The Boston Red Sox were expected by many — their own fans included — to be an also-ran in the American League last season. They turned out to be anything but.
Led by one of baseball’s hardest-hitting lineups, the Red Sox got off to one of the fastest starts in the league to jump to the top of the AL East, and though a late swoon cost them the division, they recovered in October to beat the Yankees in the Wild Card game and then knocked out the East champion Tampa Bay Rays before hitting the wall in the ALCS against the Astros.
There are questions in the pitching staff, but given the balance in the lineup, the Red Sox project to be a contender in the division and perhaps the American League once again.
Additions and Subtractions
The Red Sox have been more thrifty under general manager Chaim Bloom, but they made a big-market move by signing former Rockies shortstop Trevor Story to a six-year, $140 million contract. Landing the two-time All-Star, who will play second with Xander Bogaerts still at shortstop, adds someone with 96 home runs and 268 RBI over the last three full (non-COVID) seasons to a lineup that ranked third in the majors in average and OPS.
Boston’s outfield got a shakeup when the team traded power-hitting corner outfielder Hunter Renfroe (31 home runs, 96 RBI, .816 OPS) to Milwaukee for center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and two prospects. Bradley has shown his fielding abilities, but he’s regressed into one of baseball’s worst offensive players (.163 average in 387 at-bats last season). Starting pitcher Garrett Richards left for Texas, while Michael Wacha took his place after pitching for Tampa Bay.
This was thought to be the Achilles heel for the Sox going into last season, and it’s still far from rock-solid. Nathan Eovaldi (11-9, 3.75) is back after finishing fourth in the AL Cy Young voting, as is Nick Pivetta after going 9-8 with a 4.53 ERA. Tanner Houck, at 25 years old, is poised for a bigger role after posting a 3.52 ERA over 13 starts and striking out 11.3 per nine, and Wacha is expected to round out the rotation.
The question mark comes in the form of Chris Sale, who’s dealt with nagging injuries and will miss the start of the season with a stress fracture in his rib. When healthy, he’s been one of the best pitchers in the AL, but he’ll be 33 this season and he’s made only nine starts over the last two seasons. If he holds up, Boston’s in good shape, but that’s a big “if.”
Closer Matt Barnes made the All-Star team on the strength of an excellent first couple of months to the season, but his performance took a hit right around the time MLB cracked down on illegal substances, and he finished 6-5 with a 3.79 ERA and 24 saves.
Darwinzon Hernandez (3.38 ERA in 40 innings) and Josh Taylor (3.40 in 47.2 innings) return to the bullpen, while Jake Diekman (3.86 in 60.2 innings) aims to give the Red Sox a good lefty option after pitching in Oakland.
If the Red Sox are back among the AL’s best, this will be the reason why. Bogaerts is one of the most consistent offensive shortstops in the game and is coming off of a season in which he batted .295 with 23 home runs and 79 RBI, and Rafael Devers resumed his status as one of baseball’s top slugging third basemen after a down 2020 by hitting .279 with 38 home runs, 113 RBI and an .890 OPS.
J.D. Martinez bounced back as well by slashing .286/28/99, Bobby Dalbec helped fill out a first base hole by hitting 25 home runs and posting a .792 OPS, and Alex Verdugo (.289/13/63) and Kiki Hernandez (.250/20/60) were fine hitters atop the lineup. With Story essentially replacing Renfroe’s production, this batting order could be as formidable as it was last year.
The Red Sox were butchers in the field last season, with the second-worst fielding percentage in baseball (.981), and that could still be an issue this time around. Devers is below-average at third and Bogaerts is decent at best at short, and though Story has been an excellent defensive shortstop, it remains to be seen how he’ll adjust to second base. Dalbec at first had a -1.4 defensive WAR last season, according to Baseball Reference.
Elsewhere, however, the Sox are well stocked. Vazquez is a big league starter because of his arm behind the plate, Verdugo has a strong, accurate arm and good range in left, and Hernandez is versatile with the ability to play the outfield and infield. Boston will miss Renfroe’s rifle arm in right field, but Bradley’s celebrated ability on fly balls will help him navigate either Fenway Park’s big center field or right field areas.
The consensus is that the Red Sox should regress slightly, which makes sense. They got career years from throughout the lineup and even in the pitching staff last year, and it equaled a 92-win season that still almost fell short of a playoff berth.
With an infield that could have four 30-home run hitters and a lineup that could see six or seven reach 20, however, the Red Sox will continue to make life difficult for opposing pitchers. The key will come from the rotation. If Sale is back healthy, the Red Sox don’t need too much from the supporting arms (Eovaldi, Pivetta and Houck) to have a solid top four. If Sale struggles to find his form, however, Boston might just not have enough to run with the Yankees, Rays and an improved Toronto team.