Tomase's 2023 season preview: Can Red Sox overcome their No. 1 flaw? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
Red Sox spring training was such a pleasant place. The temperatures were warm, the reporters were few, and the two months in Fort Myers passed with nary a conflict.
The good vibrations were enough to make a visitor feel like maybe this veteran-laden group will surprise us à la 2013 or 2021, but then reality hits: Where are the superstars?
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The Boston Strong group that won it all in 2013 certainly benefited from the arrival of veterans with something to prove like Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, and Jonny Gomes, but let's not kid ourselves on their roles. They were complementary pieces. Dustin Pedroia was easily their best all-around player, and when it came time to win the World Series, future Hall of Famer David Ortiz spit on his hands and hit .688.
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Similarly, the 2021 club rode some impressive performances from Kiké Hernández, Hunter Renfroe, and trade deadline acquisition Kyle Schwarber to the American League Championship Series. But their offense was still powered by All-Star holdovers Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, and J.D. Martinez, and their best pitcher was right-hander Nathan Eovaldi.
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The 2023 Red Sox added multiple veterans with World Series rings, from former Dodgers Kenley Jansen and Justin Turner, to former Braves Adam Duvall and Chris Martin. What they did not do is give Devers, their $ 313 million third baseman, an equal anywhere on the roster.
In the last five years, they've said goodbye to a former MVP (Mookie Betts), the face of the franchise (Bogaerts), and a five-time All-Star (Martinez). They're hoping to replace that production with prospects like Triston Casas and eventually Marcelo Mayer, but that day is not today.
So as the Red Sox prepare to open a season featuring minimal expectations, we should remember that they're pegged to finish no better than fourth for a reason. It's not that Vegas and the prognosticators are missing the subtle signs of a contender. It's that they recognize the Red Sox for what they are -- thin on top-end talent, needing pretty much everything to go right if they're going to fight for one of the final wild card berths.
A path exists, but it's built more on an overwhelming number of best-case scenarios than realism. If Chris Sale provides a full season of ace-like production, and Masataka Yoshida turns out to be the best Japanese import since Shohei Ohtani, and if Casas immediately becomes a 40-homer threat, and if Brayan Bello overcomes a sore elbow to dominate, and if veterans like Duvall, Hernández, Turner, and Jansen turn back the clock, and ...
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That's a lot of ifs, and they just keep compounding.
More likely is that some of the issues that have already cropped up -- like an injury to brittle starter James Paxton, or the ineffectiveness of pretty much the entire bullpen all spring, or questions over a lineup that is constructed to feature as many as five different leadoff hitters -- ultimately will combine to prove their undoing, especially in a loaded American League East.
Their best hope of reaching the playoffs is that every wild card comes out of the division, which is a distinct possibility, now that they'll be playing fewer games against the Yankees, Jays, and Rays, and more against everybody else. In that scenario, the Red Sox could finish fourth ahead of the regression candidates in Baltimore and still squeak in as the third wild card behind, say, Tampa and Toronto.
Is that likely, especially with the Mariners coming off a 90-win season and then adding slugging outfielder Teoscar Hernandez and Gold Glove second baseman Kolten Wong? Only if you really believe in the power of hope.
So as pleasant and professional as the Red Sox were to a man in Fort Myers this spring, good vibes only take you so far. Talent wins the day, and the Red Sox just don't have enough of it. We should be happy if they finish fourth and positively delighted if they reach .500.