About seven months ago, the Boston Red Sox probably couldn’t wait to close the book on their 2020 season, a weird and disappointing campaign marred by inconsistency, particularly from the mound.
Now, it’s fair to say the club is champing at the bit.
“We’re ready to play baseball,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora declared Tuesday, ahead of Boston’s 2021 season opener against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park, which since has been rescheduled for Friday at 2:10 p.m. ET.
And we’re ready to watch baseball, Alex.
It’s probably best to be cautiously optimistic about this year’s Red Sox team, which added several new faces over the offseason as chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom attempts to construct a sustainable contender. Boston should be better. But by how much? We’ll see.
Let’s not be too cautious, though. After all, Opening Day means a fresh start and the opportunity to get a little carried away with expectations. So, here are eight fearless Red Sox predictions for 2021.
1. Garrett Richards will be named an All-Star
Richards, who signed a one-year contract with Boston that includes a club option for 2022, has appeared in just 45 games (41 starts) totaling 198 2/3 innings since 2016. His single-season high for starts and innings in that five-year span, spent with the Los Angeles Angels and San Diego Padres, is 16 and 76 1/3, respectively. He simply hasn’t been able to stay on the field.
That said, talent never has been an issue for Richards, who is less than two years removed from Tommy John surgery and turns 33 next month. The veteran right-hander is a spin-rate darling whose underlying metrics suggest he’s capable of reaching an All-Star-caliber level if he stays healthy.
Richards went 28-16 with a 3.18 ERA, 3.30 FIP, 1.15 WHIP and 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings in 58 starts (376 innings) during a very productive two-season stretch with the Angels in 2014 and 2015.
2. Garrett Whitlock will become Red Sox’s closer
The Red Sox plucked Whitlock from the New York Yankees in the most recent Rule 5 draft, and he’s done nothing but impress since joining the organization.
The 24-year-old, who’s listed at 6-foot-5 and 190 pounds, underwent Tommy John surgery in 2019 and never has pitched above Double-A, but he’ll begin the season in Boston’s bullpen. Per Rule 5 draft rules, he must remain on the Red Sox’s active roster for 90 days or be offered back to the Yankees.
Whitlock will serve as a multi-inning reliever at the onset. Just don’t be surprised if his role changes based on performance and other developments across the pitching staff.
It won’t be shocking if Whitlock gets an opportunity to start, perhaps positioning him for a spot in Boston’s 2022 rotation. But there’s some uncertainty surrounding the ninth inning, with veterans Matt Barnes and Adam Ottavino currently the most likely closer options. Whitlock has the potential to eventually pitch in high-leverage spots.
3. Connor Seabold will secure spot in Red Sox’s rotation
We recently profiled Seabold for our Red Sox prospects series, and the 25-year-old stood out as someone who could help the major league club this season. He’s not the flashiest prospect, leaning on command and control rather than elite velocity, but he has a high floor and could emerge as a viable back-end starter if things go awry in Boston’s rotation, which is littered with questions.
“As soon as that trade went down, I had people texting me, being like, ‘This is a steal, ‘” Ian Cundall, director of scouting for SoxProspects.com, recently told NESN.com of the deal last August that brought Seabold and Nick Pivetta to Boston from the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for relievers Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree.
The Red Sox already were thrown a curveball with Eduardo Rodriguez’s injury, which will force Nathan Eovaldi to start on Opening Day and Tanner Houck to break camp in Boston’s rotation. Seabold should be the next man up if/when any more come their way.
4. Bobby Dalbec will break Red Sox rookie record for home runs
The target: 34, set by Walt Dropo in 1950.
Dalbec probably will strike out a lot and endure some growing pains in his first full season as Boston’s starting first baseman. But the 25-year-old has big-time power, which he showed in 2020 by launching eight home runs in 23 games (92 plate appearances) upon debuting with the Red Sox.
The only two Red Sox rookies besides Dropo to reach the 30-homer mark: Ted Williams (31 in 1939) and Nomar Garciaparra (30 in 1997).
5. Jarren Duran will be Red Sox’s starting center fielder by All-Star break
The Red Sox have overhauled their outfield over the past couple of years, notably parting ways with Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi and Jackie Bradley Jr. while bringing in Alex Verdugo, Hunter Renfroe and Franchy Cordero. Any hint of underperformance from the revamped group undoubtedly will intensify speculation over whether the Red Sox should call up Duran, a 24-year-old speed demon whose electric skill set has drawn comparisons to Jacoby Ellsbury and Grady Sizemore.
Duran, who has developed more power thanks in large to a swing change, will force Boston’s hand. The budding prospect could use a little more seasoning, especially on the defensive side, but his game-changing talent is impossible to ignore.
Also, Duran would fit quite nicely in center field, the spot vacated by Bradley this offseason, as it’d allow Verdugo to play primarily right field, where he thrived upon replacing Betts in 2020.
6. Alex Verdugo will win American League batting title
Speaking of Verdugo, let’s get really bold here.
Verdugo has excellent plate coverage. He’s a high-contact, low-strikeout hitter who can pound both righties and lefties, a profile that dates back to his days in the Los Angeles Dodgers system.
The 24-year-old batted .308 in 2020, tied for the fifth-best mark in the American League. Of course, we’re morally obligated to mention last season’s production came amid a 60-game schedule in which Verdugo totaled 53 games and 221 plate appearances. You know, small sample size. But isn’t it reasonable to think he might take another step forward this season, his second in Boston?
Plus, let’s say the new deadened baseballs have their intended impact, cutting down on home runs. Verdugo, whose opposite-field ability plays well at Fenway Park, could make quite a habit of denting the Green Monster in 2021 and beyond.
7. Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers will combine for more extra-base hits than any two teammates in Major League Baseball
Kinda random, sure. But Bogaerts and Devers deserve to be mentioned somewhere in this exercise, with the general point being they’ll be excellent and a huge reason why the Red Sox remain competitive.
Devers led MLB in extra-base hits in 2019 with 90. Bogaerts tied for third with 85. So, they already accomplished this feat in the most recent full season. They’ll do so again in 2021 because they’re still really, really good and Fenway Park still is a doubles haven. Plus, Cora just might have the Midas touch with this duo.
8. Chris Sale will make meaningful starts down stretch
The Red Sox have been hesitant to place a timeline on Sale’s return from Tommy John surgery, which he underwent in March 2020. Understandable. We’ll refrain from doing so, as well.
Instead, we’ll roll with this admittedly vague prediction, which implies two things: 1) Sale will return this season, overcoming any more setbacks in his recovery, and ramp up to the point where he’s a legitimate contributor. And 2) The Red Sox, while maybe not playoff bound, will contend until the very end.