This is the question I keep asking myself while trying to muster enthusiasm for the 2021 Red Sox, who somehow begin spring training in two weeks despite [gestures broadly] all of this going on the world:
What has to happen for them to be good?
And as the obvious follow-up: How much of what has to happen is reasonable to expect to happen?
Before we dig into a roster that has recently added complementary pieces and yet as a whole remains a roster not yet worthy of too many compliments, we should probably define what “good” means in regard to this team’s capabilities.
The 108-win World Series champs of 2018 feel like a relic from 20 years ago at this point. This team has changed so much since then, and will probably change a lot more as Chaim Bloom rebuilds the foundation of the organization.
The 2019 followed up with 84 wins, which was wildly disappointing given that it was basically the same roster that gave us those unforgettable October memories in Los Angeles. But after last season (24 wins in 60 games, a 65-win pace in a normal 162-game season), 84 wins might feel like a triumph this year, or at least meaningful progress.
I’m setting the bar higher, though. The team with the fewest wins to make the ’19 postseason – again, our framework here since it was the most recent season with any kind of normalcy – was the 89-win Milwaukee Brewers, who earned one of the National League wild card slots.
To me, that’s what would constitute a legitimately good season for the 2021 Red Sox. Eighty-nine wins – or somewhere in the upper 80s, anyway – and viable contention for a wild card slot, even if they don’t ultimate secure one.
So what has to happen for an upper-80s win total to happen?
A lot. The short list: Eduardo Rodriguez has to return from his season lost to COVID-19 and its aftereffects to pitch as effectively as he did in his 19-win ’19 season … One of Nathan Eovaldi or Garrett Richards needs to stay healthy and produce to the level of his electric stuff … J.D. Martinez (.985 OPS during his first two seasons with the Red Sox, .680 last season) needs to reemerge as a middle-of-the-order force whether or not he has full access to the video room … Alex Verdugo needs to produce like an All-Star … Andrew Benintendi, presuming he isn’t traded, needs to remind us again why he drew all of those Fred Lynn comparisons not that long ago … Rafael Devers needs to become an MVP candidate while proving he can handle the rigors of third base … Chris Sale needs to return around June as Chris Sale, and not 1981 Frank Tanana … Xander Bogaerts, bless him, just needs to keep doing what he’s doing.
That’s a lot of needs right there. How much of that will happen? Well … some. I still believe Devers will be a superstar. It’s possible that Martinez and Benintendi were both messed up by the weird parameters of the 2020 season and will return to productive form. I think Richards will be good, though his workload will have to be monitored given that he hasn’t thrown more than 76.1 innings in a season since 2015.
The Red Sox have a greater depth of options than they’ve had in a while; it wouldn’t be surprising to see someone like Nick Pivetta emerge as a reliable member of the pitching staff. Jarren Duran’s arrival could be fun, and it’s possible that Bobby Dalbec emerges as something more than an all-or-nothing slugger (he had 8 homers and 39 strikeouts in 92 plate appearances last season) in the Dave Kingman mold.
But I’m still not sure there will be quite enough immediate quality among that depth. I do like Bloom’s recent mid-level, high-reward pickups. Adam Ottavino is a slightly better Matt Barnes, Hunter Renfroe will launch his share of baseballs into the Monster seats, and hustling Kiké Hernández is going to be a fan-favorite, especially if he’s deployed in a superutility role rather than as the everyday second baseman (he has a career .673 OPS against righthanded pitching, but .820 against lefties).
But the rotation has a question mark in every spot, and the defense, with Verdugo presumably moving to center field to replace Jackie Bradley Jr., does not look like one that will be submitting Web Gems to ESPN every night. Most of their defenders rate from flawed to average. I’ll miss the days when Mookie Betts ranged around in right, Bradley (the Paul Blair of his time) had it all covered center, and the Red Sox could have gotten away with playing the Ted Williams statue in left. (Not a bad idea, actually. You know the Ted statue would hit .280, minimum, with a bunch of walks.)
This offseason reminds me a little bit of the winter of 2012-13, when, coming off the 69-win Bobby Valentine experience, general manager Ben Cherington went out and added mid-level veteran quality in bulk, signing Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Koji Uehara, Ryan Dempster and Stephen Drew, among others. That team rallied around the city in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, rallied on the field against the Rays, Tigers and Cardinals in October, and became a champion as beloved as it was unlikely.
Something similar – certainly not to that degree of success – just isn’t feasible this season. There’s just not enough here – enough high-end talent, enough pitching, enough in the farm system to provide help along the way. But Bloom is building, with a series of small but savvy moves, toward those better days. It’s going to take a lot for the Red Sox to be playoff-contender good this year. But they should be much more fun than they were a season ago, and that’s not a bad way to pass the summer while waiting out Bloom’s systematic build toward something great.
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