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Unless Boston spends big, their luck will likely run out in 2022

By spending on some free agents post-lockout, the Red Sox can make-or-break their 2022. They are much more likely to go cheap than to go big. 

Boston Red Sox v Washington Nationals Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Last season the Red Sox were supposed to be in a ‘rebuilding year’, resetting payroll, building up younger players, and essentially conceding the division. Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the basement — Boston was actually competitive in 2021, coming within two wins of a World Series berth.

The Sox ended the season with 92 wins, tied with the Yankees, whom they beat in the Wild Card game. Boston’s magical run came to a screeching halt when they played a much more talented Houston Astros team, but a season that ends in Game Six of an ALCS can be considered a success by nearly any metric.

Coming into this season, the Red Sox still have the same lineup holes as in the past few years. First base has been a black hole for many years, and Boston is getting very limited offensive production out of two-thirds of their outfield (Alex Verdugo being the one exception).

The make-or-break moves for the Red Sox did not come before the owners locked out the players, and with some really talented impact-guys still available on the free agent market, Boston has a chance to position themselves as American League East favorites. My bet, however, is that they won’t take that plunge.

Let’s assume Boston does not sign Freddie Freeman or Anthony Rizzo, and instead roll out Bobby Dalbec and his 107 2021 wRC+ at first base. Dalbec hits for neither power nor average, and understandably puts the Sox in the bottom-ten at offensive production out of first base.

The Red Sox also don’t have three everyday outfielders. Alex Verdugo is the only true outfielder who hits like a corner outfielder. Verdugo can play either corner spot, but even when Enrique Hernández is tossed into the mix moving from second base to the outfield, Boston is still one decent player short. J.D. Martinez can play some right field, but he’s in the lineup only for his bat, as he’s a defensive liability in the field.

In the infield, it’s boom-or-bust. We’ve already pointed out that first base is not yielding much production, but the left side of the infield is the Red Sox greatest strength. Last season Xander Bogaerts had a career-year with a 5.2 fWAR, expect him to be a five-win player again in 2022.

Similarly, Rafael Devers posted a 4.7 fWAR, putting up career highs in homers (38) and walk percentage (9.3 percent). It’s a strong combination of Devers getting more patient at the plate, while also driving a good amount of extra base hits.

Second base will be manned well when Hernández is there…but again, Boston will likely play him out of position in center more often than would be ideal due to their lack of outfield depth. While he’s a serviceable outfielder, he’s really a second baseman.

When it comes to pitching, the top of the rotation looks strong on paper, but the real wild card is Chris Sale, who only pitched 42 ⅔ innings last season. With a strikeout rate that was his lowest since 2016, and a walk rate that was the highest since his sophomore season in 2011, the once dominant flamethrower looks more mortal with each passing season.

Nathan Eovaldi had a career-year in 2021, but it’s pretty rare that a pitcher over 30 has a breakout season that is repeatable. Eovaldi got pretty lucky keeping the ball in the yard last year (a measly 8.2 percent home run to fly ball rate), though he did limit hard contact by a wide margin compared to previous seasons. If he can limit hard contact again, he could be as effective, but that’s a big ‘if’.

Behind these starters are Nick Pivetta, who is always expected to be better than he is, though he’s only put up a career total of 6.3 wins since being called up to the majors in 2017. He and Tanner Houck are not projected to be strong, and again, the Sox lack of depth means that any injuries to any one of these pitchers will lead to trouble. In a rotation that has had durability concerns (Sale and Eovaldi in particular) it’s not a formidable situation.

The bullpen last season was an asset in Boston, and part of the reason the Sox made the playoffs. Bullpens are notoriously volatile, but the Red Sox effectively have the same cast of Matt Barnes (closer), Ryan Brasier, Hirokazu Sawamura, and former Yankee farmhand, Rule Five draftee Garrett Whitlock. It’s a strong relief corps that is one of the strenghts of the team.

Expectations

Other than the Orioles, it wouldn’t necessarily be shocking if any of the other four teams won the division, though the Rays, Yankees, and Blue Jays all have a higher liklihood to win the American League East.

The Blue Jays were only a game behind the Yankees and Sox. Toronto has made sigificant advancement to their lineup and last season they could just as easily have vaulted ahead of New York and Boston since they significantly underperformed compared to their run differential. Toronto is my pick to win the AL East, I don’t see the Red Sox finishing within eight games of Toronto, and they likely will finish behind the Rays and Yankees as well.

Last year the Rays ran away with the division, winning over 100 games, I just don’t see Boston competing for the East this season (it’s also worth noting that they didn’t really compete for the division last year either, despite making it within two games of the World Series).

Win Total Prediction: 83-79 (.512)*

The Red Sox overachieved last year, and they did nothing to plug any of the glaring holes. They didn’t shore-up a questionable pitching staff, and have limited depth if/when things go wrong on the injury side, especially with a fragile Chris Sale.

The Blue Jays are a year older and a year better. Their rotation stacks up better than Boston’s, and the Rays always find ways to compete and beat their higher-payroll divisional foes. The Yankees also are formidable opponents, and per PECOTA, are projected to win the East. It’s going to be interesting to see the follow-up to a magical 2021 in Boston.

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Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano