Playing Pepper 2022: Boston Red Sox

It was a winter extended by the cold realities of a lockout, but the 2022 baseball season is rapidly approaching.  Given the vagaries of the scheduling and how rapidly everything has to happen, it would be easy to let some traditions go by the wayside.  Not in this space!  Playing Pepper returns for its 14th season with the assistant of some great bloggers and podcasters who rose to the challenge of the time crunch.  There’s a lot of things to sort out so let’s stretch, get ready and play some Pepper!  If you want to keep up with the Red Sox during the season, I’ve created a Twitter list using the recommendations of our contributors and some other options as well.  You can follow that here!

Boston Red Sox
92-70, tied for second in the AL East, lost in the ALCS
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by bWAR: Nathan Eovaldi (4.6)
Top hitter by bWAR: Enrique Hernandez (4.9)

It feels like the Red Sox continue to oscillate between really bad and a World Series contender, sometimes in back to back years.  The shortened 2020 saw Boston with one of the worst records in the majors.  Last year, they were a couple of wins away from winning the American League pennant.  Which team shows up this season?  Let’s see what the experts have to say!

C70: Not including lockout issues, tell me about Boston’s offseason. What did you like about it, what didn’t you like about it, was there something you were hoping for that didn’t happen?

Mike: I was thrilled when Chaim Bloom signed shortstop Trevor Story to play second base but it also makes me wonder if Xander Bogaerts already has one foot out the door. Bogaerts can opt out of his contract after this season and Story can slide over to his natural position without the Sox taking too hard a hit on the field. I think I can speak for Red Sox Nation when I say we won’t be happy if Bogaerts leaves but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. Story’s addition gives the Sox an infield of four players who should hit at least 20 homers apiece and are capable of hitting at least 30. I was disappointed when Kyle Schwarber signed with the Phillies, but he didn’t have a position in Boston and the universal DH all but guaranteed he’d go back to the National League. 

Ruben: On the pitching front they lost Eddie Rodriguez, Martin Perez, and Garret Richards and acquired Rich Hill, Michael Wacha and James Paxton as replacements. I’m very excited about Paxton, but he’s recovering from Tommy John surgery, so likely won’t be available until August/September, if at all for this season. Hill and Wacha are good back of the rotation pieces. On offense there weren’t many moves other than losing Hunter Renfroe and re-acquiring Jackie Bradley Jr.

There were rumors that Boston was in on every big free agent, but as Spring Training started no major news transpired. But the big offseason story (sorry!), was the signing of Trevor Story. Along with Xander and Devers this gives us one of the best offensive infields in the league. There was lots of consternation in Red Sox Nation about needing another outfielder and this is the one area that I was hoping for improvement as well. Whether it was signing Seiya Suzuki, Tommy Pham, Nick Castellanos or getting Schwarber back, any of these would have given us a little more offense and options in the outfield. But with the acquisition of Story, I believe the offense can thrive even if we get below average hitting from Bradley.

John: The story of the postseason WAS Story: Trevor Story. He is exactly what the Red Sox needed: another big bat in the middle of the order as well as improving the infield defense. They also went out and upgraded the outfield defense by bringing back old friend Jackie Bradley. If they can get just a minimum of decent offense from him, it will be a good trade. I also like the bullpen upgrade with the signings of Matt Strahm and Jake Diekman. At one point in March, I really warmed to the idea of signing Freddie Freeman, but the signing of Trevor Story makes more sense to me.

Matthew: Up until the Trevor Story signing, it was relatively uneventful. Not-so-new GM Chaim Bloom focused mostly on starting pitching depth, bringing in Rich Hill, Michael Wacha, and James Paxton to supplement the staff. They’re all on short contracts, Paxton’s being the only one that could extend longer than a single season. The focus on short term fixes makes sense in a way, that way being money. If they were up against the luxury tax and/or didn’t want to spend on longer term players, this was a good avenue.

The downside is you don’t get the best players (typically) for one year contracts. Boston lost Eduardo Rodriguez as he signed with Detroit on a reasonable five year, $77 million deal that I would’ve matched or bested, especially given the state of starting pitching in Boston’s farm system. Instead, the Red Sox will have to go back out on the market again next season as they don’t have the horses to fill out a starting staff beyond 2022. So this rotation is looking like a bridge to… something. But it should hold, at least until the trade deadline.

