Commentary

3 Red Sox players critical to another surprise season

Can Bobby Dalbec repeat his monstrous finish to the 2021 season?

Bobby Dalbec
The idea of Bobby Dalbec in the outfield might make your brain hurt, but that the Sox would entertain it speaks to how highly they think of his potential. Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

COMMENTARY

After Wednesday’s introduction, if there’s a way to begin looking at the wider Red Sox roster that doesn’t include the pun, “There’s more to this Story,” I am not strong enough to provide it.

Glad we can be honest with each other that way. Because honestly, two weeks from the regular season, I’m still not supremely optimistic on the Red Sox given the shifting landscape of the American League.

That’s a subjective exercise, of course. Toronto remade its starting rotation around Kevin Gausman and an extension for José Berríos, but also lost Cy Young winner Robbie Ray and MVP contender Marcus Semien. The Yankees gutted their infield and built a less feast-or-famine lineup, but how much better they are than a year ago is an open question.

The White Sox spent big … in their bullpen, including old pal Joe Kelly, but lost Carlos Rodón from their rotation. The Astros are shifting from Carlos Correa at shortstop to rookie Jeremy Peña.

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Through that lens, Boston’s winter doesn’t look half bad. It’s just hard for me to dismiss they were the impostors of last year’s playoffs. Sneaking in and catching fire is a legitimate strategy in the modern game, but overachieving seasons built on big breaks and career years tend to recede some the following year.

Trevor Story will clearly be a big piece in what the 2022 Red Sox end up being. Three other guys also leap to mind.

Bobby Dalbec

In the new-look infield, which has been a major point of focus for the team this winter, the player with the widest potential range of outcomes is easily Dalbec. To the point he might not even end up in the infield.

“We’ll move him around,” manager Alex Cora told reporters earlier this spring. “The more versatile, the better.”

In Grapefruit League games, that’s just meant a brief stint at shortstop in addition to first, but the intention is for the former minor-league third baseman to get a taste of both left field and second base. That’s how deep the desire is to get Dalbec in the lineup after he put up a 1.053 OPS (.288/.369/.684 with 14 homers in 48 games) the final two months of the regular season.

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That timeframe coincides with Kyle Schwarber largely usurping Dalbec at first, and taking the 26-year-old rookie under his wing.

“He got me to realize it wasn’t about the swing, it’s about the other stuff,” Dalbec told reporters. “Being slow and under control is more important than having a mechanically perfect swing every day.”

An offseason of work and adjustments (including a leg kick change) has yielded immediate dividends, for whatever they’re worth — Dalbec led the Grapefruit League in total bases before Wednesday’s game. His struggles with high velocity last season helped keep him on the bench for most of the playoff run, but Cora is clearly laying the groundwork to get Dalbec in the lineup as often as possible.

First base is Dalbec’s, for now. Whether he’s able to find consistency will play a big part in how long he holds it, or whether the push to make him more versatile (with Triston Casas approaching from Worcester) is ultimately needed.

Matt Barnes

The pitching is a question in full not unlike 2021, when Garrett Whitlock, Tanner Houck, and Nick Pivetta helped fill the void of Chris Sale. (Hat tip also to Eduardo Rodriguez, whose bad luck — a .363 batting average on balls in play that was easily the worst in baseball — was profound.)

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How does that all work again, with Sale already shelved? Nate Eovaldi, whose luck wasn’t that great itself — his .326 BABIP was second only to the departed E-Rod. Those mentioned above, all of whom will be leaned on in increased capacities.

And Barnes, whose role in helping the Red Sox build the cushion they coasted on through their summer swoon can’t be overstated.

In the first 109 games of the season, Barnes pitched in 44 to a 2.25 ERA, .161 batting average against, and strikeouts of nearly 42 percent of the men he faced. He converted 24 of 28 saves, and Boston won 37 of the 44. They needed every one to make October.

Where Barnes scarcely pitched after a near complete collapse.

The theories abound. His breakthrough COVID infection in August. The general fatigue going from the 60-game 2020 schedule back to 162. The specific fatigue stemming from being Cora’s most reliable option, costing just enough fastball command for a power pitcher with so little of it available to lose.

“I think it was kind of a perfect storm of scenarios,” Barnes told MassLive earlier this spring.

With as spongy a rotation as the Red Sox appear to have, getting the most out of every game the staff can get to the late innings is critical. There’s no alternative to Barnes leaping off the page, making the team reliant that his confidence this spring is well reasoned.

Rafael Devers

We can debate this one, but the mix in the outfield just doesn’t catch my attention as much. The Red Sox have good, not great pieces to assemble out there between Kiké Hernández, Alex Verdugo, Jackie Bradley Jr., and whomever else fills out the roster. They’ll do their jobs.

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Xander Bogaerts and the possibility of an extension? That’s a winter issue, and in the meantime, he figures to be the consummate pro and star piece we know him to be. The same can largely be said about Rafael Devers, with whom the Sox have, according to multiple reports, not made a long-term extension offer to two years from free agency.

That, however, absolutely catches my attention more. Because I sometimes wonder to what degree people realize Devers is the team’s best player.

Devers has missed just 15 regular-season games the last three seasons. A year ago, he led the team in hits, runs, extra-base hits, home runs, OPS, and tied with Bogaerts for walks. Since the start of 2019, he leads the majors in extra-base hits, is fifth in overall hits, and is top 20 in both batting average (.291) and OPS (.886). Bogaerts and Mookie Betts are at .899 and .895, for reference, and they weren’t that good in their age 22-24 seasons.

His defensive issues are well established. They also figure to be lessened with a truly good second baseman in Story installed — Devers made just three errors once José Iglesias joined the Red Sox in September last year. And they’re also easier to forgive when he is developing into a truly great player.

Some might roll their eyes, but Devers is a lot closer to an MVP-level talent than I think a lot of people realize. The sort of jump it’d take to get him there wouldn’t have looked out of place among those that got the Red Sox to within two games of the World Series a year ago.

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Him making it could help the 2022 season go as well as its predecessor as much as most anything else.

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