This week's Friday FanPost prompt made me chuckle a little bit, if only for the way it was worded. Seeing the words "What's in success?" on website about a sports team tells you all you need to know about the current state of said team.
Look, I'm not gonna sugarcoat it. Red Sox fans should not have World Series aspirations in 2021; those who do are only setting themselves up for disappointment. However, I still believe there's a way for Red Sox Nation to look back on this year, come December, and smile.
It's all about managing expectations. This front office just traded the second best player on the planet a year ago, the team's ace is recovering from Tommy John surgery, and among the top 5 highest paid players on the roster is Dustin Pedroia, who (through no fault of his own) realistically has nothing left to contribute in between the lines. That's not including David Price, who is making even more money than the Laser Show to pitch in LA.
Naturally, the Sox are in rough spot right now. A championship banner might be out of the question, but there is still plenty of room for progress, and reason for optimism beyond this upcoming season.
Below is a breakdown of potential positive outcomes that can actually be achieved in the coming months, in order of excitement, as I see it. Though they aren't mutually exclusive, I don't expect them all to happen. Hopefully more than one of them will happen, but any of them would signal an improvement over the nightmare that was the 2020 Boston Red Sox.
Tier 1 - Make the playoffs
Wouldn't this be a pleasantly surprising turn of events? Everything I've written to this point paints a dark picture, which is what I expect over the next calendar year, at least in terms of the Red Sox winning games that matter. Honestly, I'll be surprised if Boston finishes north of .500, but I've been wrong before.
Murphy's Law ("anything that can go wrong, will go wrong") seemed to be in full effect last year - on and off the baseball diamond - but I've seen it work the other way around, too. Specifically, the 2013 Red Sox was a magical team that was better than the sum of its parts. There's a reason (make that multiple reasons) why they finished dead last in 2012, 2014, and 2015, and while I don't want to get carried away, I'm not too pessimistic to believe that the postseason is as untouchable for Boston as it is for, say, the Pittsburgh Pirates.
If JDM remembers how to hit, Benintendi returns to early-2018 form, E-Rod comes back and pitches like his 2019 self, Eovaldi stays healthy and pitches to his ceiling, Devers comes back in better shape, Darwinzon Hernandez takes a step forward, Bobby Dalbec cuts down on his strikeouts, Matt Barnes cuts down on his walks, Verdugo picks up right where he left off at the end of last season, and the multiple free agent additions we're all expecting (starting pitcher, closer, center fielder, maybe a second baseman) arrive and perform up to (or better than) their respective salaries, then this team could have a chance to make it to October.
Of course, that's a lot of "IF"s.
Tier 2 - Building an elite farm system (or at least continuing to improve it)
While Red Sox historians will remember 2020 as the year Boston traded Mookie away, Chaim Bloom made a lot of other moves that were less exciting, but still generally regarded as good deals for the franchise. Time will tell, but I was personally encouraged by what I saw at the trade deadline. There's still a lot of work to be done, though. To be quite frank, I believe the future should be prioritized over the 2021 season, given lack of organizational depth from top to bottom at multiple positions.
Simply put, I will be upset if the Red Sox aren't sellers at the trade deadline again this year. I don't care what the record looks like in July, Bloom and this front office should be looking to add prospects, not subtract. When you look at the Royals, part of the reason their rebuild has taken so long is because they failed to sell at the 2017 trade deadline, right before that 2015 championship core all hit free agency. The Giants are also worse off for not selling at the 2019 trade deadline, choosing to prioritize a spirited Bruce Bochy sendoff over their farm system and future seasons. The merits of this can be debated, but neither of those teams have been to the postseason since 2016, and neither appear to be particularly close to returning at the present. On the other hand, the Yankees used an OK-but-not-terrible record in 2016 as an excuse to ship off bullpen pieces like Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman at the deadline for hauls that included Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier. As a result, they've made the postseason every year since then.
Bottom line: a potential Wild Card run in 2021 simply isn't worth losing out on the opportunity to load up and be truly great for years to come. Bloom should set some limits, but be ready to take a lot of calls on virtually anybody.
Tier 3 - Getting the bounce back candidates to bounce back
The list of players who left us wanting more last year is extensive. Injured players like Chris Sale and E-Rod couldn't help it. Some guys, like Benintendi and maybe Michael Chavis, started out in a funk and never had enough time to break out of it. Some guys, like J.D. Martinez and perhaps more, seem to have an idea of exactly what went wrong, and hopefully adjustments can be made. Others, like Matt Barnes and Jose Peraza, simply weren't as good as we expected or hoped they would be. Seeing some (if not all) of these players make positive contributions in 2021 would be a big step towards getting this team back on the right track.
And hey, if some of the higher paid veterans (like Nate Eovaldi) improve their stock enough to serve as valuable commodities on the trade block this summer, all the better.
Tier 4 - Clearing more money off the books
Was the previous sentence singling out Nate Eovaldi (who in fairness, put together a pretty decent 2020 campaign) an obvious hint at where I was going with this? Look, I'm as pissed off as any baseball fan about billionaires crying poor and using finances as an excuse to try to justify stupid decisions, like trading away a generational homegrown talent, but the truth is that CBT does act as a de facto salary cap, and the more money Bloom removes from the ledger, the more he has to spend.
In case you haven't noticed, next winter's free agent class is LOADED. Moving Eovaldi or JDM (I wouldn't even be opposed to sending off Benintendi or E-Rod, if the return is good enough) could go a long ways towards increasing Bloom's budget. I'm strongly opposed to parting with assets strictly for the purposes of dumping salary, but there's a financial component to these players that can't be ignored. If an inconsistent aging player making 8 figures annually (beyond 2021) can be moved for decent prospect capital, such an option has to be considered.
Tier 5 - The return of Minor league baseball
I've lived my whole life in the mid-Atlantic coast area (Virginia, DC, North Carolina) and the now-defunct Carolina League is largely responsible for my love of baseball. I still don't know exactly what the new format will look like, whether or not I'll be able to watch the Salem Red Sox without travelling, or even if fans will be permitted to attend minor league games (though it's hard for me to imagine them playing in front of empty stadiums, given how much minor league teams rely on ticket revenue) in 2021, but I can't wait for the day I can once again visit SoxProspects.com and see updated stats from real games.
I love following Red Sox (and other top) prospects almost as much as I love watching the MLB games. The impact that minor league baseball has on the product at the major league level, baseball culture, young baseball fans, and the overall growth of the game is generally overlooked and underappreciated. How much this lost season will be felt by professional baseball players in years to come remains to be seen, but I will be welcoming back minor league action with open arms.
I've accepted that I have no say in what my favorite MLB team does, but I try to focus on what I can control. One thing I can do is show my support for the game of baseball, and once the world returns to some form of normalcy, I plan on attending many more MiLB games than I did prior to the pandemic.