The Boston Red Sox officially returned to work.
The club held its first full-squad spring training workout Monday, several days after pitchers and catchers reported to JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla., to begin preparing for the 2021 Major League Baseball season.
Opening Day, scheduled for April 1 at Fenway Park, is just around the corner, and the effort put in over the next month-plus could determine whether the Red Sox contend in the American League East after a difficult 2020 in which Boston finished in last place.
Alex Cora has returned to the manager’s seat after a one-year hiatus, offering a shot in the arm, and he’ll be tasked with putting the Red Sox back on track while welcoming some fresh faces to the organization and navigating the challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Each year, spring training represents a fresh start — for good teams, bad teams and every team in between — but this season is especially unpredictable for Boston. So, let’s pinpoint what to watch in camp.
Most intriguing storyline: The outfield
Boston’s dancing, “Killer B” trio of Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi and Jackie Bradley Jr. is gone, unless JBJ (still a free agent) ultimately re-signs with the Red Sox. The outfield now is spearheaded by Alex Verdugo, acquired in last offseason’s trade that sent Betts and David Price to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and features a slew of newcomers, including Hunter Renfroe, Franchy Cordero, Kike Hernandez and (reportedly) Marwin Gonzalez.
So, how will Cora construct this new-look puzzle?
It likely will depend on matchups and performance trends, but spring training could offer a glimpse of how the skipper views each piece.
Are Renfroe (a right-handed hitter) and Cordero (a left-handed hitter) destined for platoon roles in the long run?
How much playing time will Hernandez and Gonzalez — two super utility players — see in the outfield? (Hernandez figures to hold down second base, too, whereas Gonzalez is a switching-hitting alternative to rookie first baseman Bobby Dalbec.)
Are the Red Sox comfortable with Verdugo in center field or would they prefer to keep him in right field, where he performed so well last season upon replacing Betts?
Boston’s lineup could change daily in 2021 — a product of the roster’s defensive versatility — and the tinkering starts in the outfield.
Player to watch: Nick Pivetta, RHP
Pivetta, acquired in the August trade that sent Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree to the Philadelphia Phillies, made just two starts down the stretch in 2020. He’ll presumably have a chance to secure a spot in Boston’s rotation to begin 2021, but it won’t be handed to him.
Let’s assume the top four spots belong to Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi, Garrett Richards and Martin Perez. That leaves Pivetta, Matt Andriese, Tanner Houck and Garrett Whitlock competing for the final one or two spots. (A six-man rotation hasn’t been ruled out.)
Pivetta is out of minor league options. So, the 28-year-old seemingly has a leg up on the competition, alongside Andriese. Houck can open the year at Triple-A Worcester, despite a dominant three-start major league debut in 2020, and Whitlock, selected from the New York Yankees in the Rule 5 Draft, can work out of the bullpen.
Pivetta probably won’t have a long leash, though, and a poor spring showing theoretically could bump him to the ‘pen, where he spent time as a reliever with the Phillies in both 2019 and 2020.
Opportunity is knocking. And the Red Sox clearly have high hopes for Pivetta, a reclamation project with intriguing upside. It’s up to him to answer before Opening Day and when the regular season begins.
Prospect to watch: Jarren Duran, OF
So, about that outfield mix…
We didn’t even mention Duran — Boston’s No. 4 prospect, according to SoxProspects.com — who might change the entire conversation by midseason.
Duran’s skill set has sparked comparisons to Jacoby Ellsbury and Grady Sizemore. While it’s perhaps optimistic to suggest he’ll develop into an All-Star caliber big leaguer, it’s reasonable to think Duran will arrive in The Show and make an impact at some point in 2021.
Duran hasn’t played above Double-A, but the 24-year-old impressed at the alternate training site last season, flashing much more power after changing his swing.
Non-roster invitee to watch: Yairo Munoz, OF/IF
Munoz, signed as a free agent last March, wound up playing in 12 games for Boston in 2020, batting .333 with a home run, four RBIs and an .844 OPS in 45 plate appearances.
Small sample size, obviously. But Munoz was a bit of a late-season sparkplug, and his defensive versatility — he’s played all over the infield and outfield — fits in nicely with what the Red Sox are trying to establish.
Christian Arroyo, out of minor league options, probably will lock down a spot on Boston’s bench to begin the season. But Munoz at least can thrust his name into the conversation with a good spring.
Dark horse to make roster: John Schreiber, RHP
The Red Sox claimed Schreiber off waivers from the Detroit Tigers last week while placing Chris Sale on the 60-day injured list. It feels like an organizational depth move, with the right-hander likely to begin the season at Triple-A, but we can’t completely rule out Schreiber earning a spot in Boston’s bullpen.
Schreiber’s 4.21 FIP in 28 career major league relief appearances suggests his 6.28 ERA largely is the product of bad luck. He doesn’t have the most electric stuff, but the 26-year-old sidewinder offers the Red Sox a different arm angle, something that’s appealing.
Three for the road:
1. Leadoff hitter?
Verdugo seemed like the frontrunner to lock down the leadoff spot, as he was Boston’s primary option in 2020 and had an excellent season. But Hernandez fits the mold, too, despite limited experience in the role, and Cora’s comments about challenging him offensively were notable.
2. Traditional closer?
The Red Sox could opt for a committee approach, relying mostly on matchups, but Cora prefers a structured bullpen, opening the door for one pitcher to regularly handle the ninth inning.
Matt Barnes probably is the go-to guy right now, with Adam Ottavino, Hirokazu Sawamura and Darwinzon Hernandez among the other closer options to monitor as Cora builds his bullpen.
3. Contract extensions?
Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom acknowledged Sunday the organization is likely to discuss contract extensions with certain younger players before Opening Day.
“I expect, as we get into that spring, that those conversations will pick up,” Bloom told reporters during a video conference. “Don’t know what it will lead to, obviously. If and when they do pick up, it’s not something we’re going to speak publicly about unless there’s something to report. This is a time when a lot of those things often happen, so I would expect we’d at least have some conversations about it with some guys.”
This could mean any number of players, including Rodriguez, Bogaerts, Devers and Verdugo, among others. The real takeaway: Bloom already is looking toward establishing a core for the next great Red Sox team.