The 2021 Red Sox was an undeniable success and one that saw a number of positive developments for the organization as a whole, both in the majors and elsewhere. For this week’s staff roundtable, I tasked staff with selecting what they viewed as the one biggest single development for the season.
For me, the biggest development was the utility relief role. Garrett Whitlock and Tanner Houck were brilliant in relief this season and a big reason why the bullpen was a success. The bullpen was my biggest concern going into the season and it was refreshing to talk about it in a positive light on the Red Seat pod this year. Cora’s ability to use those two guys in a bunch of different ways was a big reason why. We’re not sure what the state of the bullpen will look like going into 2022, or whether both or none of them will still be there for that matter, but it’s clear that role is important to Cora. When it’s filled with quality arms like we saw this year, it allows the other bullpen arms to play up a bit.
The biggest development for the Red Sox this year was Chaim Bloom. We finally got to see what Bloom was capable of and learned just how good he is at finding diamonds in the rough. The Rays frequently find players that outproduce their perceived value but Bloom was able to find legitimate stars this offseason and give up nothing to get them.
Sure he missed on Danny Santana and Franchy Cordero, but his success rate was incredible. Enrique Hernández was a utility player with some pop and become a dynamic star with one of the best postseason runs in team history. Hunter Renfroe was cut by the Rays after hitting .159 in 2020. Bloom signed him to a $3.1 million deal that Renfroe massively outperformed. Adam Ottavino was a solid addition, and they were given a prospect to take off the Yankees hands. Hirokazu Sawamura was well-known but worked out for the most part. Finally, Garrett Whitlock was taken from the Rule 5 draft and was arguably the best reliever in the American League. If Bloom can even replicate half of that level of success this offseason I don’t see how the Red Sox lose the division in 2022.
The biggest development for this Red Sox team was the emergence of Garrett Whitlock. After Whitlock was selected in the Rule 5 Draft, there was an expectation he would play something of a role in the bullpen, but I don’t think anyone saw him becoming what he has. Whitlock has been nothing short of a lockdown closer for the past few months, finishing the season with a 1.96 ERA and pitching in extreme high-leverage situations during the playoffs. He was easily the Sox’ best reliever as a 25-year-old rookie, and it seems like the sky is the limit for him. Will he stick in his role as a reliever? Will he transition back into a starter? Whitlock has a great chance to continue his success no matter what role ends up in. Thanks, Yankees!
Maybe it is because I’m super focused on Red Sox prospects but the amateur scout team, headed by Paul Taboni, deserves some recognition. In 2020, the Sox surprised the world with the selection of Nick Yorke in the first round. They then followed that up with the selection of Blaze Jordan. Both players performed very well in their assignment this year, much to my surprise. I’m not saying that I was disappointed in the Yorke pick, but with how well he hit this year, obviously the crew knew who they were drafting. I was a bit more skeptical of Jordan, but he showed that he might be more than just a free-swigging slugger type.
Bayleigh Von Schneider
Whether or not Alex Cora made a few questionable managerial decisions en route to a game 6 ALCS loss, his presence was felt throughout the season. Alex Cora is a player’s manager. He is the type of manager that sticks with Enrique Hernández at leadoff, and nine times out of ten it pays off for him, it sure did with the super utility player. Players love playing for Cora, and they usually play to their best abilities. I firmly believe the Red Sox in 2021 would not have made the ALCS without Cora steering the ship. He is a difference-maker. Love him, or hate him, the Red Sox organization is better off having Cora, and for me he was the single development for the 2021 season that was the biggest positive.
The biggest development for the Red Sox this season was pitching. Even after losing pitching development wiz Brian Bannister, the Red Sox kept Nathan Eovaldi healthy, eased back Chris Sale, and Eduardo Rodriguez, got two different runs of excellence out of Garrett Richards (first as a starter then as a fireman reliever), revived Adam Ottavino, unleashed Garrett Whitlock and Tanner Houck. Oh, and turned Nick Pivetta into a, sometimes, unhittable ace. When the OTM crew projected wins at the start and middle of the season it was heavily influenced by the rotation and bullpen. If you knew about the first and second half splits Matt Barnes would have who would believe the Sox could make it to the ALCS? There’s a lot to unpack in this team pitching performance.
There isn’t one magic answer as to why, except that Chaim Bloom gets some credit here. At the end of the day a few of the pickups were his decisions, his word is the final word on training philosophy, and for the first time in a long time it felt like the Sox were making the under-the-radar pickups and transformations with pitches every team but Boston seemed to make since every year became “year of the pitcher.” Now some of that has been captured and the trick becomes: can they do it again?
The solidification of the starting rotation’s present and future is the development I was most pleased with this year. That may seem like an odd thing to say since two of the guys pegged for the rotation to start the year (Martín Pérez and Garrett Richards) were demoted to the bullpen, but even with that, I think the Red Sox have a much clearer and promising future on this part of the roster, and it was built on the progress made this year.
