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The lessons of the 2021 Red Sox

It’s not just about optimism going forward, of which there is plenty. It’s acknowledging just how close they came, and how rare that is.

MLB: Boston Red Sox-Workouts
More deadline deals, please.
Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Well that was all something. The Boston Red Sox season, I mean. I’m glad the Atlanta Braves took care of the business that the Sox couldn’t—the moral imperative of ending the Houston Astros’ year—but my season ended with the ALCS. Now a new one begins, and I return atop the horse.

The defining feature of the 2021 team, both in the moment and going forward, is optimism. I was pessimistic the team could compete this year and was proven wrong, and I’m now optimistic they can compete in the future. They are, too: the talk, from Alex Cora on down, is how this year was the start of something big.

It sure seems like it is, which kinda rules. The details have to be worked out— J.D. Martinez? Kyle Schwarber? Christian Vázquez? —but the bridge from 2018 to 2022 has been completed, load-tested, and opened to the public. If this is only the beginning, it’s a heck of a beginning.

It’s also a missed opportunity, and a big one. There are no two ways around it. The Sox could have done more at the trade deadline, doing well in grabbing Schwarber for a single mid-tier prospect. but adding little else of consequence. Another deal or two could have made a huge difference for a team whose offense, at the end, was touchdowns or nothing, and while it’s easy to say this with the benefit of hindsight a lot of us said it at the time, too. For a while it seemed like a self-fulfilling prophecy that the team’s relative inaction would sink them; they spent all of August flailing their way out of the division race, and only rebounded in late September and October to secure their play-in spot.

They cut it close, in other words, and were rewarded with about as charming a playoff run as you can get without winning it all. Make it to the show and you’ve got to take it down to be happy, ultimately, but come up just short and you can tell ‘em you’ll get ‘em next time, which is exactly what the Sox are doing. I don’t blame them, but there’s a little voice in the back of my head reminding me that these chances don’t grow on trees. There’s no guarantee the team gets back to the ALCS next year, no matter how confident they are going into 2022, and no matter what happened in 2021. After the 60-game debacle of the plague year, the Sox should know how quickly things can change.

The only truly consistencies in baseball these days, at the championship series level, is that the Astros and Dodgers will be there. The Astros spent a half-decade bottoming out to build their core, which they routinely supplement with veteran rentals, and have made five ALCS appearances in a row. The Dodgers have half of the best players in baseball, spend money like it’s going out of style and don’t seem any worse off for it, organizationally. If anything they only seem to get stronger. If they lose in the NLCS, so be it. That’s baseball.

But every deadline they try to get better, this year adding Max Scherzer and Trea Turner, an unthinkable haul for everyone else that’s just business as usual in L.A. They know how hard it is to win it all, and they act accordingly.

Next year, the Sox are going to have to do the same. If the lesson they took from 2021 was that selective inaction works, and vibes are enough to get you over the hump, then I’ll be disappointed alongside the rest of you when it probably doesn’t work. There are many ways to skin a cat—just ask the Atlanta Braves, World Series Champions—but the surest way is to hire the world’s foremost cat-skinners. The Sox could have won it all this year. They really could have. Nothing about these chances is inevitable. If they get another one, I hope they actually try to take it.