw power and speed, but has struggled to put it all together across any serious stretch of time. Cordero was acquired in a three team deal that sent fan favorite Andrew Benintendi to Kansas City. In addition to Cordero, the Red Sox received RHP Josh Winckowski, who will start the year in A or AA ball, as well as three players to be named later, two from the Royals and one from the Mets.
Lastly, the team brought in a couple of utility players in Kiké Hernandez and Marwin Gonzalez. The two each bring with them the ability to play any position but catcher and pitcher, as well as uncertain bats with reasonable amounts of upside. After the Hernandez signing ($14M/2 year), it seemed unlikely that the Red Sox would still be in on Gonzalez, but evidently Bloom felt that at that price ($3M/1 year), Gonzalez would still be a valuable addition.

2021 Season Preview

Projected Roster

Projected Lineup

  1. Kiké Hernandez, 2B
  2. Rafael Devers, 3B
  3. JD Martinez, DH
  4. Xander Bogaerts, SS
  5. Alex Verdugo, CF
  6. Bobby Dalbec, 1B
  7. Hunter Renfroe, RF
  8. Marwin Gonzalez, LF
  9. Christian Vazquez, C

    IL: Franchy Cordero (COVID-19 complications)

This is a lineup with a handful of new faces to compliment those returning. Hernandez should bring a sense of stability to second base that the Red Sox have lacked since Pedroia’s injuries. This does land Michael Chavis on the bench, but given his 2020 performance, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 2021 will be a bit of a make or break year for Chavis, who, having another option, may find himself in Worcester if he struggles. Long term, Marwin Gonzalez will serve as the team’s utility man, filling in anywhere on the field as needed and accumulating significant ABs along the way, but he is expected to fill in for Franchy Cordero in left field at the start of the season. Cordero arrived to camp late due to COVID-19 protocols, and should join the team within a couple weeks of opening day, at which point Gonzalez will return to a utility role.  

Projected Bench

C Kevin Plawecki
2B/1B Michael Chavis
IF Christian Arroyo

It was announced on March 16th that the Red Sox would roll with just 3 bench players to open the season, opting to carry 14 pitchers on their 26 man roster. Plawecki has been a lock for the backup catcher role since camp begin. He performed well in that role in 2020, slashing .341/.393/.463 in 89 plate appearances last season. Chavis and Arroyo are in competition with Jonathan Arauz for the last two spots on the bench. All three have had good springs to this point, but given how high the organization seems to be on Arroyo, he seems to be the least likely of the 3 to be cut. Chavis and Arauz have had similarly hot springs, as both sport a 1.047 OPS entering play on March 16th. While either could break camp with the big league club, Chavis offers a higher upside, and seems more likely to get the last spot. That said, Arauz will no doubt get called up at some point, and is even likely to receive significant playing time.

Projected Rotation

  1. Eduardo Rodriguez
  2. Garret Richards
  3. Nathan Eovaldi
  4. Martín Pérez
  5. Nick Pivetta

    IL: Chris Sale (Tommy John Surgery)

I thought for awhile that the team would opt for a 6 man rotation. It seemed to make a lot of sense. The rotation is comprised of guys who have struggled with injuries recently or throughout their careers. A 6 man rotation would help lessen their workloads and hopefully keep everyone healthy. But the decision has been made to proceed with a group of 5. This seems to point towards Tanner Houck starting the season in AAA, but expect to see him in Boston by season’s end. Also expected in Boston by season’s end is Chris Sale. The ace of the staff is expected to return to the club at some point this summer, but as is typical with Tommy John surgery, it’s an ever-changing timeline. Sale will bolster a rotation that already has a lot of upside. Rodriguez will return to the mound for the first time since 2019, as he missed 2020 due to heart problems that stemmed from contracting COVID-19. Richards and Eovaldi have both shown they can be quality starters, but they need to prove they can stay on the field. Pérez should continue to turn in quality innings, just as he did in 2020. Pivetta is competing for the last spot, but he seems to be the favorite to win it. Given Houck’s inexperience and youth, it makes a lot more sense to send him down than Pivetta, who has shown flashes of great stuff but struggled in Philadelphia. Hopefully a change of scenery can help Pivetta capitalize on his potential.
In terms of depth, the Red Sox have the aforementioned Houck, as well as emergency starters Matt Andriese and Garrett Whitlock, who will start the year in the bullpen. Beyond them, many of the names we saw in 2020 are available as options such as Ryan Weber, Matt Hall, and Colten Brewer, among others.

