I will start with the obvious, and it brings me great pleasure to say this – the Boston Red Sox have been really, really bad of late. The year after their championship 2018 campaign, they finished a distant third in the AL East, 19 games behind the Yankees, and in 2020, they finished dead last, behind even the hapless Baltimore Orioles. For Sox fans, the hardest pill to swallow must be that the Red Sox seem to be deliberately bad, trading away their marquee superstar for luxury tax purposes and expecting their fans to be okay with it.
With that being said, the Yankees, although clearly a superior team (in function and in essence), should not be resting on their laurels in games against Boston this year. While Boston is not projected to be terribly good, and it would certainly be a surprise if they were in the upper echelon of American League teams, they are likely to not be quite as bad as they were last season. Regression to the mean from some top players would make the Red Sox at least a challenging rival this year.
The Saving Grace: The Offense
As bad as the Red Sox were last year, their offense was generally okay to good. As a team they had an OPS+ of 107, ranking 5th in the AL, and actually led the AL in batting average with a team .265 mark. There is reason to think that they may improve on that this year. First and foremost, J.D. Martinez was patently awful in the shortened 2020 season, putting up only an 81 OPS+ and slashing .213/.291/.389 over 54 games. J.D. Martinez, as Yankees fans are well aware, is generally an elite hitter, amassing a 135 OPS+ over his career. It’s prudent to think that he’ll return at least partially to form in 2021 – at only 33 years old, there isn’t a lot of reason to suspect his precipitous decline in 2020 was age-related – and that could be bad news for the Yankees and the rest of the American League.
Boston returns a few offensive assets who had excellent years in 2020, including Xander Bogaerts (131 OPS+ and 11 HRs last season), Christian Vasquez (114 OPS+), Rafael Devers (110 OPS+ and 11 HRs), and Alex Verdugo (126 OPS+). They are also expecting great things from rookie Bobby Dalbec (see “Ones to Watch” below).
Although the Sox lost some offensive production in Andrew Benintendi (traded to Kansas City) and Jackie Bradley Jr. (signed with Milwaukee), they also added Kiké Hernandez over the offseason. The former Dodger is a consistently solid bat and will likely start at second base, although he can play all over the field.
Overall, the Red Sox will likely be a headache offensively, and a bounceback season from Martinez would only make them more of a problem at the plate.
The Downfall: The Pitching
Saying that Boston’s pitching was pretty awful last year is a generous assessment. They had a team 5.58 ERA in 2020, fourteenth in the American League, and ranked last in the AL in hits, runs, home runs, and walks surrendered. However, there’s really nowhere to go but up from there, and the return (or potential return) of two excellent starters could make a big difference for the Sox this year.
One piece of last year’s misery puzzle for Boston is that they were missing their ace, Chris Sale, for the entire season. When the 2020 season got postponed due to the pandemic, Sale quickly opted to have Tommy John surgery and missed all of the shortened season. While he is not expected to be back at the beginning of the 2021 season, the Red Sox still hope to slot him into the rotation at some point during the year. As elite as he has been over the course of his career, Sale has always struggled to put together full seasons of top production – his second-half splits lag behind his first-half splits in almost every measure (see table below). A late-season return may play to his strengths, and the Red Sox might benefit from a hot streak from the 32-year-old with a career 140 ERA+ and seven consecutive top-10 Cy Young finishes between 2012 and 2018.
The Red Sox were also missing Eduardo Rodriguez in 2020, as he battled myocarditis after contracting COVID-19. He is expected to return this year, and, although he was recently scratched from his role as Opening Day starter after reporting some deadness in his arm, the 19-game winner in 2019 has proven himself to be an above-average pitcher in his five years in the league, and should add some heft to the Sox starting rotation.
Former Yankee Nathan Eovaldi was Boston’s sole serviceable starting pitcher last year, posting a 127 ERA+ in 9 starts. Martín Perez, whom the Red Sox re-signed after an average 2020, is expected to once again be average, as he has been over the course of his 10 year career. The rotation is rounded out by Garrett Richards and Nick Pivetta, neither of whom have world-beating track records but are expected to eat some innings.
Veterans Adam Ottavino and Matt Barnes are expected to take on the bulk of high-leverage relief innings.
Ones to Watch: The Prospects
The Red Sox farm system is not considered terribly good, ranking 24th out of 30 in the MLB preseason farm system rankings. They do, however, have a few prospects who may make an impact in 2021, including pitcher Tanner Houck and infielders Bobby Dalbec and Jeter Downs.
Houck and Dalbec already have some major league experience. Houck made his debut last year, pitching impressively in three starts; he held an 0.53 ERA over 17 innings and went 3-0. Dalbec, while retaining his rookie status for 2021, had a great 23-game debut in 2020, hitting 8 home runs and putting up a 152 OPS+ in 92 at bats. He has mashed in Spring Training and is expected to be a Rookie of the Year candidate.
Downs, who came over in the Mookie Betts trade, saw some time at Double-A at only 20 years old in 2019, has had a fantastic (although brief) spring training, hitting .357 and OPSing 1.286 over 18 plate appearances. He is not expected to start the season with the team, but could debut this year and add infield depth if he continues proving himself in the minor leagues.
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The Red Sox would have to have absolutely everything go right, including some people having unexpected career years, to be real contenders in 2021. Although they brought back 2018 World Champion manager Alex Cora after his 2020 suspension for participating in the Astros cheating scandal, they simply don’t have the manpower to recapture their 2018 magic. They in all likelihood won’t finish higher than third, probably fourth, in the division, given that the Yankees and Blue Jays are projected to be excellent and the Rays will be annoyingly fine despite losing two productive pitchers. That being said, they are not quite as miserable as 2020 would have you believe, and will likely be a mid-range team this year that could cause some problems if they’re firing on all cylinders.