After an offseason of uncertainty for both the league and the team itself, the Red Sox 2021 officially began on Wednesday when pitchers and catchers reported to Fort Myers for Spring Training.
This year’s club enters spring training with a number of questions to be answered. For the second year in a row, there’s significant player turnover as Chaim Bloom transitions the roster from Dave Dombrowski’s group to his own. On top of that, returning players are trying to bounce back from what was, for a number of reasons, a wildly untraditional season.
Who is in the best position to benefit from these changes? Will Alex Cora’s presence help those who struggled in 2020 bounce back? And what are the some of the new names to know? Let’s get into it.
Eduardo Rodriguez returns
2019 looked like it was going to be the beginning of a career breakout for Eduardo Rodriguez. He stayed healthy, set career-highs in most major statistical categories, and finished sixth in Cy Young voting.
Unfortunately, Rodriguez was unable to build on that momentum in 2020. He tested positive for COVID-19 in July, which led to a heart condition that held him out for the entire 2020 season. Rodriguez said he felt “100 years old” at times while battling both conditions, but was able to start throwing in December. He’s expected to be ready for Spring Training, although reports have indicated the Red Sox intend to manage his workload carefully.
Chris Sale remains out indefinitely as he recovers from Tommy John surgery he had last March. That leaves Rodriguez as the unquestioned ace to start the season, if he’s up for it. Rebounding from a year away from competitive activity is no small feat, but the 27-year-old picking up where he left off in 2019 would be huge for the Red Sox pitching staff – as well as Rodriguez, who is in a contract year.
Alex Cora’s impact
The 2020 Red Sox struggles were highlighted by some of their core hitters taking steps back. Rafael Devers average dropped by .048 points, while JD Martinez was down .091. Not ideal for the middle of the lineup.
A disappointing 2020 isn’t the only thing Devers and Martinez have in common – both are close with Alex Cora as well. Martinez described himself as “heartbroken” after Cora left the Red Sox before last season, and Devers has described Cora as “a father figure.”
Will having Cora back in the dugout help the Red Sox sluggers break their slump? It should provide at least a mental boost, and for a cerebral hitter like Martinez that could make a significant difference.
If the Red Sox want to be truly competitive in 2021, they’ll need Devers and Martinez to hit like they did last time they were playing for Cora. We’ll see early on if their approach trends back to where it was in 2019.
Which players will platoon?
After adding players like Marwin Gonzalez and Kiké Hernandez to a roster that already features Michael Chavis, Jonathan Arauz, and Christian Arroyo, the Red Sox will have tremendous lineup flexibility to start 2021. “Who plays where” won’t be an overarching topic, but a day-to-day question.
Second base is the biggest question in the Red Sox infield. Any of the players named above could fill the role, meaning there should be a pretty intense competition during spring training. First base could see move movement throughout the season as well. Chavis likely has the inside track, but if he ends up at second base or struggles early in the year, Bobby Dalbec could get a chance.
In the outfield, just about every spot involves moving pieces. Alex Verdugo is likely locked into a lineup spot, but has the versatility to be moved around as needed. Franchy Cordero and Hunter Renfroe could be lefty/righty platoon candidates on the corners, with Gonzalez and Hernandez factoring in as well. Then of course, there’s still the unknown in Jackie Bradley Jr., who remains a free agent.
Who sticks at the bottom of the rotation?
Lack of top-end talent wasn’t the only thing hurting the Red Sox rotation in 2020, depth was an issue as well. When injuries took their toll, the team was forced to turn to openers and bullpen days multiple times per series.
Entering 2021, Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi, Garrett Richards, and Martin Perez are penciled in to the top four spots. Nick Pivetta and Garrett Whitlock should spend spring training battling for the final opening. The team, and Chaim Bloom specifically, have been vocally high on Pivetta, who was acquired at last year’s deadline in the Brandon Workman trade. Whitlock is a Rule-5 Draft selection, and has to remain remain on the active roster for the duration of the season.
Then there’s the matter of who is next in line to start games, especially given the injury history of the Red Sox top three arms. Prospects Tanner Houck and Mike Shawaryn could factor into those roles, and non-roster invitee Stephen Gonsalvez could enter that conversation as well with a strong March performance.
It may not happen right away, but the Red Sox organizational depth should lead to the team needing key contributions from prospects during the season. Spring training will be a chance for the team to identify who is ready and who isn’t.
A few names to watch were mentioned above. Bobby Dalbec played in 23 games last year, and is a candidate for a more immediate impact in a corner infield role. Like Dalbec, Tanner Houck had a brief but successful major league stint last season. The 24-year-old could be in for an expanded role in the rotation in 2021.
Looking a little further ahead, Jarren Duran is definitely a name Red Sox fans should get familiar with. The 24-year-old outfielder has produced at every level of the minor leagues, and was named to the Caribbean Series All-Star team this winter. He has plus-plus speed with above average power. Durran in with the team in Fort Myers for spring training as a non-roster invitee.
On the mound, Connor Seabold and Durbin Feltman are both players to watch. Seabold was acquired along with Pivetta in the Workman trade last year. The 25-year-old could be called on if the starting rotation really starts to thin out. SoxProspects.com projects Seabold and a mid-to-back end starting pitcher.
Feltman was a third-round pick in 2018, and was considered one of the most major league-ready players in his draft after his performance as TCU’s closer. A rough 2019 set him back, but if he can turn things around early in 2021, he could end up in the Red Sox bullpen at some point.
Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth.