Going into the 2021 season, expectations for the Red Sox were not very high. Coming off an abysmal 24-36 campaign in the shortened 2020 season, it seemed as if the magic of the 2018 World Champion team had just about completely worn off. Ultimately, it would have been delusional not to have felt this way prior to this season. From trading Andrew Benintendi and Mitch Moreland, to letting Jackie Bradley Jr. walk in free agency, it felt very much like a team that was primed for a rebuild.
Most experts predicted the Red Sox to finish 4th in the AL East, which was very reasonable considering they’re in a division with the defending AL Champion Tampa Bay Rays, the ultra-talented New York Yankees, and the up and coming Toronto Blue Jays. With that said, a little over halfway through the season, the Red Sox find themselves leading the AL East and are tied for the second best record in the American League.
Before I get into the players, manager Alex Cora deserves a lot of credit for the Red Sox success so far this season. While he was serving his suspension last season due to his role in the sign-stealing scandal in Houston, the Red Sox were a lifeless team that seemed like they were taking steps backwards each game. Fast forwarding to this year, the product on the field is like night and day compared to 2020. We are now seeing highlight defensive plays, heads up baserunning, and great situational hitting almost on a nightly basis throughout the lineup. Whether you like him or not, the incredible turnaround by the Red Sox in 2021 undoubtedly has a lot to do with their World Series Champion manager being back in the dugout.
As great as they’ve played all year, the Red Sox are still “overachievers” in the eyes of most of the national media. Hardly anyone views them as one of the top tier rosters in baseball. This naturally raises a question: Are the 2021 Red Sox contenders or pretenders?
At a glance, it is easy to find weak spots on this Red Sox team. Taking a look at the starting lineup, the bottom third of the Red Sox order has given them minimal production, and leadoff hitter Kike Hernandez has had a below average if not a poor first half, as he’s hitting just .237 with .316 OBP on the season. Despite these glaring holes, the heart of the Red Sox order might just be the best in baseball and they’ve pretty much shown that an offense can be carried by just four or five people as 2-6 of the Red Sox lineup (Verdugo, Martinez, Bogaerts, Devers, Renfroe) has done the bulk of the damage on a team that is statistically a top three offense in the league.
With that said, I acknowledge the fact that depth is important for teams with championship aspirations, which is why so many people are skeptical if the Red Sox offensive success is sustainable. However, Chaim Bloom, the Red Sox’ Chief Baseball Officer, is already improving the team to take some of the load off the heart of the order. It was just announced that top outfield prospect Jarren Duran is being called up and will join the team coming out of the All-Star break. It is expected that Duran will immediately be the starting center fielder. Duran was slashing .270/.365/.561 in 219 plate appearances with Triple-A Worcester and he should provide an offensive spark either at the bottom of the lineup or possibly even in the leadoff spot, which has been a black hole for the Red Sox all year long. As far as trades go, the Red Sox have been linked to first basemen on the market, especially Anthony Rizzo of the Chicago Cubs and Jesus Aguilar of the Miami Marlins. Look for a trade to be made within the next couple of weeks to bolster the offense even more and get rid of the narrative that their lineup has no depth.
From a pitching standpoint, it is no secret that aside from All-Star closer Matt Barnes, the bullpen is far from elite. Adam Ottavino has been reliable as a setup man and lefty Darwinzon Hernandez has impressive stuff, but Chaim Bloom should view trading for a lockdown reliever as a necessity; if/when a trade for a reliever is made, expect the bullpen to seem a lot deeper and a lot more versatile with regard to how and when Cora opts to use each reliever in high leverage situations.
While the Red Sox starting pitching has been steady for the majority of the season, it is fair to expect Garrett Richards and even Nick Pivetta to show some regression in the second half. Both Richards and Pivetta have been serviceable this season, but you can sense some fatigue setting in during their past few starts, as both of them have been inconsistent of late. Luckily for Boston, help is on the way: Young stud Tanner Houck is just about back to normal after working his way back from flexor muscle tightness, and he is expected to rejoin the Red Sox this month. His role when he returns has not been decided yet, but if Garrett Richards continues to struggle, it is fair to assume that Houck would take his spot and give some stability to the back end of the rotation. While it’s great to be getting Houck back, there’s another pitcher nearing a return who has just a little more hype: Chris Sale. The former AL Cy Young Award winner is finally set to begin a rehab assignment as he returns from the Tommy John surgery that he underwent in March of 2020. If Sale is able to be anything like his old self, the Red Sox will be getting an ace caliber starting pitcher just in time for the final two months of the regular season. The timing couldn’t be more perfect. Maybe Chaim Bloom trades for a starter as well, but the internal reinforcements should be more than enough to aid the starting rotation.
I understand that there is an argument to be made that the Red Sox currently don’t have enough to win it all, but the talent level on this team should improve drastically over the next couple of weeks throughout all facets of the roster. Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers are officially superstars, and Alex Verdugo isn’t that far behind, but we all know you’re only as strong as your weakest link. If Chaim Bloom buys into this team as much as the players do, he will turn this good team into a great one and ensure that the Boston Red Sox are contenders, not pretenders, as we inch closer to the postseason.