Playing Pepper 2021: Boston Red Sox

Opening Day is just around the corner (knock on wood after 2020, of course) and as such, that means it’s time for everyone’s favorite post series!  OK, maybe second favorite after Top Cards on Twitter.  It’s Playing Pepper!  Year 13 of our intrepid series finds us, as always, asking questions of bloggers (both former and current) of other teams, seeing how they view the upcoming season.   I think it’s a solid way of getting a handle on MLB as a whole.  So get your bats and ignore that sign on the fence–let’s play some pepper!

Boston Red Sox
24-36, fifth in the AL East
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

For all that we think of Boston being this team that spends money and dominates, they have wilder fluctuations than any other team I can think of.  In the last 10 years, they’ve finished 3rd, 3rd, 5th, 1st, 5th, 5th, 1st, 1st, 1st, 3rd, 5th.  Save for 2010, none of those also-ran spots have been all that close, but there are still four firsts in that decade.  You’d be forgiven if you thought the roller coaster was invented in Boston.  Which team shows up this year?  Let’s ask the experts!

C70: Baseball in 2020 was like nothing we’ve ever seen before. What are your thoughts on that season? Did you like the rule changes? How was following baseball the same or different during the pandemic?

Matthew: If I’m being honest, I never really got into last season. Part of that is a product of me being a Red Sox fan and analyst, and they were terrible. I suspect I would have at least gotten into it a bit more if I was covering a better team, but not fully. There was just too much going on in the world, and for me personally, for me to really even feel great about the season being played at all.

As far as the rule changes go, it depends how we’re looking at it. In the context of last season, they were all fine because of the obvious extenuating circumstances. Whatever they needed to do to make it work is fine. But moving forward, I didn’t really like any of the major ones. I despise the expanded postseason field and the seven-inning doubleheaders. The runner on second to start extra innings, to be fair, was better than I expected. I’d still vote against that if it came down to it, but all things considered I didn’t hate it as much as I expected.

And then following baseball, I kind of mentioned already that I never really got into it. I didn’t watch a whole lot of non-Red Sox games on MLB.TV like I normally would. I also live right down the street from the Red Sox Double-A park, so that’s usually a big part of my summer baseball experience that I didn’t get to enjoy last year.

Ruben: The strangest part of the 2020 season was the uncertainty of whether it would continue to its conclusion or if it would suddenly have to be halted. I’m glad that despite some early derailments with some teams having to suspend play for a few days, the season managed to finish. As a baseball umpire, the rule changes that were due to the shortened season weren’t too different for me. I’m used to 7 inning doubleheaders which have been used in almost all other leagues for as long as I can remember (including MLB affiliated minor league teams). Also, staring extra innings with runners on base is a standard IBAF rule which has been around since before the 2008 Olympics, and again is used in most other leagues. Even the NPL in Japan which is considered the 2nd biggest professional baseball league in the world, limits extra inning games to the point where playoff games may end in a tie. The only rule that I do not like (and it wasn’t created due to the shortened season) is the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers. I do enjoy seeing specific matchups/pinch-hitters/relief specialists. I love seeing the tactics used late in a close game, where an offensive manager may empty his bench, while the defense keeps switching pitchers to get a matchup advantage, and this is now mainly lost.

Mike: Frankly, I thought MLB should have canceled the season due to the pandemic, but when they finally decided that the season would only be 60 games, I thought it was a joke. I’m an historian and traditionalist, but the last time a professional league played so few games was in 1873 when the National Association played only 59 games. I was apprehensive about statistics and the champion’s legitimacy, but we’ve been here before—1972, 1981, 1994-1995—and we’ve gotten past those seasons, so there’s that. I’m not a fan of rule changes in general, but I thought it was about time the National League adopted the designated hitter, although that might not be permanent. I thought the extra-innings rule was ridiculous and it reminded me of being a kid and using ghost runners or not having enough friends show up for a pick-up game and making a ball hit to right field an automatic out. 

John: Let’s hope we never have another baseball season like 2020! It was beyond bizarre seeing no fans in the stands until the postseason. I understand some of the rule changes that were made for last season but the only one I liked was the DH in the National League. I am fully a proponent of the DH, and I hate to see pitchers hitting. I don’t like ANY of the other changes: starting a runner at second to begin the 10th inning or the 16-team playoff format. Call me a traditionalist with those two things, but starting a runner at second in the tenth is an artificial way to try to end a game. And we nearly had an under .500 team get to the World Series because of the expanded playoffs (Houston). Seven inning doubleheaders? I guess I can live with it for now.

C70: When is Chris Sale expected to return and what do you expect from him when he does?

Matthew: This is probably the biggest question for the Red Sox in the coming year. It’s really going to be interesting to see how slow they try to take it with him, because he is not exactly the kind of guy that is going to want to take it slow. At the same time, the team obviously wants to make sure he’s fully healed before sending him back out there. Ultimately, I’m expecting a return somewhere around the halfway point in early July. And then in terms of performance, I’m sure there will be some rust in his first couple of starts but I’m expecting something not too far off where he was pre-injury. The track record on pitchers returning from Tommy John is generally pretty good, and I try not to make a habit out of betting against Chris Sale.

Ruben: Before 2004, Red Sox fans always had a “hope for the best, expect the worst” mentality when it came to baseball. Despite a lot of success since then, that mindset is still firmly ingrained in some of us. I hope he returns mid season and is the ace he can be, but my expectation is that any innings he throws this year are a bonus, and I’m really counting on him more for future years.

Mike: Sale is just shy of one year since his surgery and it typically takes 12-14 months to recover, and I’d rather see him take at least 14, if not more. If I were running the team, I would bring him back in July before the All-Star break and let him get some innings under his belt, take the break off and come back full-time in the second half. I expect him to be just as good as he was before the injury. Even while throwing with a bum elbow, Sale’s 4.40 ERA in 2019 was still better than league average.

John: Alex Cora said he isn’t expecting Chris Sale back until after the All-Star Game. The Sox have to be careful with him, and rushing him back makes little sense unless the Sox surprise a lot of people in the standings this year.

C70: Alex Cora is back as manager after a year away. What are your thoughts about his return and how much of an impact will it have on the 2021 season?

Matthew: I think I was in the minority of Red Sox fans who didn’t want them to hire Cora back. I just didn’t think that he (nor A.J. Hinch) should be welcomed immediately back to a managing gig. I never thought they should be banned from baseball, but I felt like they should have to work their way back up. That said, I do think Cora is a phenomenal manager and I think he’ll have a positive impact on the team. The players absolutely adore him and he has a way of knowing whose buttons to push and who to lay off to get the best possible performance. I’m not one who thinks a manager makes a huge difference at the end of the day, but on the margins Cora should help.

Ruben: I am very excited about his return. I’ve always liked him, I think he is a great manager, and the players seem to like playing for him. Having said that, I am not a big believer in how much impact a manager ultimately has on a team’s win-loss record.

Mike: I’m on the fence about Cora. I loved him in 2018 before I knew what had gone on in Houston when he was a coach and what continued after he left. The Sox have been accused of similar tactics and I’m waiting for detractors to wonder what they’re up to if they play better than they did last year. I’m confident that the younger players will respond to Cora, especially Rafael Devers, but there will always be questions surrounding Cora and potential cheating.

John: I believe Alex Cora’s return will have a positive effect on the club, especially with J.D. Martinez and Rafael Devers, who struggled mightily last season. I heard that every player who played under Cora in 2018-19 gave the thumbs up for his return. That’s good enough for me.

C70: There’s been a lot of trade rumors around former Arkansas Razorback Andrew Benintendi. Do you believe he will be traded? Should he be traded? [Note: Every year at least one team does something after I send out questions that invalidates one.  Boston did this last year to me as well!  So everyone just told me what they thought about the trade.]

Matthew: The Andrew Benintendi trade was not a huge surprise, as rumors were swirling all winter. It’s a hard one to parse right now because the Red Sox got three players to be named later, and they are expected to be better than the typical player to be named later. So in that sense, we can’t really judge the trade when more than half the return is unknown. With that said, I do think it’s best for Benintendi to get out of Boston. He has seemingly been pressing for the last couple of seasons and just appeared to be a classic change of scenery type of guy. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he returns to something close to his 2018 levels in Kansas City, but I also don’t think that would’ve happened in Boston.

Ruben: I had been one of the few Red Sox fans who was a big proponent of trading Benintendi two years ago. He looked like a young rising star who was cost-controlled for a few years, and just had national exposure where he shined in the playoffs. I thought he was at the peak of his value and could command a large return in a trade. But there seemed to be an irrational love of Benny in New England. Maybe due to his boyish smile, or flowing hair, but he could do no wrong in the eyes of the fans. When he was slumping it was important to keep him in the lineup to let him “hit his way out of it”, while in comparison for example, if Jackie Bradley Jr. had a bad day the pundits said he should just be released. I heard those same sentiments throughout the 2019 season and into that offseason, even though JBJ ended up providing more value (bWAR) that year. Unfortunately, the Red Sox waited until Benny’s value was at his lowest, to trade him. Having said that, I am pleasantly surprised at the return, considering the timing. Franchy Cordero has shown some power in his MLB stints and won’t be a free agent until 2024, giving the Red Sox an additional year of control over what they had in Benny. The other player we got, John Winckowski, is a low minors pitcher and if he ever develops into a major leaguer or can be used as part of a trade for another piece is just a bonus. 

Mike: I was disappointed that he was traded, but only because I rooted for him since day one and honestly believed he had a chance to be the next great Red Sox left fielder. He appeared to have all of the tools, especially in 2018 when he hit .290, set career highs in runs, hits, doubles, triples, steals, walks, and total bases, and showed his defense off to the rest of the world during the postseason. When he enjoyed his first 20/20 season in 2017, I honestly thought that would be the first of many, but he took a step backwards in 2019, then fell off a cliff last year. I don’t think the Sox had much choice but to trade him and move in a different direction.