Beyond the starters, Bloom let the other big ticket free agent on Boston’s roster walk, as Kyle Schwarber signed a four year, $79 million deal with the Phillies. Schwarber fit in fantastically with the Red Sox last season and was a big part of their run to the ALCS. The team will have trouble replacing his on-base abilities, at least in the initial part of the season. Schwarber’s problem was his defense, which isn’t good, but he fit in quite well in left field in Boston. Any field that can hide Manny Ramirez can hide Kyle Schwarber. What’s more, Schwarber in the field likely would’ve only been for the 2022 season as JD Martinez‘s contract is up following this season, and Schwarber could have transitioned to a more DH-heavy positional mix. Oh well, I guess.

The end result of all this, again, up to the moment before the Story signing, was Boston under Bloom continuing to go, depending on your point of view, cheaper or more nimble. Were it up to me, I’d have brought back Rodriguez and Schwarber, but now without their contracts and the contracts of JD Martinez, Eovaldi, likely Xander Bogaerts who has an opt-out, Jackie Bradley, Enrique Hernandez, Christian Vazquez, Hill, and Wacha, the Red Sox will be as well-positioned to add next off-season as any team in baseball. Which is good, because that’s a mass exodus of talent.

The move the team made that I really liked, and I don’t think I’m out on an island here, was the signing of Trevor Story. Story helps solidify the middle infield in a way that hasn’t been the case since before Dusin Pedroia’s injury. I have no concerns about Story hitting outside of Colorado. He should step in and bring power, speed, and above average defense to a position the Red Sox have struggled to fill for going on five seasons now. What’s more, if Bogaerts does leave the organization, as he has the power to do following this season, Story can move over to shortstop and play there for as many of the seasons remaining on his contract as necessary while giving the Red Sox above average production at the position. This is the reason you spend money. The fit was too good and I’m overjoyed the front office saw this fit and extended themselves to make it happen, bring in the player, and improve the team.

C70: Old friend Michael Wacha joined the Red Sox this winter. What do you think he can give the team?

Mike: Not much other than be a placeholder for Chris Sale, James Paxton, Tanner Houck, or Garrett Whitlock. Over the last three years, Wacha has pitched to a 5.11 ERA in 66 games and his FIP of 5.07 indicates it wasn’t due to poor fielding or elements beyond his control. His career-high in innings is 181 1/3 and that came back in 2015 when he was 23. Since then—in non-COVID seasons—Wacha has averaged about 125 innings. I can see him as a spot starter or long reliever but not much else.

Ruben: With Chris Sale’s injury keeping him out for the start of the season, Eovaldi and Pivetta are the only certainties in the rotation, so Wacha is going to be an important piece. Depending on how well Houck and Hill perform, Wacha could be anywhere from a #3 to a #5 starter. He doesn’t need to rebound to his former all-star self to be a valuable contributor in this role. I’m hoping that while in the rotation he can pitch 5 innings while keeping the team in the game in most of his starts, and if/when Sale/Paxton/Whitlock join the rotation he can transition to be a key bullpen piece.

John: Wacha can be a good fourth or fifth starter. He is an innings eater and with Chris Sale’s rib injury, he maybe relied on a little more in April and May.

Matthew: Innings. He had a good last few months with Tampa in 2021, and that seems due to a change in his pitch mix. He dropped his cutter and replaced it with more curveballs and sinkers. The end result was fewer homers (four), more strikeouts, and a promising ERA or 3.00 over 30 innings in September. That said, I think if he can stay in the rotation, remain healthy, and give the team innings in the fifth starter spot, the contract will be a success. I’d love to see more, but I’m definitely not expecting it. 

C70: Will the club try to extend Rafael Devers this year, even though he has one more arbitration year?

