Red Sox

Roundtable: Boston.com writers preview the 2022 Red Sox season

In this Red Sox season preview, Boston.com sports staffers answer several burning questions, including which players have to step up in 2022.

Bobby Dalbec Red Sox
Boston Red Sox's Bobby Dalbec. AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

Red Sox baseball is nearly here.

Boston will attempt to build on its ALCS run on Friday afternoon, heading to the Bronx to kick off a three-game set against the rival New York Yankees.

On the eve of the Red Sox’ season, Chad Finn, Gary Dzen, Khari Thompson, and Tom Westerholm of Boston.com sit down to answer the big questions and make a few bold predictions about the team.

Here’s their roundtable discussion, lightly edited for clarity.

GD: The Red Sox were better than people thought they would be last season but fell short in the end. Do you think last year’s ALCS run was legit, or did the Sox get a little bit lucky?

TW: Personally, I think “lucky” is a little harsh, but I do think there are valid concerns that the Sox got blazing hot at exactly the right time. For a couple of weeks, they simply could not stop hitting grand slams. When the bats cooled off to a more reasonable clip, a beat-up Astros pitching staff overcame Boston’s starters, most of whom are still here. That said, it sure seems like the offense, which was one of the best among all of the playoff teams last year, could be even better this season.

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KT: It’s hard to have a great playoff run without a little bit of both.

While the Red Sox clearly weren’t as good as their incredible first half would’ve had people believe, they were still truly a good baseball team that outperformed expectations. Purely lucky teams don’t win 92 games and unseat two division powerhouses, including the 100-win Tampa Bay Rays, on the way to the ALCS.

That said, you can’t ignore how quiet the bats went in the latter half of that Astros series and how much it seemed as if the Sox’ biggest arms just seemed to run out of juice when they needed clutch outs. Once Kiké Hernández turned back into a mere mortal later in the ALCS, it felt like everyone else did, too.

Still, the Sox proved resilient through tough times and saw unexpected heroes, like Hernandez, Hunter Renfroe, and Bobby Dalbec pop up in crucial moments down the stretch, in addition to the dominance of Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts and the stars you expected to shine. Every good team needs those factors to win, and the 2021 Sox had that.

CF: I think there’s a temptation to think of it as lucky because this wasn’t the kind of star-studded Red Sox team we’re more or less used to around here. Bogaerts and Devers are obviously great players, but Chris Sale made just nine starts coming back from Tommy John surgery. Their best reliever, Garrett Whitlock, was a Rule 5 find, and their best player in terms of WAR was Hernández, who was a role player for the Dodgers for six years.

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And there was some luck involved — they went 92-70, but their Pythagorean won-lost, based on total runs scored and runs allowed, was 88-74, so they had good fortune there. But by the end, after they had bounced the Yankees and Rays from the postseason and came two wins short of reaching the World Series, there was no other way to look at this team other than as a damn good one.

I think we also learned a bit of a lesson in terms of the way Chaim Bloom builds his team: when he brings in a player (like Christian Arroyo or Renfroe) who doesn’t seem to quite fit, having some intellectual curiosity about why that player might appeal to the Red Sox is a better approach than saying, “This guy’s a bum, why do they want him?!” But that might be too much to ask in a city with two sports radio stations and lots of bandwidth for howling. Here’s hoping a surprise trip to the ALCS forces the door to intellectual curiosity open a little more consistently this season.

GD: Speaking of Chris Sale…he should be better this year further removed from Tommy John, though his rib cage injury obviously isn’t a great start. And Trevor Story is a huge signing. But the rest of the division got better too. Did the Sox do enough this offseason to keep pace with Toronto, Tampa, and the Yankees?

KT: Adding Story to the lineup is big (assuming he can hit outside of Coors Field, of course). The Red Sox now have a gauntlet of potentially tough outs from 1-6 in the batting order, especially against right-handed pitchers. There are still some question marks — is Dalbec more what he was in the first half of 2021 or the second half? — but the Sox definitely got better at the plate.