Projected Bullpen

Matt Andriese
Matt Barnes
Austin Brice
Darwinzon Hernandez
Adam Ottavino
Hirokazu Sawamura
Josh Taylor
Phillips Valdez
Garrett Whitlock

IL: Austin Brice (fractured finger)

The bullpen is full of a lot of potential. Ottavino and Barnes are both established as quality late inning arms. The two will compete for the closer role, and I’d expect both to get plenty of save opportunities. Sawamura seems like a potential set-up option if his transition to MLB goes smoothly. Valdez and Hernandez have shown that they have electric stuff, and hope to build on past success in 2021. Taylor had a throwaway 2020, but was very quietly amazing in 2019, posting a 159 ERA+ across 47.1 IP out of Boston’s pen. Whitlock makes the team as a Rule 5 draft selection from the New York Yankees. The pairing of Whitlock and Andriese seem to serve the same sort of role as Brian Johnson and Hector Velázquez did on the 2018 team. This is a group that could be entirely forgettable if not downright awful, but they could also be one of the better bullpens across baseball.

Record Projections

FanGraphs Projected Record: 84-78, 3rd place in AL East
PECOTA Projected Record: 80-82, 4th place in AL East
Personal Projection: 82-80, 3rd place in AL East

The Red Sox are one of the hardest teams to project in baseball as we approach opening day 2021. The one thing I feel I can say with certainty is they will be better than 2020. Granted, that’s a low bar. If enough things break their way, the team will contend for a wild card spot. The pitching is immensely better. Rodriguez and Sale returning alone would ensure that. Andriese and Pivetta provide valuable depth to ensure the team isn’t relying on the likes of Ryan Weber, Zack Godley, or Matt Hall to carry the rotation. Richards has perhaps the highest upside of any pitcher on the team not named Chris Sale. 
The lineup will be good, with the potential to be great. Any lineup with Bogaerts, Devers, Martinez, and Verdugo is going to score runs. If Franchy and Renfroe capitalize on the potential they’ve previously flashed, that is what will elevate the lineup to great. Dalbec is also something of a question mark, although he has had a phenomenal spring training. He was fantastic in 2020, but in only 80 at-bats. If 2021 Bobby Dalbec is anything like 2020 Bobby Dalbec, that too could catapult the Red Sox lineup from good to great.
Ultimately, I believe that this Red Sox team will go however far the pitching can take it. If the pitching is good, then this team will be really good and compete for a wild card spot. If the pitching is bad, then this year will be similar to 2020, albeit not quite to the same degree. Boston might be just as likely to win 90 games as they are to lose 90 games. For that reason, a projection of right around .500 seems spot on for this group.

Final Thoughts

Projections in baseball are a fruitless endeavor. The Red Sox might be fantastic this year. They might be terrible. However, one thing is certain. Better times are on the horizon. Chaim Bloom has proven why the organization was so excited to hire him. Every move he makes has a clear motive behind it. Even if it hurts to see fan favorites like Benintendi traded, these moves have all made sense. They have all made the team better, both in the short term and long term. Not mentioned here, as they won’t factor into the 2021 season, is all of the prospects that Bloom has worked to acquire. Each trade seemed to have a few minor leaguers tossed in for good measure. This is a critical thing to do for a team in the Red Sox’s position, as they have a farm system that desperately lacks notable depth. Chaim is working to build an organization that is built to not only win, but to win for a long time.

Matt O'Halloran

CS Student at UMass Lowell; Analytics for UML Baseball; Twitter: @matto20

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