Mike: They’d be wise to extend him as soon as possible or they risk losing two of their cornerstones in the next couple years. Given a choice, I’d like to see Devers extended before Bogaerts for a few reasons. Devers is only 25 and won’t be 26 until the postseason. He’s received MVP votes in two of his three full seasons (not counting his rookie season or the shortened 2020 season), won a silver slugger award, and made the American League All-Star team. That said, his defense is a concern and shifting him to another position won’t be that easy unless he agrees to DH if/when J.D. Martinez departs. Even if Bobby Dalbec struggles at first base or is traded, Triston Casas is waiting in the wings to take Dalbec’s spot.

Ruben: I hope so! It’s always painful to watch homegrown guys depart in free agency, and with lots of salary coming off the books at the end of this season (JD Martinez and David Price are taking up about $35 million, just between them, that will end this year), I hope they sign him to a long term market competitive contract to keep him in Boston through his prime years. There have been some questions about his defense and how his body type will age, but he can still be a valuable offensive player, even if he ends up at 1B/DH in his later years.

John: I really hope so, but Devers has said that he won’t talk extension once the season begins. I hope this doesn’t turn into another Mookie Betts situation where the team will forced to trade him. At least Devers has said he’d like to stay in Boston.

Matthew: It doesn’t seem like it. Well, that’s not what you asked. They could be trying now. I don’t have inside information. But Devers himself said just a few days ago that there hadn’t been contact between himself and the team regarding an extension. I’ve said two things all along so forgive me for reiterating them. First, Devers is a fantastic hitter and a true joy to have on the team, so from that standpoint I hope they give him a 20 year extension. Second, if the Red Sox front office doesn’t think Devers can stick at third base, then that makes things complicated. Boston has both Bobby Dalbec and top prospect Triston Casas lined up to play first base. It doesn’t make sense to give Devers $200 million (or whatever the number is) and then shift him off of third base to a position the team already has covered multiple times over.

So the answer is, I don’t know and, depending on how the team’s front office views him, I don’t know if they should. If they can’t, the haul they could get by trading him has to be enticing for Bloom. And now writing that sentence has made me feel sad.

C70: Which prospect are you most excited for and when should they make their major league debut?

Mike: Short-term, I’m really looking forward to Casas’s arrival in Boston. He’s been on our radar for a while now and he impressed when he helped lead Team USA to a silver medal at the Olympics with team-bests in homers (3) and RBIs (8). But he projects as a first baseman and will need to supplant Dalbec somehow. Long-term, if Marcelo Mayer is everything he’s supposed to be he could be Boston’s next superstar shortstop. He needs to improve his glove but he can rake and is already ranked as the #15 minor league prospect at only 19 years old. I can see Casas making his debut sometime this year, but Mayer still has a few more years of seasoning and might not debut until 2024 or 2025.

Ruben: I am assuming most others are going to say Triston Casas who should be playing at Fenway by mid-summer. That would be the easy response and I could talk forever about him, but I’m sure others will have already convinced you why Sox fans should be excited. So I’ll talk about a couple of others who I think will help the Red Sox this season: Connor Seabold and Connor Wong who are underrated guys who had their first cup of coffee last year. I think Seabold will get called up as soon as we need another pitcher, and if he pitches like he can, will be a very valuable spot starter. Connor Wong’s speed and flexibility to play multiple positions should see him get a full time promotion by mid season at the latest, and I think he will be a very valuable “10th man” for this team.

John: Triston Casas. He’s been impressive at first base in the minors and at the 2020 Olympics. He might make his Fenway debut before the season ends. He looks like the first baseman of the future.

Matthew: It’s hard not to say Marcelo Mayer. It’s not often the Red Sox pick as high as fourth overall in the draft (the last time before 2021 was 1967), and it’s even less often you get what many think is the best prospect in the draft at that spot, but the Red Sox lucked out with both when they grabbed Mayer. That said, promising as Mayer is, he’s going to start the season somewhere in the very low minors. So I’m going to say Triston Casas. Casas was a first round pick of the Red Sox out of high school in 2018. He’s a first base-only guy so he really needs to hit to have value, but he can really hit. He projects to a high on base percentage and a ton of power, or in other words, a lot of fun. I can’t wait to see him. He’ll start the season in Triple-A and at 22 years old there’s time for him to spend there if need be, but it seems likely the Red Sox would consider bringing him up before the end of the season if he performs. 

