The Boston Red Sox surely would like to take a page out of Bill Belichick’s playbook.
Although they entered spring training last year embracing their status atop Major League Baseball’s mountain, their collective confidence fell flat, as the Sox struggled for much of 2019 while trying to defend their 2018 World Series title.
As such, the mindset figures to be much different in camp this time around: As Belichick would say, we’re on to 2020.
Outside expectations have been lowered in Boston, especially after the club traded Mookie Betts and David Price to the Los Angeles Dodgers last week, but the Red Sox seem to be embracing their newfound underdog role. Will it translate to a bounce-back campaign? The work put in over the next few weeks at spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., could go a long way toward setting the tone.
There’s no shortage of intrigue surrounding the Red Sox despite last season’s third-place finish in the American League East. Let’s examine seven burning questions facing the club as it prepares for Opening Day.
1. Will Chris Sale be ready to go?
Sale is coming off the worst season of his career. The good news? He said upon arriving at camp his elbow is healthy. The bad news? He’s been battling pneumonia. Not ideal.
Sale’s status for Opening Day remains in question, as it’s difficult to project whether he’ll successfully progress through the team’s throwing program and make enough spring starts before March 26. The Red Sox already figured to play it safe with the left-hander, whose 2019 season ended in August, and his illness might require a little extra caution.
This obviously is a huge development not just because of Sale’s usual standing as a legitimate ace but also because there are so many other unpredictable variables at play when it comes to Boston’s starting rotation.
2. Who will be the No. 5 starter?
Assuming full health, the Red Sox’s top four includes Sale, Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi and Martin Perez. Good luck projecting how that group will fare when the regular season rolls around. Could be good. Could stink. Your guess is as good as ours, as the upside is matched — if not surpassed — by the volatility of the players in question.
As for the fifth and final spot, well, that could force chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom and, eventually, interim manager Ron Roenicke to get creative. Trading Price to the Dodgers as part of the Betts blockbuster provided additional financial wiggle room. It also cured a four-year headache. The problem is the Red Sox now have a clear void in their rotation and very few avenues to fill the vacancy.
It’s possible the Red Sox will dip into free agency, although the market is extremely thin this late in the offseason. It’s also possible Boston will swing a trade, with Cal Quantrill among the names floated in the Red Sox’s reported talks with the San Diego Padres regarding Wil Myers. Perhaps the most likely scenario, however, involves Boston relying on its internal candidates, whether it’s as a traditional fifth starter or as an opener.
The “opener” — basically, a reliever used to open the game before giving way to a more traditional starter/long-relief option — is something Bloom is very familiar with from his time in the Tampa Bay Rays organization. The Red Sox also used the strategy on occasion last season, and Ryan Weber, Josh Taylor and even Darwinzon Hernandez are among the many names that could factor into the equation should Boston go down that path in 2020.
3. Will Brandon Workman secure the closer’s role?
For all of the criticism toward Boston’s bullpen in 2019, Workman was sneaky dominant, ultimately locking down the closer’s role in one of the best statistical seasons for a reliever in Red Sox history. He recorded 16 saves, posted a 1.88 ERA and struck out 13.1 batters per nine innings.
Roenicke said last week Workman deserves a shot to be Boston’s closer this season, so the right-hander clearly has a leg up in the competition. It’s now up to Workman to seize the moment, because he’s not without his warts — most notably a high walk rate (5.7 BB/9) — and the Red Sox’s entire bullpen construction remains in flux.
4. Is Alex Verdugo’s injury a concern?
Verdugo already faced a mountain of pressure as the centerpiece of the Betts trade. Now, he’s under even more scrutiny thanks to a stress fracture in his back that could sideline the 23-year-old for the start of the regular season.
Obviously, the Red Sox have high hopes for Verdugo, a former top prospect with the Dodgers who’s under club control through 2024. But he also missed the tail end of 2019 with an oblique injury and a back issue. They’ll need to handle Verdugo with care to ensure he reaches his maximum potential, and that could require Boston to lean more heavily on newly signed Kevin Pillar alongside fellow outfielders Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi to open the season.
5. What’s the deal with Dustin Pedroia?
Simply put: We don’t know. It always felt like a long shot that Pedroia would contribute in 2020, particularly early in the season, and the chances of him returning to the diamond took another hit last week when Roenicke revealed the 36-year-old second baseman is “still sore” after suffering a setback in his recovery from a left knee injury.
Pedroia has been limited to just nine games over the past two seasons, and it’s reasonable to wonder whether he’ll ever play again even though the four-time All-Star enters this season with two years and $25 million remaining on his contract. For now, the Red Sox probably shouldn’t expect anything from Pedroia, with fingers crossed that maybe — just maybe — he’ll return in some capacity down the road.
6. How will the playing time at first base and second base be distributed?
The Red Sox are used to life without Pedroia given his limited availability — he’s averaged just 72 games per season since the start of 2015 — but now they’ll also be without Brock Holt, who signed with the Milwaukee Brewers in free agency. This opens the door for a true changing of the guard, with Jose Peraza and Michael Chavis likely to receive the bulk of the playing time at second base. Jonathan Arauz, Tzu-Wei Lin, C.J. Chatham and Marco Hernandez figure to battle for utility roles off the bench, with Arauz (a Rule 5 Draft pickup) and Lin (out of options) leading the competition.
As for first base, Chavis and Mitch Moreland are the frontrunners to hold down the fort there. They’ll perhaps do so in a traditional platoon, with the right-handed-hitting Chavis facing lefties and the left-handed-hitting Moreland facing righties. But don’t sleep on top prospect Bobby Dalbec making noise this spring, even if it’s mostly to grease the skids for a call-up later in the season. And Triston Casas, a first-round pick in 2018, is another name to consider for the future.
7. Will MLB discipline the Red Sox?
This is the elephant in the room at JetBlue Park. MLB, which has had its hands full with the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal, currently is investigating the Red Sox over allegations Boston illegally stole signs during the 2018 season.
The fallout of the ongoing leaguewide chaos already has been felt in Boston, as the Red Sox mutually parted ways with manager Alex Cora after he was named several times in the league’s ruling on the Astros scandal. (Cora was Houston’s bench coach in 2017.) The Red Sox since have handed the reins to Roenicke, but there’s still a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the entire organization as it gets to work in preparation of the 2020 campaign.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said Sunday he expects the Red Sox investigation to be wrapped up by the end of the month.