Red Sox 2021 Preview: Five Players With Most To Prove This Season

Can J.D. Martinez rebound? Is Alex Verdugo for real?

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The Red Sox as a whole — players, coaches, front office — have a lot to prove this year. After winning a World Series in 2018, Boston followed up its Fall Classic triumph with a disappointing 2019 season and a 2020 campaign that, all around, was not good enough.

But there are a few players on the roster who will be under bigger microscopes than others. How will they respond?

With Thursday’s Opening Day at Fenway Park just around the corner, we decided to look at five Red Sox players with the most to prove in 2021.

Let’s get into it:

J.D. Martinez
Are Martinez’s days as an elite big league hitter over? Or was last season an aberration?

Martinez’s stance is about what you’d expect. The Red Sox, publicly, say their star designated hitter’s ugly 2020 performance was a product of many factors — pandemic delaying season, no video available in clubhouse, etc. — outside of his control.

But the numbers are the numbers. Martinez followed up his .330 average, 43 homers and 130 RBIs in 2018 with a .304/36/105 line in 2019. Last year, he hit .213 with seven homers and 27 RBIs over 54 games. He was not good during spring training.

Martinez only is 33 years old. So, he should have plenty left in the tank — certainly more than what he showed last year. Martinez might be Boston’s top X-factor this year. If he returns to 2018-like production, the Red Sox offense might be the among the best in baseball. If he falters, the middle of the lineup could fall apart.

Darwinzon Hernandez
We know Hernandez has an electrifying arm and can strike out basically anybody. But can he throw strikes?

A former top prospect, Hernandez was a fascinating player to watch after his promotion in 2020. The hard-throwing left-hander compiled a 4.44 ERA while striking out an absurd 16.9 batters per nine innings over 29 games. The problem? He walked 7.7 batters per nine innings while posting a 1.747 WHIP. The Venezuelan managed a 2.16 ERA over seven appearances in his injury-plagued sophomore campaign, but his walks-per-nine-innings increased to 8.6.

So, what’s Hernandez going to be?

At this point, he doesn’t have enough command to stick in the rotation. And, if he doesn’t get the walks under control, he won’t get a high-leverage role in the bullpen.

But, if Hernandez puts it all together, something he certainly could do, look out. He could be dominant in any role.

Alex Verdugo
Verdugo was one of the best outfielders in baseball last year. Is he really that good?

Acquired in the Mookie Betts deal, Verdugo hit .308 with six homers and 15 RBIs in 2021 while playing excellent defense all over the outfield. He also played with the kind of energy that makes it easy to envision him as a franchise cornerstone for years to come.

But last season was Verdugo’s first as a full-time starter in the big leagues, and it saw him play only 53 games in front of basically no fans. That really isn’t a great litmus test for whether a player can handle the pressures of playing in the American League East.

(For what it’s worth, hit just .231 with zero homers during the spring.)

Verdugo has a ton of talent, and it’s unlikely his Red Sox debut was a fluke. Still, he needs to prove it over a full season.

With Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi now elsewhere, Verdugo is the top dog in a Red Sox outfield loaded with question marks.

Eduardo Rodriguez
Rodriguez is a good — perhaps even very good — big league pitcher. But can he be a reliable front-of-the-rotation starter, let alone an ace?

Rodriguez shook off toughness and consistency concerns in 2019 to put together his best season as a pro: 19-6 with a 3.81 ERA over a career-high 34 starts. He was great, and seemingly set himself up to take over as ace of the Red Sox staff with Chris Sale battling arm issues that eventually led to Tommy John surgery.

We all know what happened in 2020. Rodriguez battled myocarditis, a heart condition stemming from his battle with COVID-19, and missed the entire season. None of that is his fault.

Rodriguez, originally slated as the Opening Day starter, was awesome during the spring before going down with a dead arm, something that likely will force him to start the season on the injured list. The Red Sox are acting like Rodriguez only will miss a start or two, but who knows?

Now 27, Rodriguez is entering a contract season as, essentially, the ace of the Red Sox. Let’s see what he does.

Rafael Devers
Is he an elite hitter? Is he a third baseman? Will he earn a contract extension?

Devers probably is the most talented hitter in the Red Sox lineup. A former teen phenom, the energetic Dominican broke out in 2019, hitting .311 with 32 homers and a league-leading 54 doubles. Equally as important, Devers showed vastly improved defense at the hot corner, fueling optimism he could stick at third.

But last season was … weird.

Defensively, Devers struggled in the first spring training, looked even worse during July summer camp and ultimately committed 14 errors in 57 games. At the dish, he was good but not great, hitting .263 with 11 homers and 43 RBIs.

He was just OK this spring, not like that really matters.

Many, including the Red Sox, believe the return of Alex Cora could make all the difference for Devers. It should — Cora’s impact on Devers in 2018 and 2019 was indisputable.

Devers, only 24, still has all the makings of a star and a pillar of the Red Sox. There is no reason why he can’t be great this season.

Thumbnail photo via Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

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