It’s no secret that the Red Sox have an uphill battle to contention in the coming year. They weren’t a favorite for the division even before the roster shifted with the trade of Mookie Betts and David Price, and after that they likely fell out of a favorite for a wildcard for many. The uncertainty with Chris Sale has only added to the difficulties. The Yankees remain the division favorite even with their latest rash of injuries. The Rays are probably the consensus pick for the top wildcard spot two. That leaves Boston somewhere in the mix with the White Sox, Indians, Athletics and Angels for that final wildcard spot, and there’s a pretty decent argument for them being last among that group. The Red Sox aren’t dead in the water, but it’s certainly an uphill battle.
The thing is, their roster isn’t exactly a mystery. There are, of course, some wildcards just like there are with any roster in baseball, but generally speaking we have a good idea of what to expect. They have a very clear strength at the plate, as their lineup has plenty of talent even after the Betts trade. They have a dynamic trio in the middle with Rafael Devers, J.D. Martinez and Xander Bogaerts, plus potential breakouts in Michael Chavis, Andrew Benintendi and Alex Verdugo. On the flip side, their rotation is probably going to be a weakness all year. They have no idea what to expect, if anything, from Sale, and Nathan Eovaldi has a lengthy injury history.
Good hitting and bad pitching won’t exactly cancel each other out because nothing is that perfect and whichever side is louder will be a deciding factor. That said, they can also help themselves by doing a lot of the little things well to gain some marginal edges. Add in marginal value in enough different areas, and suddenly that can add up to a difference-making degree.
What exactly do we mean by the little things? Well, there’s a lot of them! But I have a few in mind in particular, starting with base running. This is an area of the game that can often go under-discussed, because over large samples it often doesn’t factor into a team’s success (or lackthereof) in a significant way. In smaller samples, though, it can literally cost teams games here and there. This was one of the areas the Red Sox were bad last year, ranking 23rd by FanGraphs’ base running metric and 20th by Baseball Prospectus’. Betts was one of the best baserunners in baseball, so they lose a big positive there. They’ll have to find another way to find value on the base paths, likely leaning heavily on Xander Bogaerts. More important than that is Andrew Benintendi becoming a force with his legs, which he is capable of but has held himself back with poor decision-making, and Rafael Devers doing less.
Defense is going to be another big area for the Red Sox, and is one of the ways I expect to see more emulation of the Rays. According to FanGraphs, Boston ranked just 24th in total shifts put on last season despite facing the second-most number of batters on the year. It’s important for any team that is looking for small edges to find any way to eliminate runs from opponents, but it’s particularly important for a Red Sox team that is going to struggle on the mound. It’s also important to consider that for as long as Sale is out, the Red Sox rotation is full of contact-oriented pitchers beyond Eduardo Rodriguez. They need to make all of the plays. Of particular importance in my eyes are Bogaerts and Devers on the left side of the infield. Both of them took steps forward last year, but both have had enough issues in the past that even a step back could be more damaging to this team than the value numbers may indicate.
Boston is also going to need a deep and effective bullpen, which is far from a sure thing. Good teams obviously stock up on big-time late-inning arms, which become particularly important in the postseason when you can lean more heavily on your top talent. Over a long season, though, you need to have more than a few reliable options. I am reasonably confident in Brandon Workman, Matt Barnes, Josh Taylor, Darwinzon Hernandez and Marcus Walden in the Red Sox bullpen. I wish they had more elite talent in that group, of course, but I think they will all be reliable over the season. Given how many short outings are likely to emanate from their rotation as well as the reality of injuries, they’ll need more than those five guys. Boston is going to need at least a few more to step up. They have a pile of pitchers who can, like Heath Hembree, Austin Brice, Ryan Brasier, and Colten Brewer, among others, but this needs to be a top-to-bottom top-third bullpen in baseball this season.
Finally, the Red Sox need some success stories from the upper levels of the farm system. I think the system is a little underrated right now, not really in terms of national rankings because they lack the high-end talent needed to score highly in that arena, but in the depth department. They have a lot of role players developing that have made it up to the top couple of levels. If one or two can break out and give the Red Sox unexpected impact production, or at least impact production that is not currently being counted on, that would be huge. That means guys like Bobby Dalbec or Tanner Houck hitting their 2020 ceiling, or guys like C.J. Chatham or Kyle Hart being more than up-and-down depth pieces, or guys like Chad De La Guerra or Durbin Feltman making real impacts this summer. There are a lot of options with low odds, but if a couple beat the odds that launches the Red Sox up.
If you were asking me to pick the playoffs right now, I would not include the Red Sox among the six American League teams. That is not the same, however, as saying it’s impossible. Boston needs a ton to go right if they are going to make the playoffs, and a lot of that lies in the rotation. It is going to be a tight race for that second wildcard spot, though, and the team that can hit their marks in these smaller areas of the game is going to put themselves in the best position to avoid October tee times.