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The pitching staff will be the true test of that question. The Red Sox didn’t make any sure-thing moves there and will seemingly count on Sale to return to something approximating his old self as a top-of-the-rotation star. Can the Red Sox really bank on Nick Pivetta to keep progressing, and some combination of Tanner Houck, Michael Wacha, and Rich Hill to fill in on the back end? And what, if anything, will they get from James Paxton when he returns? It seems the Sox will also be hoping Matt Barnes can get his groove back to close out games as well, though there are already concerns about his velocity heading into the season.

For now, it’s wait-and-see regarding how the pitching holds up.

GD: Who’s one under-the-radar player you all have your eye on? Mine’s Alex Verdugo. He’s a good player who hits for average and whose intensity is obviously infectious, but are we sure he also doesn’t have more power potential in his bat given that he’s only 25?

KT: Kutter Crawford. He’s a candidate to be this year’s Garrett Whitlock: a young right-hander with electric stuff that can eventually be counted on to shut offenses down in key situations late in games.

TW: Bobby Dalbec. After a brutal start, he finished the second half of the season slashing .269/.344/.611 with 15 of his 25 homers and 42 of his 78 RBIs, so there’s plenty of reason for optimism. But he has Triston Casas breathing down his neck. That feels like an unenviable position.

CF: I’m with Khari on Kutter Crawford. His stuff has Wiffle ball movement, and he harnessed it last season in Portland (64 Ks, 5 walks in 46.1 innings). One of the strengths — perhaps the strength — of the Rays during Bloom’s time in their front office was developing quality bullpen arms with diverse repertoires. He’s brought that to the Sox, and Crawford is poised to be another success story, though perhaps not quite as spectacular as Whitlock was last year.

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GD: What’s everyone’s biggest question mark about the team for 2022? I think the rotation without Sale and Paxton — Eovaldi, Pivetta, Houck, Wacha, and Hill — is scary after that first guy, and I’m a big believer in Houck, who’s by no means a sure thing though.

KT: Got to be the starting rotation.

Right after that concern is right field. Renfroe at least gave you some stability and production there last year. Using a platoon of Jackie Bradley Jr., Christian Arroyo and (occasionally) J.D. Martinez feels like asking for trouble.

CF: The rotation is the big ol’ question for me too, though I think they’re mitigating that some by trying to load up the bullpen. Alex Cora said Monday in announcing that Hill made the rotation that they’re hoping to get more than 70 innings out of Whitlock out of the pen. That’s almost asking him to be the classic Goose Gossage ’70s relief ace. We’re going to see a lot of five-inning starts even if things are going well.

And of course, Sale is the ultimate wild card. His velocity came back but his command did not upon returning from Tommy John surgery. That’s not unusual, but it’s time for him to stop having setbacks.

I still can’t believe they’re serious about going with Jackie Bradley Jr. in right field. He was the worst hitter in baseball last season. Has to be something else in the works there.

TW: Agreed on the rotation, so I’ll veer off course slightly as someone who loves prospects immoderately: How long will it take for the Red Sox’ young studs to break into the lineup? The aforementioned Casas, Jarren Duran, and Jeter Downs are all interesting. Nick Yorke and Marcelo Mayer will be fun to watch from afar. Prospects forever!

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GD: Tom as our Resident Worcester Guy, what are your thoughts on Durran and Casas specifically? Do you think either will make an impact as soon as this season?

I do think we will see Casas at some point, probably later in the season. Even aside from any additional depth, bringing him up would give the Red Sox a closer ahead of some important offseason decisions (and again, if I were Bobby Dalbec, I would probably avoid looking at Triple-A stats this season the way an acrobat avoids looking down while crossing a high wire).

Duran is a little more interesting. Like Chad said, the outfield situation raises some eyebrows. Duran said he was too tense last year and suggested he has figured some things out. Sure enough, he put up decent numbers in spring training and reminded everyone that he’s fast as hell. So I guess at worst, I’m quite excited to watch both of them.

