Tomase: 10 big questions for 2021 Red Sox ahead of Opening Day originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
The 2021 Red Sox won't have to clear a particularly high bar to surpass 2020. Finish .500, play a full season, don't make us watch the worst rotation in franchise history and voila: improvement.
Boston fans have been conditioned to demand significantly more, however, thanks in no small part to the Red Sox, who have claimed four World Series titles since 2004. Plenty of fans view the start of each season as a championship-or-bust endeavor.
They should recalibrate their expectations. The Red Sox are beginning a rebuild that they believe will lead to the creation of a sustainable contender, assembled with homegrown talent and augmented by free agent strikes that only a big-market team can afford.
Before they get there, they'll have to take their best shot at 2021. Most prognosticators peg them for 78 to 82 wins, which probably puts them fourth in the American League East behind the Yankees, Blue Jays, and Rays.
"We're ready to play baseball," said manager Alex Cora. "We have a good baseball team. We do."
With the season set to open on Thursday vs. the Orioles, there is a path for the Red Sox to reach the postseason, and it's worth exploring how they might succeed or fail.
So in that spirit, here are the questions and answers that could define the season.
1. What the hell happened to the Red Sox at the end of Spring Training?
A little over a week ago, we assumed Eduardo Rodriguez would pitch to Christian Vazquez on Opening Day, followed nine innings later by Matt Barnes closing out the victory. Then Rodriguez experienced a dead arm, Vazquez got drilled in the face with an errant throw during drills, and Barnes seemingly contracted COVID.
This led to a giant scramble, with Nathan Eovaldi being bumped into the Opening Day role for the second straight year, Cora considering replacements for Vazquez behind the plate, and the front office beginning the grim task of quarantining a handful of players and staff while hoping that Barnes' infection didn't spark an outbreak.
That was a week ago. Clarity arrived in the last couple of days, with E-Rod probably headed for a short stint on the injured list, Vazquez awaiting the removal of stitches before officially being cleared to play, and Barnes seeing his positive COVID test tossed after a series of negatives.
The first turn through the rotation won't look like the team envisioned, but the best-laid plans of January often require contingencies in April -- or in this case, March.
2. How bad is Eduardo Rodriguez' injury?
When Rodriguez left his March 22 start after two innings that featured diminished velocity, Red Sox fans were right to fear the worst. He hasn't thrown a pitch in an actual big league game in more than 540 days after battling COVD-related myocarditis, and no matter how many times he or the Red Sox proclaim he's healthy, it's hard to believe it until we see it.
That said, Rodriguez threw a public bullpen over the weekend and sounded positive in a later Zoom interview. Were he badly injured, he wouldn't be throwing off a mound and he wouldn't be conducting interviews. Those are good signs that he's on the road to recovery.
Whether he can hold up for an entire season after not pitching last year is another story, but let's chalk up his current predicament to dead arm and hope that he's back soon.
3. Breaking down the Red Sox 2021 rotation without openers
There are no plans to use openers, even during the uncertain first turn through the rotation, which will feature Eovaldi on Thursday vs. the Orioles, followed by Tanner Houck on Saturday (unless Rodriguez is deemed ready to go), Garrett Richards on Sunday, Nick Pivetta on Monday vs. the Rays, and Martin Perez on Tuesday.
Assuming Houck returns to the alternate site once Rodriguez is cleared, the Red Sox should feature better starting depth, whether it's Houck, or fellow right-handers Thaddeus Ward and Connor Seabold.
4. Could the Red Sox bullpen be really good this year?
The Red Sox have the makings of a deep bullpen, which is part of the reason they're opening the season with 14 pitchers and only a three-man bench. Now that he's out of COVID protocol, Barnes should close, with veteran right-hander Adam Ottavino and hard-throwing lefty Darwinzon Hernandez the primary setup men.
The Red Sox feature multiple looks, whether it's the power splitter of Japanese import Hirokazu Sawamura, the fastball/slider combo of Rule 5 pick Garrett Whitlock, 95 mph heat from left-hander Josh Taylor, or righty Phillips Valdez deploying his changeup.
Barnes, Ottavino, Darwinzon Hernandez, Whitlock, and Taylor combined to allow only four runs in 33 spring innings. They appear locked in for the start of the season.
