Why Red Sox have path to contention in 2021 after ‘very disappointing’ 2020 season

Less than two years ago, I was sitting in Dodger Stadium watching the Boston Red Sox complete a postseason run that never saw them come even close to facing elimination. After a 108-54 regular season, the lowest moments the Red Sox had were seeing the Yankees even them up at 1-1 in the divisional series and falling down 1-0 to the defending champion Astros. They would end up going 11-3 that postseason, needing only five games to win the World Series title with the only loss being an 18-inning affair. 

Now? The Red Sox are set to finish last place. They are even behind the rebuilding Orioles by three games with six to play. 

With a new boss in place — Chaim Bloom, who came from the Rays and is known as an analytical guru — will the Red Sox tear it all down and rebuild from scratch? It sounds like they’ll try to reload, given the recent comments from Red Sox chairman Tom Werner, via Chris Cotillo of MassLive

“We are intensely competitive,” Werner said. “I want to say to our fans that we’re not going to rest. We are already hard at work at improving our squad. We don’t want this to be a long rebuilding process.”

“We do feel… We’re staring at a very disappointing season,” he added. “We don’t have any excuses. We’ve got a lot of assets and, as everybody knows, we spend and we’re not a small-market team. We’re going to be back next year.”

Let’s take a look to see if the Red Sox have enough to build around. 

First off, the only regular player they are set to lose via free agency is Jackie Bradley. We’ll assume for our purposes he does not re-sign with the club. 

The lineup

The good news for Boston is Xander Bogaerts (27 years old), Alex Verdugo (24) and Rafael Devers (23) are at this point proven to be above-average contributors and are all under team control at least through 2023. There’s the long-term core, so it doesn’t need to be broken up and this shouldn’t even be a consideration. 

Andrew Benintendi is controlled through 2022. He was very good in 2018 and regressed to just about a league-average starter in 2019. He was awful this season, but it was 14 games and he was banged up. Heading to his age-26 season, it’s reasonable to expect that he can at least get back to league average while knowing the 2018 upside is real. 

As for the immediate turn around, J.D. Martinez is signed through 2022. He took a step back in 2019 from his monster 2018 season, but that was still a season in which he hit .304/.383/.557 with 33 doubles and 36 homers. I’m not ready to dismiss him after an awful 2020 (.205/.287/.373; 76 OPS+). Not only do down years happen, but this is roughly 1/3 of a real season to this point. He’ll be 33 next year and for a DH that isn’t by any stretch old. 

Even without outside additions, it seems like there are five players slated into the lineup next season. Three of them are pretty sure things while one other has MVP-caliber upside and the remaining player has fringe All-Star upside. 

What’s left? 

  • Christian Vazquez is handling everyday catcher duties just fine, hitting at a slightly above average clip and holding his own defensively. 
  • Infielder Michael Chavis has had some MLB success and, at age 25, there’s room for growth, though 2020 was hardly encouraging. 
  • 25-year-old first baseman Bobby Dalbec has shown good flashes of power so far in his rookie year and he’s always had good on-base chops in the minors. In 67 plate appearances this season, he’s clubbed seven homers and has a .639 slugging percentage.
  • Outfielder Yairo Munoz has hit well in a very small sample and hit .276 with a .350 on-base percentage with the Cardinals in 2018. Maybe there’s something here with the 25-year-old who hit .333 with a .511 slugging in 45 plate appearances this year. 
  • Infielder Christian Arroyo has hit well in his very small sample of work with the Red Sox. He’s a career .293 hitter with a .340 OBP in the minors. He’s yet to see much success in the majors but he’s 25 and hasn’t been given a long look. He’s been good so far in 2020, though, again, it’s such a small sample at 37 plate appearances. 
  • Jeter Downs, a middle infielder who came over in the Betts/Price trade with Verdugo, appeared in 107 games at High-A and 12 games at Double-A in 2019 and had good success. We can’t be sure about his progress in 2020, obviously, but it’s possible at some point in 2021 he’s ready to contribute in the majors. 
  • Dustin Pedroia is signed for 2021. He’ll be 37 years old. I guess you never know? 

Then, of course, there’s the possibility of adding from the outside. There’s enough here to justify calling them a potential contender for 2021. 

The rotation

First off, Chris Sale had Tommy John surgery in late March. He probably can’t be counted on immediately for the 2021 regular season, but he will likely be in the rotation for a good portion of the season and a return to form isn’t out of the question. That’s a game-changer right there. 

Holdovers Nathan Eovaldi (3-2, 4.25 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 44 K, 6 BB, 42 1/3 IP) and Martin Perez (3-4, 3.88 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 44 K, 27 BB, 58 IP) have shown enough to be counted on in next year’s rotation. Perez’s numbers are skewed by a few really bad outings. Overall he’s been pretty good. 

There are questions after this, of course. Eduardo Rodriguez’s return would be a welcome one, but he’s been dealing with myocarditis as a result of COVID-19 and it’s not clear if he’ll be able to come back full strength any time soon. Baseball analysis takes a back seat to his personal health, obviously, but if he does come back as his old self, that’s a guy who finished sixth in AL Cy Young voting in 2019. 

Tanner Houck, a 2017 first-round pick out of Missouri, is now 2-0 in two starts with a 11 scoreless innings under his belt. He’s only allowed three hits and has struck out 11. He’s walked six and that’s bad, but there’s hope that this is a guy who can stick. 

The top prospect within the organization is 6-foot-3 righty Bryan Mata. He posted a 5.03 ERA in 53 2/3 Double-A innings in 2019, but the strikeout rate was appetizing and it’s possible he’s made strides at the alternate site (though he’s dealt with a hamstring issue). 

A best-case scenario from a Sale-Eovaldi-Perez-Rodriguez-Houck/Mata group seems like it could definitely be a contending rotation and that’s without discussing any outside additions. 

Bullpens are incredibly volatile these days and there are very few sure things, either on the side of who is guaranteed to be successful or on the opposite end of the spectrum. As such, we aren’t going to dig deep. 

The whole point here was to see if the Red Sox had enough coming back on their roster in 2021 to believe that with some outside additions, they could be a contender in the AL. Especially if expanded playoffs are here to stay (even if it’s less than eight teams per league), the Red Sox absolutely should be contending in 2021. They don’t need an extended rebuild. They need to build around what they have and get some better performances (J.D. and Benny, I’m looking at you) from what they have. Then it’s up to Bloom and company to fill around the current group. They’ll embark on that journey soon, as the brief 2020 season is nearly over, much to the delight of Red Sox nation. 

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