GD: Chad, this one’s for you: which Red Sox player needs to make a leap this season?

Making a leap? Hmmm. A lot of different ways to look at that, from a prospect coming through big-time (it seems like this is the year Casas’s power is going to translate to games) to a veteran player having something of a bounce-back year (I’d like to see more focus from Christian Vazquez, in the batter’s box and behind the plate).

But the overall answer is Verdugo. His stats are … is “Benintendian” a word? Feels like he’s more capable than last year’s .777 OPS and 13 home runs. He’ll be 26 in May, so this is his prime, and if we don’t see more than “pretty good” out of him soon, we’ll have to assume “pretty good” is all he is. Benintendi was considered a disappointment for this level of performance.

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GD: Who’s a player on another team that you secretly (or not so secretly) root for?

TW: As a longtime Cubs fan, Javy Baez is my favorite baseball player since Sammy Sosa, and it isn’t particularly close. He started slow this spring, and there’s a very real chance he doesn’t live up to the massive contract the Tigers gave him. But quite frankly, he could hit .120 this season, and I wouldn’t care one iota. Can you put a price tag on cool tag-outs? No, you can’t, and I have two thumbs down for you if you believe otherwise.

Also put Sammy Sosa in the Hall of Fame, you cowards.

KT: Giancarlo Stanton.

Come on, who doesn’t love a guy who routinely hits the ball 178 mph and pretends to take handoffs when he comes around third base on his home run trot.

I’m also a staunch Chicago White Sox fan, so give me Tim Anderson and Jose Abreu every day of the week.

CF: I’m a Stanton stan, too, as Gary knows (we draft him every other year as co-GMs in fantasy baseball). Once upon a time, Theo Epstein’s plan was to acquire him or Jason Heyward to pair with Bogaerts on the “next great Red Sox team.”

But if it’s uncouth to like a Yankee, I’ll say Zack Greinke being back with the Royals makes me happy.

GD: I’ll say Vlad Jr., who at the tender age of 23 makes me hopeful that baseball may have another resurgence left. I may regret this one, though, if the Blue Jays start contending regularly for World Series and Vlad is the reason the Sox can’t get past Toronto for like a decade.

GD: Let’s close on this: what’s one bold prediction about the Red Sox that could come true this season?

KT: The Red Sox will make the wild card again, and Triston Casas will get an extra-base hit in his first Major League at-bat.

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TW: Rafael Devers finishes top three in MVP voting.

An MVP win would be shocking (Shohei Ohtani exists, after all). But the AL East is stacked, and the Red Sox have a history of surprising people. If they challenge for the division and Devers (as expected) is their best player, a relatively straight line could be drawn from Devers’ name to the MVP conversation.

Importantly, he also shares a name with my 4-year-old son, who got very excited whenever Rafael Devers came up last season. So I’m hoping for this outcome.

GD: Mine is that Tanner Houck will become an unquestioned, middle-of-the-rotation starter.

He’s too talented, and it’s been too long since the Red Sox drafted and developed a legitimate starter. But he was awesome last year in limited innings (11.3 K/9, 1.13 WHIP). Sometimes a prospect doesn’t show he can stretch out and make that leap into a reliable rotation piece until he just does it. Getting 120 above-average innings from Houck wouldn’t be out of the question this year.

We also barely mentioned Xander Bogaerts at all, which is kind of insane. A Backup Bold Prediction could be that the Sox actually extend him well before it comes to do-or-die time.

CF: Bold prediction? You can’t handle my bold prediction! The Bobby Dalbec we saw in the second half last year — .955 OPS, 15 homers in 195 plate appearances — is the real thing. He reminds me of the good version of Chris Davis.

Let’s just hope he has Kyle Schwarber in his favorite contacts on his phone. Schwarber was critical in getting him to relax and trust his talent in the batter’s box. He’ll make up for some diminished production from J.D. Martinez. Other bold prediction: Jarren Duran never becomes a regular. Sell those rookie cards.

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