5. The Red Sox will be versatile on offense. Should we care?
Sort of. Marwin Gonzalez and Kike Hernandez are two of the most versatile players in history, but the ability to play everywhere typically accompanies a reluctance to let them play every day. Neither has ever recorded 500 at-bats in a season, but the Red Sox plan for both to be everyday players, with Hernandez probably splitting his time between second base and center field while leading off, and the switch-hitting Gonzalez seeing significant action in left field and at first base.
Reserve Christian Arroyo can play all over the infield, while 1B-2B-3B-LF Michael Chavis will open the season at the alternate site despite slamming six homers in spring training.
That's a lot of versatility. Versatility is good. Production is better. The Red Sox hope to marry the two.
6. 2021 expectations for Alex Verdugo, Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez
The Red Sox offense is built around four hitters: Alex Verdugo, Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez.
All have the ability to be All-Stars, and each is dangerous in his own way. Verdugo sprays the ball around the park and plays with energy, Devers likes to impersonate a bad-ball-crushing Vladimir Guerrero Sr., Bogaerts can impact the game with average, power, and speed, and Martinez is a station-to-station slugger who's capable of hitting .320.
Add Vazquez, who could be an All-Star himself, as well as the possibility of home runs at the bottom of the order in Bobby Dalbec, Hunter Renfroe, and Franchy Cordero, and the Red Sox will be able to beat you in multiple ways.
7. Which Red Sox player will get the most MVP votes?
Devers. The 32 homers he hit in 2019 came in the final 125 games, because he slumped in April and didn't hit one for a month. If he avoids the slow start this year, he's 40 homers waiting to happen and that's going to transform the offense.
8. Who's facing the most pressure: Nathan Eovaldi or J.D. Martinez?
The former is entering the third year of a $68 million extension that has seen him throw barely 100 innings so far. The Red Sox will go as far as their rotation takes them, and that means getting not only a full season out of Eovaldi, but a productive one. Twenty-two starts with a 4.58 ERA won't cut it.
The latter is coming off a miserable season that he admitted traced in part to not being ready to play in the middle of the pandemic. There are no excuses this year, especially since Martinez knows he wouldn't be here if he had opted out of his contract.
If the Red Sox didn't want him when they believed he could bounce back and slam 30 homers, imagine how they'll feel if he fails to hit fastballs again. His presence in the middle of the lineup is essential to letting everyone else be themselves.
9. Alex Cora is back. What difference will he make?
From a culture perspective, Cora is a difference-maker. He had his hands in every level of the organization during his first stint, and that's not going to change now that he's back after serving a one-year suspension for his role in the Astros' sign-stealing scandal.
His greatest impact may come not so much in the dugout, but in preparing the next generation of contributors, whether it's speedy center fielder Jarren Duran, slugging first baseman Triston Casas, or well-rounded second baseman Jeter Downs.
The fact that all three were exposed to Cora's methods and expectations should only help them as they complete their climbs through the minors.
On the field, Cora will demand accountability. He's proven adept at preaching tough love with Rodriguez and providing words of encouragement for Devers. The Red Sox will be prepared. Whether they have the talent to reach the playoffs is another question. Speaking of which...
10. Predicting whether the Red Sox can reach the postseason in 2021
Yes they can, but they'll need some help and more than a little luck. A world where Rodriguez, Eovaldi, and Richards pitch to their ceilings instead of their injury-riddled floors is one in which the Red Sox can compete for a division title.
They'll need at least two of those guys to deliver to be a factor in the wild card race, because the offense should produce enough power to beat up on bad pitching and the bullpen looks like it will do its part.
The playoffs still feel like too big of an ask, thanks primarily to run prevention. Without Jackie Bradley Jr. patrolling center, the defense will suffer. Bogaerts, for all of his offensive strengths, isn't beloved by the defensive metrics. Devers must avoid leading American League third basemen in errors for the fourth straight year.
That's too many questions to view the Red Sox as legitimate contenders. PointsBet has their over-under at 79.5 wins and while they should beat it, it probably won't be by much. Maybe they can eke out 85 wins and remain in the hunt until the final couple of weeks.
After last season, we shouldn't get greedy. Take it and hope that the team's long-term plan means better days are actually on the horizon.