John: I was sorry to see Andrew Benintendi leave. I understand the trade as his stock had fallen since 2018. Still he’s still a young player and I thought he would bounce back from his injury-riddled 2020 season. I remember seeing Franchy Cordero play in San Diego. I just hope he’s not the second coming of Wily Mo Pena.

C70: What is your expectation for this team this coming season?

Matthew: I certainly think they’ll be better than last year, which is an incredibly low bar. But the offense still looks good, even if they’re not quite great, and the pitching depth is better than last year. They still have issues in the rotation and bullpen, though, and the health track record in their rotation specifically is not great. If they somehow manage to stay healthy, I think they can compete for a wildcard spot and probably win one. But I’m not betting on them staying healthy in the rotation, so I’m more expecting something like a .500 team, and probably a few wins below that. If I had to put a number on it, I’d say 78 wins.

Ruben: Despite their last place finish, they actually had one of the league’s best offenses last season. Their problem was pitching. Their top two starters missed all season, another one opted-out, and they literally only had three starters on the Opening Day roster. This led to situations such as Zach Godley being the pitcher who made the 3rd most starts on the team going winless with an ERA over 8. This year, Eduardo Rodriguez will hopefully be available all season, and they’ve added Garrett Richards, and have Nick Pivetta and Tanner Houck for some depth. Martin Perez returning as an end of rotation starter, rather that the #2 pitcher says a lot about their improvement in this area. So my expectation is that they’ll be better than last year! More specifically, I see them as an 80-90 win team. If everything lines up well they could be at the top end of that range and in the playoffs, otherwise they’ll be fighting for 3rd place in the division. 

Mike: I think they can be competitive and I wouldn’t be surprised if they bounce back and have a winning record, but I don’t expect them to contend for the division. They’ll keep things interesting for a while before falling too far behind the Yankees and Blue Jays (and maybe the Rays) to make much of a dent in the standings.

John: A lot has to go right for the Red Sox to compete in 2021. I don’t see them making the playoffs but I think they can surprise the naysayers. I’m hoping for a 82-83 win season.

Matthew: Overall, what sort of grade would you give this organization and why?

Matthew: C. It’s hard because for the most part they’ve been among the model organizations in the sport for two decades, with an ownership group willing to spend and a player development system that has produced legitimate stars. Unfortunately, they’ve changed paths the last couple of years, most notably of course with the Mookie Betts trade. I still view that as a basically unforgivable decision and they’re going to have to put in the work to get the credit back up. I do think, all in all, Chaim Bloom has done solid work since that time to work around the margins of the roster, but they’re going to need to put a winning team back on the field before I’m ready to call them a good organization again.

Ruben: B-. They did a great job getting some players that will help immediately help restock their minor league system in return for assets that were leaving anyways (trades of Mookie, Workman, Pillar, Moreland, etc.). On the negative side, they held on to Benintendi too long. 

Mike: I’d give them a C to start. The only move Chaim Bloom has made that has me excited is getting reliever Adam Ottavino from the Yankees and even then I need to temper expectations because Ottavino is 35 and inconsistent. When he’s good, he’s great—2.19 ERA and 12.5 K/9 in 148 games from 2018-2019—but when he’s bad, he’s awful—ERA over 5.00 in 2017 and 2020. The rest of the additions are mostly scotch tape and bubble gum for the roster. Outfielder Hunter Renfroe is a righty slugger who mashes lefties, but can’t hit righties. He’ll be this year’s Chris Young. Kiké Hernandez is Brock Holt with more pop in his bat. He’s played every position but catcher and is good at all but a couple. He even has a third of an inning of scoreless pitching on his resumé. Franchy Cordero has superstar written all over him, at least if you believe scouting reports, one of which called him “an absolute burner who can casually launch a baseball 489 feet.” But he has yet to put it all together at the major league level and we’ve been burned before by physical specimens with exceptional tools—Rusney Castillo, anyone? Marwin Gonzalez is similar to Hernandez in that he’s played seven positions and he has some pop in his bat, but which Gonzalez will show up in 2021? The one who batted .303 with 23 homers and 90 RBIs in 2017 with the Astros or the one who has batted .248 with 36 homers and 145 RBIs in 1,089 at-bats since? Last, Bloom brought in hurler Garrett Richards, who’s started 30 games only once in 10 years because he can’t stay healthy. He suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2014 and has had two surgeries on his right elbow, including Tommy John surgery in 2018. Anything he adds to the pitching staff will be a pleasant surprise, but I’m not holding my breath.

John: Chaim Bloom has a plan, and it will take time to bear fruit. So the fans have to be patient this year. He has improved the farm system, and has brought in some versatile position players. The pitching has the bigger question marks. Hard to give the Sox a grade on this off season until we see how some key players perform.

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NL Central Standings

TeamWLPct.GB
Brewers9567.586 -
Cardinals9072.5565.0
Reds8379.51212.0
Cubs7191.43824.0
Pirates61101.37734.0

Last updated: 10/04/2021

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