There were a whole lot of issues with the 2020 Red Sox. To boil it all down to one particularly problem would be an exercise in oversimplifying. The team dug itself in an early hole, and the offense played a part in that. They were terrible with situational hitting, and guys like Rafael Devers, Andrew Benintendi and J.D. Martinez were nonexistent in key parts of the order. The defense and baserunning were both sloppy, with mistakes being made in both areas. There was no energy in any facet of the game, and that showed itself time and time again. But, no one would deny that if you were to boil things down to one issue, it would be the pitching, and specifically the lack of depth on that front.
Looking at this year’s club, the Red Sox still don’t have a great pitching staff. There’s certainly some upside here, but if you’re breaking things down as position players versus pitchers, that first group still stands out in front. And there are plenty of questions around this staff, most notably with health but also in some cases relating to performance. The issues haven’t been solved, nor has it really gotten all that close.
But, things are exponentially better than they were last summer. The staff has improved in just about every area, ranging from the top of the rotation to their late-inning arms in the bullpen to the back of their rotation, to the middle relief depth, but most notably, the talent further down the depth chart is simply miles and miles ahead of where they were in 2020. And even going beyond depth in general, the Red Sox have young, prospect-caliber depth ready to come up in a way that really hasn’t been true for years.
We’re seeing that first-hand already on Saturday afternoon. It was clear Boston would likely be dealing with health issues in some fashion basically all season with this rotation, and it popped up early with Eduardo Rodriguez dealing with a bit of a dead arm issue. The good news is it doesn’t seem like it’s anything too serious. The other good news is they have one of their best prospects ready to take the ball, with Tanner Houck getting the spot start for the second game of the season. That is such a marked change from last year that it’s almost impossible to put into words. As I try to articulate it to myself, it’s basically unintelligible gibberish.
It doesn’t stop with Houck, either. Connor Seabold is another one of the system’s top prospects, ranking in the top 10 on most lists. He should be ready to contribute and make spot starts perhaps by Memorial Day, if not earlier. Garrett Whitlock will be in the majors all season, and if he pitches well in relief early I would fully expect some starts in his future. Eduard Bazardo is a relief prospect, probably the best in the system, and he can come up and contribute essentially right away. Bryan Mata’s injury throws some doubt into his timeline, but if he does avoid surgery a late-season contribution isn’t out of the question. And then you have guys a little further down like Thad Ward and Durbin Feltman who could play themselves into the depth picture in the second half.
Having this kind of young depth is good for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, it’s just fun! As a fan, it’s fun rooting for prospects and rookies who are nothing but potential. We’ve never seen them fail in the majors, so we can dream on the upside. This is especially true for a Red Sox team that may not be in contention. It’s hard watching any team that’s not in contention, but it’s at least a little easier if some pieces of the next good team are there and contributing.
There’s also the on-the-field positives here revolving around the present upside. The base expectation isn’t that any of these players will step in and be stars right away. Otherwise, they’d be in the majors to start the season. But there is real upside here, and a chance that they not only fill a gap on a short-term basis without blowing up, but actually provide real, tangible value. That’s often not the case for veteran depth. No disrespect to guys like Matt Hall and Zack Godley and the rest of the band of misfits filling in last season, but there was no upside there. The goal was “Keep us in the game for four innings. Please.” Even the chance of getting, say, six innings of one-run ball from Houck or Seabold is a change of pace for us, but also for the team who doesn’t have to feel so defeated right off the bat.
In an ideal world, we wouldn’t really be talking about the Red Sox depth but rather good, reliable pitchers on the major-league roster. We’ve spent all winter discussing the risk here and their potential to have done more. But two things can be true at once, and the second part is their depth is both better and younger, bringing a much higher ceiling to the picture. It’s something to appreciate, both coming off last season and just generally from an organization that has simply not had any success bringing up pitchers from their farm system.