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The Red Sox should be competitive by positive regression alone

The post-Mookie Sox wildly underachieved in 2020

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

One year after the Boston Red Sox won a World Series, they traded their franchise player Mookie Betts. One year after that, they were a last place team. But don’t count the Red Sox out for 2021. Although their marquee free agent signings of Garrett Richards and Enrique Hernández won’t blow you away, this is a team with legitimate major league talent, quite a few bounceback candidates, and a decent chance at a wild card spot.

The pitching staff was a disaster in the shortened 2020 season. Chris Sale underwent Tommy John surgery, and while Nathan Eovaldi was much better, the rotation as a whole was replacement level, pitching to a collective 5.58 ERA/5.19 FIP. This year, however, they’ll have a real starting rotation with incumbents Eovaldi and Martin Perez, as well as newcomer Richards and a fell year of ‘20 deadline acquisition Nick Pivetta.

Eduardo Rodríguez, who missed all of last season due to complications from COVID-19, will be one of the better storylines in baseball when he makes his way back to the Red Sox rotation. In his last taste of action in 2019, Rodriguez had a 3.81 ERA/3.86 FIP in 203.1 innings—good for 3.7 WAR.

The bullpen was no better, also posting replacement-level production. Ryan Brasier and Matt Barnes remain, and newcomers Adam Ottavino for the late innings and Matt Andriese for the middle innings should add a stabilizing force to what was the fifth-worst bullpen in baseball.

The offense is really where this team is going to make their bones. As a team, the Red Sox posted a 106 wRC+ which was 11th in baseball. This was with subpar performances from third baseman Rafael Devers and designated hitter J.D. Martinez, the latter of whom had the worst year of his career with a 77 wRC+, with a whole win below replacement level.

There are a few factors at play for Martinez’s abysmal ‘20 campaign. Lack of video definitely played a role, as well as his general preparedness for the season, a common theme for the pandemic season. There is also some evidence of bad luck—evidenced by a career low .259 batting average on balls in play.

One of the key losses this offseason was elite defensive center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. It appears that he will be replaced by Alex Verdugo, who will slide over from right field. Verdugo, who was the headliner in the Betts return, performed more than admirably in ‘20, posting a 126 wRC+ and rating positively in UZR, outs above average and outfielder jump. His .371 BABIP most likely won’t hold, but his projected 107 wRC+ via ZiPS ought to provide great value at the position.

Surrounding him will be two newcomers in former San Diego Padres Hunter Renfroe and Franchy Cordero. Before last year, Renfroe provided league-average production with tons of raw power, but his ‘20 season took a rough turn. Eventually, he was buried by Tampa Bay’s depth, and played very little down the stretch and in the postseason. Cordero spent the past season in Kansas City, but didn’t get much playing time. This year that won’t be the case, as he is projected to be the starting left fielder.

Perhaps one of the most interesting pieces on the roster is the team’s No. 3 prospect via MLB Pipeline Bobby Dalbec, who has been lighting the grapefruit league on fire with four home runs at the publishing of this writing. Dalbec exploded during his time last season, achieving a 152 wRC+. Projections say a regression is likely, but as of now, first base is his job to lose.

Up the middle of the infield, Xander Bogearts, rewarded his team for the extension he earned, and Hernández, though he will play all over the diamond, will be a fun combo when he does play at the keystone. Behind the plate, Christian Vazquez has blossomed into one of the premier catchers in all of baseball, continuing his good defense and further improving with the bat.

As far as their outlook in the division, they are not among the three clear best teams. The Yankees are the Yankees, The Rays are the defending champs, and the Blue Jays are all in. The Red Sox, however, are a team that made some good under the radar moves to improve a team that should improve if only because they can’t possible be as bad as they were last year. With a little extra fortune, they may luck themselves into wild card contention.

Brian Menéndez is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score, as well as a senior writer for DRaysBay. Additionally, he has been featured in The Hardball Times. You can find Brian on Twitter at @briantalksbsb.