Nathan Eovaldi had the best season of his career and proved he is a top of the rotation starter. Chris Sale wasn’t fully himself when he returned in the summer, but he flashed enough of what made him great before to believe that with a full offseason to recover, he should be good to go in 2022. Eduardo Rodriguez definitely had his struggles this season, but his peripheral numbers showed he was better than the back-of-the-baseball-card stats suggest. Assuming the Red Sox re-sign him, he’ll be a strong contributor.
Elsewhere, Nick Pivetta was a solid guy every five days and you can’t ask for much more from someone who is ostensibly your fourth or fifth starter. Then there was the development of Tanner Houck. He still didn’t seem to have the stamina to go too long in games, but I think constantly going back and forth to the minors and being used in multiple roles didn’t help him there. He should be in the starting rotation next season, giving the Red Sox a pretty strong starting five. It’s unlikely they’ll be as fortunate with health again next year, but entering the winter with a reliable and high-upside rotation already figured out is a good position to be in.
The arrival of Garrett Whitlock and Tanner Houck can’t be understated. Red Sox depth among their position player prospects has been obvious and only got stronger with the addition of Marcelo Meyer during last year’s draft, but the pitching depth is light by comparison. Boston has opted to spend more in free agency to acquire their top-line pitchers in past years but seem to have diverged from that strategy. Veterans like David Price and Craig Kimbrel, two major pillars of the 2018 championship team, have moved on, leaving high leverage spots open. Whitlock — a strong contender for American League Rookie of the Year — and Houck — a young and still raw Chris Sale clone — stepped up admirably and made major contributions for a team that overachieved in 2021. Both should play a big role in the coming years, injecting youth into a team that is getting progressively older.
Since he was hired to be the Red Sox’ chief baseball officer two years ago, Chaim Bloom has placed an emphasis on competing in the present while also building for the future. In 2021, I feel like the Red Sox did just that. Not only did Bloom and co. field a competitive team that was a few wins shy of an American League pennant, but they also improved their farm system while doing so.
Before the 2021 season started, Boston had the 20th-ranked farm system in baseball according to Baseball America. By the time Baseball America unveiled their midseason rankings in August, though, Boston had the No. 9 farm system in all of baseball.
Whether it be selecting Marcelo Mayer with the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft or having Nick Yorke (last year’s first-round pick) show out at A-ball, the Red Sox farm system and the organization’s player development pipeline is clearly on the rise. It goes well beyond just those two prospects, but I believe this was the single biggest positive development for the Sox this year.
Two words: Garrett Whitlock. Shelly and I talked about him on every episode of the On Deck Podcast from Episode One at the start of March until he graduated from prospect status in late May. I never once felt like it was an irrelevant topic. As a Rule Five pick from the Yankees, Whitlock needed to stay on the roster for the entire season. That was certainly never a problem. He looked electric in spring training gaining confidence in his change-up as a third pitch, with a little help from Matt Andriese. He then opened his career by throwing 13 1/3 consecutive shutout innings, giving up his first run on May 2.
Whitlock’s 1.96 ERA was fourth in all of baseball for pitchers who threw 70 innings or more. His 73 1/3 innings over 46 appearances (and 8 1/3 playoff innings) were carefully managed by the Red Sox as a pitcher coming off of Tommy John surgery, rarely even throwing on one day of rest. Whitlock threw the final outs of the Wildcard game against the Yankees and threw the final six outs against the Rays in the Game Four ALDS clincher, getting a well-deserved win, to go along with eight regular-season wins in relief. A rotation move is hopefully next, where the sky is the limit in my mind for Garrett Whitlock.
I am going to stick with the obvious pitching theme running through all of these choices but switch it up a bit to hone in on the upper minors pitching depth. For a long time, the biggest issue for the Red Sox was that they rarely had pitchers they could call upon in Triple-A to fill holes. They were fortunate to stay absurdly healthy in 2021 and not need to call upon the depth too much, but it’s there. Houck and Whitlock should be in the rotation depth picture to start next season, but even after that guys like Connor Seabold and Kutter Crawford took big steps to help in one role or another, and in the bullpen guys like Kaleb Ort and Durbin Feltman look ready to do the same. And beyond that, at the next level there are pitchers like Brayan Bello and Josh Winckowski, among others, who could be ready later in 2022.
The Red Sox talk a lot about being sustainable, and while I may have my disagreements on what that means in certain respects, I think everyone can agree that a big part of it is having pitching depth on hand waiting in the wings at all time.
I believe the biggest development of this year was trust within the organization. This group of guys seems right-knit, comfortable with each other, and overall just a good mesh. The ownership regained trust with Cora, players gained trust between each other, and the fans gained trust in Chaim Bloom and the organization’s path moving forward. All in all, this season was a net positive, and that cannot be forgotten going into next year.
I believe that the biggest positive development to come out of 2021 was Chris Sale coming back and showing that he has indeed returned to full health. Sale returned to throw 42 and ⅔ innings very effectively pitching to a 3.16 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP. The velocity and the command wasn’t always what we have come to expect from a healthy Sale, but we saw some flashes, especially in his last postseason start, of the vintage ace. With a full offseason under his belt I believe that Sale can return to his pre-surgery dominance. If that’s the case it really transforms this rotation heading into 2022.