The least surprising thing about the Boston Red Sox’s 2020-21 offseason is how much turnover there was. Such is life when you have one of the worst teams in baseball the season before.
For the 2021 Red Sox, absolving the sins of their 2020 version obviously begins at the top of the franchise with Alex Cora returning to the dugout. Those who believe in Cora as an elite big league manager likely think just having him back in the dugout will improve the ballclub. Everyone who works with him loves him, so that makese sense.
But it’s the on-field alterations that truly could make the biggest difference. Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom is well into his second full year running the show, and his vision is being fulfilled. Bloom has emphasized finding young, athletic players — both pitchers and position players — who are versatile. The idea, of course, is the more versatility, the more options Cora has to build a winning lineup.
While Boston might have remained quiet when it came to big-ticket acquisitions this winter, it’s not as if Bloom sat on his hands. The Red Sox made a handful of intriguing moves, transactions that might not look especially impactful on their own but net out as a whole greater than the sum of the parts.
In case you spent the winter hibernating, here’s a quick rundown of the new guys:
Selected RHP Garrett Whitlock in the Rule 5 draft
Signed OF Hunter Renfroe
Signed RHP Matt Andriese
Traded for RHP Adam Ottavino
Signed UTIL Enrique Hernandez
Signed RHP Garrett Richards
Traded for OF Franchy Cordero, RHP Josh Winckowski
Signed RHP Hirokazu Sawamura
Claimed RHP John Schreiber
And here are the newcomers who will make the biggest difference in 2021 and how they’ll do it:
Hernandez might as well be the poster child for what Bloom wants to do in reconstructing the Red Sox roster based on versatility. Hernandez has played every defensive position in his career other than catcher and pitcher. It’s also clear Hernandez has a fan in Cora. The Red Sox manager raved about the former Dodgers utility man earlier this spring, seemingly hinting at Hernandez being the club’s primary second baseman, saying that even on days when he started elsewhere, he’d likely return to second for the late innings. It also wouldn’t be surprising to see Hernandez penciled in atop the Boston batting order April 1 on Opening Day.
“As a hitter, I still believe there’s there’s something more,” Cora told reporters when camp opened. “We’ve been talking the last few weeks about how I’m gonna use him, what I expect and challenge him to do certain things. … I do believe what we do on April 1, he’s going to dictate that. I believe he can hunt fastballs, he can hit for extra-base hits.
” … He’s very dynamic. He’s a good athlete.”
For a team that lacked game-changing athleticism in 2020, and one that — using Cora’s own words — “sucked” defensively in 2019, Hernandez should help fix some of those issues right away.
The Red Sox bullpen will look different in 2021, with Ottavino headlining the new guys. Bloom essentially bought the right-hander from the New York Yankees in a rare Sox-Yankees swap. On the surface, Ottavino’s 2020 numbers look rough. His 5.89 ERA was the worst for a “full” season in his career, which is saying something for someone who has spent the bulk of their big league time pitching at Coors Field. The .270 batting average against was a virtual tie for career-worst, too. The advanced numbers, though, paint a slightly different picture. Ottavino’s 3.52 FIP was more than two runs lower than his ERA, which is a massive difference, and he gave up a .375 batting average on balls in play; only 15 qualified relievers got “unluckier” in 2020. His exit velocity did spike, which suggests it might not have been all bad luck for Ottavino, but the track record is solid. He’s a notorious tinkerer, who really pays attention to what he’s doing.
The Northeastern alum recently told Fangraphs he’s working on improving his breaking ball.
“Multiple shapes of my breaking pitches is the area where I can be elite at,” he told Fangraphs. “That’s the category I feel is my specialty. Just trying to lean into that and grab a little better control of pitchers that break downward, as well as sideways and everything in between. … I just want to be more diversified.”
If Ottavino gets back on track, he’ll be one of Boston’s most important relievers.