After long last, Opening Day is finally here, and the Red Sox are going to get their 2022 season underway against the Yankees on Friday afternoon, with Nathan Eovaldi taking on Gerrit Cole. It’s a fascinating season coming up for Boston, who are trying to build off a surprisingly successful 2021, but doing so in one of the most loaded divisions that we’ve seen in some time. By many projection systems, the Red Sox are fourth among in that group, but the margin between the top and bottom of the foursome is hardly an impossible gap to pass. With a few breaks, Boston could easily finish atop this division and no one would be totally shocked, in the same way that they could finish well behind the first place club and it wouldn’t be flabbergasting.
With that in mind, before we get the season started I’ve been thinking about the players who are going to make the biggest difference as X-Factors in this season. It’s certainly not to say these are the best players, or most valuable, to be clear, but we basically know that guys like Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, Trevor Story, and others are going to produce. Below are five players for whom there is a wide range of possibilities, and who will have a big enough role on the team that where they land on that spectrum of possibilities will heavily impact where this season goes for the Red Sox. I have also taken the liberty of ranking them in order of their importance to the season, because what’s a preseason article without rankings?
5. Bobby Dalbec
Spoiler alert, but this list is dominated by pitching. However, we’re going to get started with a position player, and one for whom I think there’s a fair argument he has the widest range of possibilities on the roster. We saw both versions of Dalbec in 2021, too. In the first half of the season, he swung out way too much, expanded the zone far too often, and was close to a black hole in the bottom portion of the Red Sox lineup. Then for most of the second half, he showed more patience, chose better pitches to drive and tapped into his plus-plus raw power on a regular basis. The answer is almost certainly somewhere in the middle of these two versions of the slugger, but toward which end it skews could go either way. The negative sample was larger, but the presence of Kyle Schwarber was a legitimate reason for the change. The reason he’s not higher on this list comes down to the offense having other players who can pick up the slack, and the fact that if he really struggles for a long time they have a high-upside replacement in Triston Casas.
4. Nick Pivetta
When the Red Sox first acquired Nick Pivetta, it was along with Connor Seabold, who seemed like the bigger get at the time. Pivetta was more of a wildcard who looked like he’d never be a major-league starter but was worth one more shot. He’s not still a major-league starter, but he’s the de facto number two on a contending Red Sox team to start the season. Now, that certainly says more about the state of Boston’s rotation than Pivetta, but the righty does have some upside that can make him. His stuff is legitimately nasty when he’s at his best, and he had stretches last season where he looked like a good number three and borderline number two. The issue is he also had stretches where he again looked like a reliever. I think the floor for Pivetta is higher than I’ve thought it would ever be, which leaves him relatively low on this list, but if he gets closer to his ceiling than I expect then the Red Sox rotation suddenly doesn’t look so rough.
3. Matt Barnes
There are plenty of question marks surrounding Boston’s rotation, but it pales in comparison to the bullpen. If we weren’t just limiting this to players, the bullpen as a whole would probably be number one. But Barnes is sort of the face of that, and continues this trend we’ve seen of returning players coming off a rollercoaster season. Barnes’ may have been the most extreme. For the first half of the season, he had a stake in the best reliever in baseball conversation (statistically for the season to that point, that is), but after the All-Star break he totally tanked, to the point that he not only lost his closer role but was off the playoff roster altogether come October, save for an appearance as an injury replacement. There are backups if he falters out of the gate again, such as newcomer Jake Diekman (who is also extremely volatile) and Garrett Whitlock (whose exact role is up in the air, and the team probably doesn’t want him limited to late innings), but the ideal scenario for this bullpen is that Barnes claims the ninth inning convincingly yet again. He’ll need to find a new gear, though, because his velocity was down in spring.
2. Chris Sale
We mentioned above that Pivetta was the de facto number two to start the season, and that is because of Sale, who of course will start the season on the 60-day injured list, keeping him on the shelf until at least June. So right there, he’s not even part of the picture for the first two months of the season. It’s possible they jump out to a crazy hot start or totally tank before he even gets on the mound. But what seems more likely to me is that they are a few games over .500, right in the thick of things but certainly not exactly where they need to be. In that scenario, a whole lot will hinge on Sale and his ability. They probably won’t need prime Sale to arrive, but he needs to look as good as he has in three or four years at this point. It’s asking a lot, but it’s also Chris Sale, so who’s to say?
1. Tanner Houck
Like I said, this list is dominated by pitching, and I’m saying Houck is the biggest X-Factor on the roster for the Red Sox in 2022. The argument is, frankly, similar to the one for Pivetta, with a couple of key differences. One is just the way I think about things, in that I’ve seen Pivetta be not that guy for too long. Getting there seems more pie in the sky than someone like Houck, who hasn’t done it either, but also doesn’t have much experience. We know he can be good over four and five innings, but the Red Sox need more than that without Sale and with all of the other questions on the pitching staff. Now he needs to take the next step and starting turning over lineups three times at least on occasion. That’ll come down with to the splitter, coming off another full offseason to work on it. The other part is that Houck’s floor is also lower due to the unknowns. There’s a real chance he ends up in the bullpen relatively early in the season if the third time through difficulties continue.
To me, the biggest difference that can be made to improve this Red Sox team is one of their starters jumping up to be a viable number two option behind Nathan Eovaldi. Houck has that upside, with real downside to go along with it.