The Boston Red Sox will be better in 2021. They can’t be much worse than a year ago.
Boston endured arguably the worst season of a generation in 2020, limping to the finish line in a pandemic-shortened season. To put it in perspective, the Sox hold the No. 4 pick in this June’s draft, the highest they’ve drafted in more than 50 years .
Reason for optimism does, however, extend beyond “there’s nowhere to go but up.” Alex Cora is back in the Boston dugout after doing his time. Cora, never short for confidence, isn’t ready to declare his club a World Series contender, but he knows there’s a path to better days sooner than later.
“I’m not gonna tell like in (2018) where it was World Series or bust — that was the case in ’18, right?” Cora recently said on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s “Baseball Hour” show. “But this team we have this year — we have a bunch of good baseball players, a bunch of them.
” … Offensively, we’re gonna do our thing, we’re gonna score a lot of runs in different ways. Pitching-wise, our rotation is solid. Our bullpen is versatile. We have a good baseball team, a really good baseball team in a division I feel like everybody has their question marks. If you play good baseball over 162 games, good things can happen, and I do believe we have a good baseball team — that’s the way I put it for this year.”
Of course, the manager of the team is bullish on his club’s chances, but that optimism is not completely misguided. Here’s why the Red Sox will make the playoffs in 2021.
Cora is back
There’s no denying Cora’s impact in the dugout. Without knowing the interpersonal abilities of the 30 MLB managers, it certainly seems from a distance that few get through to their players more than Cora. That feels like it’s an important piece of the puzzle for this group, with many holdovers from Cora’s first tenure having their best seasons with him occupying the skipper’s office. There’s probably more synergy now, too, between the front office and clubhouse. Cora buys into the analytics and sees the game at least in a similar way to Chaim Bloom and his staff. That cohesion has to be good for something … right?
Versatility, versatility, versatility
It’s almost cliché at this point, but Bloom built Cora a roster that will give the manager no shortage of options when it comes to filling out the lineup card. There’s no better example than the offseason signing of Enrique Hernandez. The former Dodgers utilityman figures to be the Opening Day second baseman, but Cora has made it no secret he’ll use him all over the diamond. That includes some center field, where the rest of the outfield — Alex Verdugo, Franchy Cordero, Hunter Renfroe — are all fairly versatile. This allows Cora the opportunity to tinker with his lineup to best attack the opponent’s starting pitcher while also giving him late-game options to pinch-hit, all while knowing they can be moved around the diamond. There’s also versatility in the bullpen with no shortage of looks with different arm angles and arsenals. All of this versatility — on both sides — should also prepare the Sox to better handle injuries, which was a major issue last year.
If J.D. Martinez has the same sorts of struggles this year he had in 2020, the alarm bells will be ringing. The more likely scenario — given Martinez’s impressive track record — is his .680 OPS was an aberration. He’ll be able to access the video he so dearly covets again, and he believes he’s fixed some holes in his swing. It would be inaccurate to say Rafael Devers had an off-year in 2020 — he slugged .483 with 11 home runs in 57 games — but it certainly wasn’t anything close to his breakout 2019 season. Devers is still only 24 years old, and he seems to have a good connection with Cora. He’s poised for another big season in 2021.
A new baseball might mean a drop in power numbers across baseball, but the Red Sox might actually go the other direction. Martinez and Devers have 40-home run potential. It’s now fair to expect Xander Bogaerts to hit 25 or 30 bombs. Alex Verdugo has power, too. But it’s not just the heart of the order. Bobby Dalbec has legitimate Rookie of the Year potential because of his power (he hit a home run every 10 at-bats last year), and he’ll probably hit eighth or ninth. The Red Sox should score some runs, to say the least.
(Some) hope for the pitching
None of this will matter if the pitching is historically bad again in 2020. Not even the 1927 Yankees would have been able to slug their way out of that mess. But if you squint hard enough, you can see the improvement in the starting pitching. If Eduardo Rodriguez is healthy, that gives the Sox a top-of-the-rotation arm they simply didn’t have last year. Everyone knows about Nathan Eovaldi’s potential, whether he can harness it remains the story. Yet, it’s the back end of the rotation that signifies the biggest upgrade over last year’s disaster. As long as Garrett Richards, Nick Pivetta and Martin Perez aren’t called on to log 200 innings, they’re significant back-end upgrades over the likes of Zack Godley and Kyle Hart, who combined to make 10 of 60 starts in 2020. Things get even better if Chris Sale is able to make a midseason return.
The bullpen is also better with the additions of Adam Ottavino, Garrett Whitlock and Hirokazu Sawamura. All have some question marks, but hitting on two of the three makes the ‘pen much better. These things are all connected, too. If better starting pitching can keep you from being down 3-0 after the first inning, it allows so much more opportunity to navigate the game. You can wait for your offense to come alive in the middle innings or turn to your bullpen in the fifth, not because your pitcher got his head beat in, but because you have the arms to make those outs count just as much as they do in the late innings. The entire pitching staff doesn’t rank anywhere near among baseball’s best, but it just needs to keep the offense in the game. If it can do that, the Red Sox will plenty of chances to win baseball games and contend for the postseason.
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