Welcome to Over The Monster’s 2023 Season Preview. Between now and Opening Day, we’ll be here to tell you anything and everything* you need to know about the upcoming season. Below is an installment in our Things We’re Excited About series, in which we do a deep dive into the things we can’t wait to watch and experience this year (because we’re not all doom and gloom! We promise!) Today, let’s talk about what it’s like to watch the team without worrying about free agency.
* Well, not everything, but a lot of things. Trust us: you don’t actually want everything, anyway; a little hunger feeds the soul.
Last night (or, um, maybe earlier today? Depending on how you want to consider the time zone stuff?) Xander Bogaerts played a competitive baseball game in the uniform of a team that wasn’t the Boston Red Sox. It wasn’t a San Diego Padres uniform either, though, it was this one:
He didn’t play particularly well, finishing 0-4 with two strikeouts in a comeback victory against the legendary Cuban National Team. But even though he looked rusty, and even though he wasn’t playing for a team that competes against the Sox, I still found that it was a kind of a bummer to watch him play. He was one of the main focal points of the broadcast, with the commentators talking about his star-power, about how he was probably the single best player in all of Pool A, about how Andrelton Simmons — one of the greatest defensive shortstops of the modern era — eagerly handed the position over to Xander out of respect for his accomplishments.
All I could think about, as I watched the game from half-a-world away, were all the things we’d be missing out on as Red Sox fans going forward. We’re not going to see Xander Bogaerts line up on the baseline of an All-Star Game with a ‘B’ on his hat anymore. We’re not going to see him mentor Marcelo Mayer into the big leagues. We’re not going to watch him chase 3,000 hits in Fenway. We're not going to see his #2 get hung up on the right field facade.
Regardless of the circumstances of how Xander left — no matter how you feel about the audaciousness of the Padres contract offer, Xander’s infield defense, the potential decline in his bat hinted at by many underlying metrics — it sucks to miss out on all that. There is real fan-value in getting to watch beloved players ascend to the status of team legends, in getting to know players so well for so long that they feel like part of the family.
Last season was weird and depressing for many reasons. But what might have been the most painful thing about the 2022 Red Sox, was that two star players at different points in their careers — Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers — had two often transcendent, sometimes frustrating, generally excellent seasons, and yet it was damn near impossible to enjoy them as a fan purely on baseball terms.
Xander’s impending free agency hung over him like a cloud all season, clearly affecting his mood. Anything good Rafael Devers did on a baseball field immediately fueled speculation about his future. It was an awful way to watch baseball, because it made the actual baseball beside the point.
This season, for the first time since 2019, that sense of impending dread has been lifted. Rafael Devers is going nowhere. Triston Casas, Brayan Bello, and Masataka Yoshida will all likely still be in Boston by the time the next World Baseball Classic comes around. Much of the rest of the team is made up of veterans we can watch and enjoy knowing in advance that their time here will be short, but hopefully memorable.
In other words: we’re finally able to focus on the baseball as it’s played on the field, as opposed to the conceptual baseball of speculative roster construction.
We don’t yet know how good that baseball will be. As has been often discussed, this is a team of laughably high variance — a season of either 75 or 90+ wins is possible. We could see dynamic star turns from truly elite talents like Devers and Chris Sale. We could see relative unknowns like Casas, Yoshida, or Brandon Walter become fan-favorites. Or, we could see an old team break down and sink, with the youth not ready to keep it afloat.
But no matter how the season ultimately turns out, I am relatively certain of one thing. When Rafael Devers hits a late-innings homer to give the Sox the lead against the Yankees, the commentators won’t immediately start talking about his contract. Instead, they’ll talk about his greatness. Instead of worrying about him being sent to a contender at the trade deadline, we are free to imagine him hanging out during the Home Run Derby with a ‘B’ on his hat for years to come. We are free to imagine him chasing 400 home runs at Fenway, mentoring Miguel Bleis into the big leagues, and seeing his #11 get hung up on the right field facade.
There are worse ways to watch baseball. We know that now, even if we didn’t before.