The overarching debate surrounding the Boston Red Sox before the 2021 season was whether they’d be any better than the club that finished in last place in the American League East in 2020.
They’ve so far answered, rather emphatically, in the affirmative.
The Red Sox finished the first half with a 55-36 record, good for first place in the AL East, 1 1/2 games ahead of the pesky Tampa Bay Rays. Now, it’s reasonable to wonder whether Boston can ride its momentum to a World Series title, a fate that seemed unrealistic just months ago.
There undoubtedly will be ebbs and flows along the way. And you can bank on some heart-pounding drama down the stretch. But the Red Sox suddenly have championship aspirations with Alex Cora back in the manager’s seat, and the second half should be wildly entertaining.
The Red Sox will kick off their second-half schedule with a four-game series against the New York Yankees, beginning Thursday night in the Bronx. Let’s first address several questions facing Boston coming out of the Major League Baseball All-Star break.
1. Is Jarren Duran ready for The Show?
The Red Sox aren’t messing around to begin the second half, as they’re already turning to reinforcements, including Duran, a highly regarded outfield prospect who’s been knocking on the big-league door since spring training. Duran, known for his blazing speed, has done nothing but produce this season at Triple-A Worcester, batting .270 with 15 home runs, 32 RBIs, 12 stolen bases and a .926 OPS in 46 games (219 plate appearances) with the WooSox. The hope is he’ll provide an extra boost to Boston’s lineup.
It’ll be interesting to see the trickle-down effect of Duran’s promotion, as it’s hard to imagine the Red Sox calling up the 24-year-old without the intention of giving him everyday at-bats. That means Kiké Hernández could see more playing time at second base, which will impact Christian Arroyo in some way, shape or form. Maybe the Red Sox will experiment with Arroyo at first base? Stay tuned.
2. What will Chris Sale provide upon returning from Tommy John surgery?
Sale hasn’t pitched in a major league game since 2019, a season in which he actually underperformed relative to his usual standards. So, not only is there the inherent unpredictability that comes with bouncing back from a major medical procedure. It’s also unclear which version of Sale the Red Sox will be getting even if he’s fully healthy. The 32-year-old left-hander is the single biggest wild card in the MLB playoff race, capable of dramatically shifting the odds in Boston’s favor if he returns to his ace form.
3. Is the rotation good enough?
The Red Sox’s offense is among baseball’s best. So, too, is their bullpen. Thus, the performance of the rotation could dictate how far Boston advances this season. And while the unit had a mostly solid first half relative to expectations, there were enough occasional hiccups to cast some uncertainty over its second-half potential.
Sale’s return obviously should help, and Tanner Hock could factor into Boston’s plans as a starter. It’ll be fascinating to see whether Nathan Eovaldi can continue to perform at an All-Star level, whether Eduardo Rodriguez can recapture his 2019 magic and whether Garrett Richards can turn around his fortunes after some recent struggles. Nick Pivetta and Martín Pérez also will be relied upon for meaningful innings.
4. What about first base?
The Red Sox haven’t received much production from first base this season, ranking dead-last in fWAR (-1.3) at the position. It’d be easy to pin blame on Bobby Dalbec, who has been unable to build on last season’s strong first impression, but that’s probably unfair. After all, he’s a 26-year-old rookie.
That said, first base has been an obvious weakness in an otherwise potent lineup. So, maybe the Red Sox will seek an external upgrade. Or maybe the improvement will come internally, with Arroyo an outside-the-box candidate to log innings at the position in wake of Duran’s promotion.
It’s probably a long shot that the Red Sox call up their top prospect, Triston Casas. But he’s been making significant strides at Double-A Portland, so perhaps he’ll force Boston’s hand after the Tokyo Olympics or at least add an extra layer to the conversation.
5. How aggressive will Chaim Bloom be at the trade deadline?
The Red Sox could stand to upgrade in several areas. You never can have enough pitching — in the rotation or in the bullpen — and, as mentioned, first base has been a black hole to this point. Bloom certainly will explore every avenue to improve the club in his second trade deadline as Boston’s chief baseball officer, but it’ll be a challenging balancing act in which he’s looking to add the necessary pieces without hindering the Red Sox’s continued efforts to build a sustainable contender.