C70: How do you see 2022 shaking out for this team? What’s your expectation of where they finish?

Mike: I expect them to be even better than last year’s team that won 92 games and came within two wins of going to the World Series. Losing right fielder Hunter Renfroe in a trade with the Brewers that returned Jackie Bradley Jr. looked a lot worse before the Story signing. I expect Story and an improved Dalbec to make up for Renfroe’s 30-homer bat and Bradley is a much-better outfielder with an arm equal to that of Renfroe, who led all outfielders with 16 assists last year. But if Bradley hits the way he did last year with Milwaukee, even his stellar glove won’t be enough to justify a roster spot.

I expect the infield to provide the offensive firepower but with suspect defense, while the outfield gives the Sox excellent defense with a little pop from left fielder Alex Verdugo and center fielder Enrique Hernandez. If Bradley’s bat can channel any season from 2016-2020, he’ll add a little icing to the offense from the bottom of the order.

With Chris Sale injured, James Paxton still recovering from Tommy John surgery, and Eduardo Rodriguez pitching for Detroit, the Sox will rely on Nathan Eovaldi and Nick Pivetta to hold down the fort. Tanner Houck, Wacha, and veteran Rich Hill will round out the rotation. To me the key is Houck, who has a ton of potential, filthy stuff, and early success at the big league level, posting a 2.93 ERA in his first 21 MLB games. I trust Eovaldi to anchor the rotation, expect a better showing by Pivetta in his second year with the Sox, like Hill at the back of the rotation, and you already know how I feel about Wacha. If Houck can continue building on his previous success I’ll feel a lot better about the rotation.

The bullpen has question marks, especially after closer Matt Barnes pitched to a 10.13 ERA in his last 16 appearances after being one of the better relievers in baseball through July. Not surprisingly, Boston’s pitching will determine their fate but I’m hoping for the best and Sale’s quick return.

Ruben: They overachieved last season, so all things being equal there should be some regression to the mean. Overall, I don’t see them seriously challenging for the division, but should be well in the wild card race, and end up with a win total in the high 80s, and hopefully a playoff spot. Once in the postseason, anything can happen.

John: As I said in 2021, it will be the pitching that will tell the tale. A healthy Chris Sale and I think the Sox can top the 92 wins of 2021. I can see them winning 95 and challenging for the AL East title.

Matthew: This season feels a bit like an extension, at least plans-wise, of 2021. The Red Sox are a good team and if many things go right they can compete with just about anyone in the AL. They need a bunch of stuff to go right though. They need the starting pitching health they got last season to continue (Chris Sale’s broken rib isn’t a good start), they need competence in the bullpen (if anyone has seen Matt Barnes’ control, please let me know), and they need to improve their infield defense a lot. On that last point, perhaps Trevor Story’s addition will shore up the right side and allow Xander Bogaerts to shade a bit to his right which could help out Devers. It’s a theory. Or everything will explode. We just don’t know!

I think it’s realistic, especially with the new expanded playoffs, for Boston to slip into the playoffs somewhere. It’s a very tough division with Toronto, the Yankees, and Tampa all having as good or better teams than Boston (though I’m lower on the Yankees than most, it seems). While blowing through everyone like they did in 2018 would be fun (and it was!), just getting in is probably the Red Sox’ goal in 2022, and I think it’s an achievable one.

C70: Besides yourself and the team account, give me up to three good Red Sox Twitter accounts to follow.

Ruben: @redsoxstats – some great analysis and statistical insights on the team
@Jared_Carrabis – irreverent, but also occasionally able to get an insider look at the team
@IanMBrowne – MLB Beat writer for the team. A must follow to stay up to date on the team.

John: 1. Hayato: @realRedSox
2. Thomas Carrieri: @Thomas_Carrieri
3. Austin J. Eich: @Eich_AJ

Matthew: Red at Surviving Grady (@SurvivingGrady) is fantastic. So funny and dedicated. The guys at Sox Prospects (@SoxProspects) are the best in the business as far as Red Sox minor leaguers, scouting, and player development stuff goes. Finally, Alex Speier (@AlexSpeier), who does the most innovative writing about the Red Sox for the Boston Globe.

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