Spring is the time in baseball when you can convince yourself of just about anything, up to and including that [insert any team not named the Rockies, Pirates, or Orioles] might be alright. That the Red Sox have done so might be nothing more than a function of “they can’t be any worse” being their unofficial 2021 tagline, but the world’s still on fire, so we may as well enjoy it.
They’ve built a roster almost entirely out of straggler Legos; I called it Patriots-like the last time I was here, back before Bill Belichick reminded the NFL who the boss is. It’s a collection of guys who might be pleasant surprises, but who — at this point in their careers — seem far-fetched to be the centerpiece whenever the next great Red Sox team shows itself. Which is fine, considering the last two years have established there should be zero shock should any one of them be traded or allowed to walk away.
— Boston.com (@BostonDotCom) March 22, 2021
It is, to be honest, a pretty difficult time to wrap your arms around any baseball team, the Red Sox included. The sport is heaving mud at the wall in its now-assimilated minors, testing a litany of rule changes to try and recapture its days of not being as baseball-like as it is now, and every indication is we’re on the precipice of a sapping labor war.
I will scream until I’m Pantone 294 in the face about there being more to the Mookie Betts departure than “the Red Sox wouldn’t pay him;” heck, he told you himself in GQ. Still, hard to blame anyone who notes, if the Red Sox aren’t going to invest in Mookie Betts, in their entirely homegrown outfield of the future, why should anyone invest in the idea we’re looking at a single generational member of the franchise?
And yet, the history of the Red Sox is rooted in love in spite of itself. And yet, there is still an “and yet.”
The players who are here have hit better than any other team in the Grapefruit League this spring despite Alex Verdugo being basically nonexistent. The pitchers who are here have shown the benefits of the focus on depth, to the point that last season’s best reliever, Phillips Valdéz, has been generally dreadful and could easily miss the Opening Day roster.
They might be alright. Perhaps just as importantly, they might be interesting. And, in the nebulous way that spring training yields annually, let’s look at three reasons why.
Baseball is lousy with all-or-nothing sluggers these days, thus some of that rule tinkering in the minors mentioned above, but it’s still something else to watch. Just ask old friend Kevin Cash the other day.
Kevin Cash: “uh-oh” pic.twitter.com/kHP1wXh0KG
— Red Sox Stats (@redsoxstats) March 22, 2021
No one in the Grapefruit League has slugged like Dalbec this spring — only teammate Michael Chavis can match his six home runs, and Dalbec’s have been absolute moon shots (plus his .889 slugging percentage has been better). He came to camp in the vaunted best shape of his life, talking of being stronger and more explosive after dropping 10 pounds over the winter, and has performed as such.
Sixty-four percent of his plate appearances this spring have resulted in one of the three true outcomes — 6 homers, 6 walks, and 15 strikeouts in 42 PAs. It would seem unsustainable if he hadn’t managed 62 percent (8 HR, 10 BB, 39 K in 92) in his Red Sox debut last season. He’s so modern baseball, he should be incomprehensibly blacked out on MLB.TV. He’s got Chaim Bloom dropping Seinfeld references on the radio broadcast. Between he and Franchy Cordero, we’re almost guaranteed a summer of Wily Mo Pena references, and who can hate that?
With essentially zero competition at his position and looking ticketed for the low-pressure ninth spot in the order, Dalbec’s in a prime spot to surprise. And he’s done nothing to discourage such an idea in Florida.
Eduardo Rodríguez is ticketed to start Opening Day, and looks as fully back from his life-threatening illness as anyone can be just building up for a season. Garrett Richards, not entirely unlike Rodríguez, has built a career on potential, and the 32-year-old spin rate maven is buzzing with it again after a mechanical adjustment midway through spring games sparked a pair of strong appearances. (One, were it all not feeling dreamy enough, coming in a back-field game.)
The rotation of Rodríguez, Nate Eovaldi, Martín Pérez, Richards, and Nick Pivetta looks cromulent, especially considering Chris Sale lurks as a late-season addition. The bullpen, as noted above, seems even a tick better — Matt Barnes is being pushed by Adam Ottavino, Hirokazu Sawamura has the surprise factor, and there’s enough of a variety of usable pieces that the whole thing feels destined to get the job done.
Prominent among them is Garrett Whitlock, a flyer of flyers. Plucked from the Yankees Double A club after they left him unprotected in the Rule 5 Draft, Whitlock’s faced 35 batters this spring and allowed eight hits and one run, with 12 strikeouts against zero walks. Hard to ask for anything more, and hard not to get excited at the possibilities. Especially when he sounds like the kind of guy you ache to cheer for, one who credits Tommy John surgery in July 2019 with saving his life and resharpening his focus on the incredible opportunity before him in baseball.
“I’m not surprised with what he’s been able to do out there on the field just because of the way he’s handling himself in and around the clubhouse and out there in the bullpen,” Eovaldi told MassLive. “He’s kind of our secret weapon right there.”
“I’m not taking anything for granted anymore,” Whitlock told the Boston Herald. “Just loving every second out there and that’s all. That’s what I’m focused on right now, loving everything and listening to veterans and soaking everything up.”
What’s more nebulous than a manager’s influence?
A season after Ron Roenicke was sent into the season with a paper clip and a hand mirror for his lineup card, Cora has an overflowing tool box and a reputation — earned in just two major-league seasons in charge — as a guy who gets the most out of his players. We talk about how valuable he is to Rodríguez. To Rafael Devers. To Christian Vázquez, who wasn’t mentioned here but is closer to being one of the best catchers in baseball than you think he is.
Cora is the universal hopium needed on a roster built around the premise that, “Well, a couple of these guys will have a breakout, right?” He might roll out 162 different lineups this season — Verdugo and Hunter Renfroe are the only two full-time outfielders on the roster, and their first baseman is a minor-league third baseman — and we somehow might want him to. Cora felt like the perfect fit in November, a damaged-goods manager to a damaged-goods franchise, and he feels it even more so days from a new season where a playoff berth would genuinely feel like something worth celebrating again.
You can see Cora winning again. Which means you can see the Red Sox winning again. And that you can see yourself caring again.
Who can ask for anything more out of spring training?