As the Red Sox and the rest of baseball get ready for spring training, it feels like the strengths and weaknesses of this team are already pretty well defined. At least we think so, though we’re often not as smart as we think. Assuming health, the rotation will easily be one of the best in the American League, while the offense is also poised for another dominant year. The defense will again be great in the outfield and unpredictable in the infield. And as I and many others have already publicly proclaimed, the bullpen is going to be a problem. I’ll be dying on that hill.
The best part about this time of year is that we have no idea who is about to surprise us the most. Will it be Dave Dombrowski with an unforeseen aggressive move to shore up the bullpen? Will it be minor leaguers like Michael Chavis and/or Durbin Feltman making an impact at the major-league level once they get there? Or maybe it’s going to be Jackie Bradley Jr. hitting .300 with 25 home runs. (Even .270 and 15 would be a surprise, really). The more I think about it, the more I think it’s going to be Steven Wright who throws us all for a loop. And no, I am not being sarcastic.
I’m definitely not saying that I think the 34-year-old coming off his second knee surgery in 18 months is going to win a Cy Young — or even make the All-Star Game. I simply believe Wright is going to perform above his current expectations (which are pretty low after missing most of last season — due to both injury and suspension) and surprise us. I truly think he is going to be an integral part of a team that is looking to be the league’s first repeat champions since the 1998-2000 Yankees.
Obviously, the most important thing Wright needs to do to have an impact in the coming year is get healthy. The debridement surgery he had in November was essentially to clean out damaged tissue from the original cartilage restoration procedure he had in May, per MassLive. Dustin Pedroia also had both procedures done by the same surgeon and neither one looked like themselves in limited action last season. The outlook for a knuckleballer who can provide innings in both a relief and starting role is probably a bit brighter than a 35-year-old second baseman who wants to play every day.
If, and that’s an extremely big if — like imagine it’s in 72-point font — Wright can stay healthy, he will be an important weapon for Alex Cora next season. As of right now, it looks like there are going to be spots open in the bullpen once Wright gets to 100 percent, and it’s unclear when exactly that will happen. Unfortunately at the moment, there’s not a whole lot out there right now regarding his recovery. I suspect we will find out more in the next few weeks when pitchers and catchers report to camp. Even if Dombrowski makes another move or two, Wright will surely find a spot once he returns and his versatility will be a big reason for that.
Personally, I like the idea of the knuckleball pitcher coming out of the bullpen and Wright has found success in that role in the past. That unpredictability can come in handy at the tail end of a Chris Sale or Nathan Eovaldi start where hitters are seeing fastballs in the high-90s for a majority of the night. It’s also much easier to rectify a rough outing with Wright coming out of the bullpen as opposed to starting. If he gives up six runs in the first inning, chances are you call that game a wash and let him continue the batting practice session for as long as he can to avoid burning 15 relievers in the middle of a four-game series. If Wright comes out in the middle innings and simply doesn’t have it, you just go to the next guy.
I know it’s a small sample size, but Wright was nails in relief last season. He started just four of his 20 appearances, pitching a total of 53.2 innings and posted a career-high ERA+ (163), a career-low Batting Average Against (.210) and BABIP (.243), with a 2.68 ERA — per Fangraphs. Decent numbers for a guy who was likely not pitching at 100 percent. Production close to that would be useful given the current state of the bullpen.
The real upside of having a healthy Wright on the roster is the depth he will provide. We all know the baseball season is a marathon and Cora showed off his creative managing style last year when he was able to provide adequate rest for a rotation that wasn’t necessarily thin — but wasn’t bursting with depth either. Wright gives Cora more options. After watching him masterfully navigate his way through his first season as manager, I am definitely excited to see what he could do with more options. Between Brian Johnson, Hector Velazquez and Wright, I think we are going to see even more creativity from Cora this season. With the top of the AL East looking as stacked as it does, that depth could be the difference between home-field advantage and the Wild Card Game. Count me in.