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Trying to find building blocks established in 2020

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It was a bad year, but some future pieces were identified

Boston Red Sox v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Things did not go according to plan for the Red Sox in 2020. Controversial statement, I know, but it’s one I’m comfortable making. What can I say? I enjoy being out on that limb. There’s certainly an argument (not even an argument so much as a statement of fact) that winning wasn’t the entire priority this past summer, but due to some things out of their control (global pandemics, injuries, etc) and some very much in their control (trades, lack of action in free agency, etc) things went south quickly. I think if you gave the front office some truth serum they would say their goal for the year on the field was to be the very definition of middling and perhaps luck into a postseason berth, particularly after the expanded field was announced, and at least stay in the conversation most of the season. Instead, they were out of the race in, like, week three.

So, yeah, things were not great! But we can’t only look at what went wrong, partially because there were things that went right and they deserve to be highlighted as well but even more because doing so would cause one to lose their entire damn mind at some point. And in terms of the positives, as we look forward, they did establish some future pieces for this roster, both obvious and surprising. The way I break things down in my head, there were three categories (or tiers, if you prefer) of potentially big pieces for the future that we saw on the field for the Red Sox this year: The core, potential impact, and future depth.

Before I delve into the three categories, a couple of notes. First of all, this is only about the future in terms of multiple years ahead. So, someone like J.D. Martinez could very well have a big impact in 2021, but he’s not exactly someone they’re likely to be counting on three, four, five years from now. Similarly, Martín Pérez being solid in 2020 was an important development for the 2021 roster and he’ll certainly have his option for next year picked up, but like Martinez that is more of a short-term gain. Additionally, players like Eduardo Rodriguez and Chris Sale did not pitch this year. I am using that as an excuse because if I were to have the previously mentioned truth serum traitorously used against me, I’d tell you I have such little confidence in my ability to figure out what in the world to expect from them moving forward that I will avoid talking about it for as long as possible.

Anyway, let’s get into it.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The Core

The Red Sox core has three very clear pieces to it, all of whom should be part of the future for a long time. In my opinion, the most important player of the trio and the one who should be the face of the franchise moving forward is actually the oldest. That is Xander Bogaerts. He has the ability to opt out after the 2022 season so there is no guarantee he is here long-term, but the Red Sox should be sufficiently motivated to make sure it happens, and he’s shown a willingness to be here long-term in the past.

Bogaerts is the best player on the team, and I’m not sure it’s particularly close. Even with Alex Verdugo, also part of this trio, getting most of the shine (deservedly so) for most of the season, Bogaerts actually finished with a higher wRC+ while playing a more important defensive position. Over the last three seasons, he’s finished with wRC+’s of 133, 141, and 130, respectively. Overall, going back to the start of 2018, he’s been the 18th best hitter in the game by wRC+, one point behind Ronald Acuña Jr. and Cody Bellinger and two points ahead of José Ramirez. When you throw in his natural leadership ability, he’s a no-doubt core member of the franchise and, again, the most important player.

Beyond that, the other two joining Bogaerts as the elite core are Rafael Devers and Alex Verdugo. On a recent podcast, Shelly and I were discussing the order in which we would prioritize extensions for these three. We agreed on Bogaerts being first, both because of his skillset and that his opt-out comes before the other two can hit free agency, but the distinction between the other two is interesting.

With Verdugo, we saw a player who, while he won’t be as good as the player he replaces who also should have been a long-term core piece, is an all-around contributor. Verdugo brings a polished approach at the plate, solid contact skills, very good defense in the outfield both in terms of range and arm, and a fiery competitiveness that is palpable through the TV. He looks like a consistent four-win type of player year after year, and he doesn’t hit free agency until after the 2025 season.

With Devers, meanwhile, you have a more volatile player. His defensive future is still up in the air, and while I consider myself among the more optimistic with regard to his abilities at third base, even I cannot deny that it is no sure thing he sticks there. With Verdugo, he can have a down year at the plate where he’s basically average and still be a really solid player with his defense and baserunning. With Devers, it’s offense or nothing. That said, he has a much higher ceiling on that bat, and after a slow start this year he showed what he showed in 2019, which is that he can be a top-five hitter in all of baseball for a decent stretch in his career. It doesn’t matter where you play if you can hit like that. Different people will value those types of players differently, but they are both clearly core pieces.

I would also add Christian Vázquez to this group. That is not to say he is on the level of the other three, because he’s not, but he should very much be part of the future. He’s a top five catcher in the game whose defense shows no signs of slowing down and whose bat is making strides. At 30 years old at a grueling position his future isn’t as long, but he should be the starting catcher here for the foreseeable future.

Potential Impact

With this section, there are two very obvious names who made very good first impressions but still leave enough questions where we can’t pencil them into the future. That would be Bobby Dalbec and Tanner Houck. The former showed off the power that makes him such an intriguing piece, but also the contact skills (or lack thereof) that have the potential to hold him back. The ceiling isn’t that of a player who would be part of that Bogaerts/Devers/Verdugo trio, but more of a Vázquez type. But that is still a plenty valuable player. He will have to cut his strikeout rate, which ended 2020 at 42 percent, by probably at least 12 percentage points, and even that is pushing it.

As for Houck, there’s no need to rehash what we saw out of him to close out this season. The righty was basically as impressive as possible over his three starts to begin his major-league career, and the former first round pick entered the offseason with tremendous momentum. He still has to work on that offspeed offering, whether it be the changeup or the splitter, and will need to be ready for adjustments in his sophomore campaign. We can’t deem him a future core piece based on three starts, but he’s on the watch list, at least.

I would also put Darwinzon Hernandez in this group. The lefty didn’t get to pitch much this year and wasn’t himself early, but we know what he can be. He has dominant stuff and if he can get his command to even close to average he’s a late-inning arm. That’s still a big if at this point, though.

The biggest question mark at this group, arguably, is the one who has also reached the highest status. In fact, it wasn’t all that long ago that Andrew Benintendi was a no-brainer for that top spot. He has played himself out of that discussion for the time being, though. The left fielder hasn’t hit consistently since about midway through 2018, and he missed most of this year with injury. Before getting hurt, he looked as lost as ever at the plate. I wouldn’t give up on him just yet because we’ve seen what he can do, but he certainly has to earn his way up this list rather than being handed anything.

Future Depth

We don’t really think about future pieces in terms of depth players, but they are important over long baseball seasons, too. Having them already in the organization rather than having to search the free agency and trade markets every year is a big advantage for a front office. The Red Sox saw players like Yairo Muñoz, Christian Arroyo and Jonathan Araúz on the infield this year. I’m not a believer in them as starters, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be part of the organization moving forward.

On the pitching side, things were mostly a disaster, but a few arms stood out. Nick Pivetta looked solid in his couple of starts to end the year. I’m still skeptical given his career track record, but maybe they’ve found enough for a fifth starter moving forward. In the bullpen, Phillips Valdez and his weird changeup-heavy approach was certainly productive. While I struggle to see that playing in a top-three kind of role in a contending bullpen, he can certainly stick around as a middle reliever moving forward. These aren’t the sexiest names, but as we are seeing throughout this postseason especially, the supporting players are often what makes the difference between the good teams and the great ones.