Opening Day is here. Those who have been reading through the winter and spring know where I stand with this roster, in that I don’t think it’s going to contend. But like I said: Opening Day is here. Today is not a day for downerism, but rather for optimism. And for as relatively down on the roster as I am, I certainly acknowledge there is a not-totally-unrealistic path to contention for the 2021 Red Sox. It would be a bit of a surprise, but there are ways that it can happen. Here are the five most important factors to make that a reality.
5. The bottom of the lineup steps up
The Red Sox are, in all likelihood, going to be reliant on their offense. They can’t win without pitching, but that part of the roster largely just needs to keep their head above water. The top of the lineup should be fine for the most part (more on that in a bit), but they have some upside down in the bottom half of this group that can take the offense to another level.
Largely, that comes down to Bobby Dalbec, Hunter Renfroe and Franchy Cordero. You can throw guys like Michael Chavis and even Jarren Duran in here later in the year if you’d like, but I’ll focus on the three who are here now. All three of those guys have game-changing power, but also major issues making contact. If two of those three hit to the level of, say, their 75th percentile projections, this is going to be one of the best lineups in the game, and that alone could keep them in the October picture late into the season.
4. Alex Cora’s impact
I was not the biggest fan of bringing Cora back for this season, but that has nothing to do with his actual managing qualities. I think he is one of the best in baseball in connecting with his players and getting the most out of them. This will be a test for that theory. Back in 2018, and even 2019 despite the disappointing results, he had a way of figuring out the best methods of motivation for specific players. He used tough love on Eduardo Rodriguez in 2019, which led to the best year of his career. He was a bit lighter with Rafael Devers, who played defense like never before, or since.
The Red Sox need some players to surprise this year, and Cora could be one of those marginal effects on a handful of players. Marginal improvements for a handful of players can lead to a few extra wins. And in terms of early returns on this front, Kiké Hernández sure seemed to respond to the challenges of his manager in spring, and he’ll look to carry that into a leadoff role in 2021.
3. The back of the bullpen
The Red Sox, frankly, do not have a whole lot of margin for error here this season. Not only is their roster looking very .500-ish, but they are playing in a division that has a chance to be among the most competitive in the game, to say nothing of the potential wildcard race. With all of that, it’s clear they cannot afford to blow a disproportionate number of games in the late innings.
I think the Red Sox bullpen is a little better than the general consensus, but a lot of that has to do with their depth. In terms of elite late-inning arms, both Matt Barnes and Adam Ottavino have the upside to hold those roles down very well. But they are far from sure things. If those guys don’t have it and the Red Sox blow a lot of games in the eighth and ninth innings, it’s hard to see them being good enough on other parts of the roster to overcome that.
2. J.D. Martinez bounce-back
I mentioned the top portion of the lineup above, and this has a chance to be a really special group. The Red Sox aren’t going to be the Dodgers, Yankees, Braves, or whoever else you want to put in that elite tier with their lineup, but they have a chance to be in that next tier because of the talent up top. I’m not really worried much at all about Alex Verdugo, Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers. They’ll hit.
J.D. Martinez is the X-Factor to make the top of the lineup a legitimate fear for opposing pitchers day in and day out. He obviously had a terrible season last year, especially by his standards, but there are reasons to throw those numbers away, ranging from the global pandemic that was happening to the lack of video on which he typically relies. By the same token, he’s also getting older. It wouldn’t be the most surprising thing in the world if that was just an exaggerated start to his decline. If the Red Sox are going to surprise people, they need that not to be the case. That’s not to say they need Martinez to be the 2018 version of himself (though that would be dope), but 2019 when he had a 139 wRC+ is a good goal at which to aim.
1. The health of the rotation
I don’t want to say this is the only thing that matters because that would negate the other ~875 words I just wrote, but, well, this is basically what it all comes down to. On paper to start the season, the Red Sox have a contending roster. Their pitching is miles ahead of where it was last year, and while that’s obviously the lowest bar in the history of bar heights, they’re actually solid. Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi and Garrett Richards can all be safely above average, with Rodriguez having the potential to get Cy Young votes. (He got some in 2019.) Martín Pérez can be a solid back-end arm, and one of Nick Pivetta and Tanner Houck can catch lighting in a bottle.
The issue is they have to be there for most of the year. We’re not talking perfect health, but the Red Sox can’t afford to lose three of these guys for at least three months apiece, as an example. And frankly, that is very much on the table and it is that sort of scenario that has me so down on this team. Every team can say “we need the pitching to stay healthy,” and especially this year, but few teams are in as precarious of a health situation given injury history in their rotation as the Red Sox. But, if they stay healthy, this team will be a wildcard team. I’m willing to go on the record with that. And isn’t today of all days the day to think positively?