The Red Sox built their roster on a budget this winter and decided that something had to give in the lower third of the batting order. They devoted minimal resources to the 7-8-9 spots but hoped for an outsized impact in the form of power.
Three weeks into the season, it has yet to arrive.
In outfielders Hunter Renfroe and Franchy Cordero and first baseman Bobby Dalbec, the Red Sox saw the potential for 60 homers. Renfroe has already reached 33 bombs in a season once and 26 twice. Dalbec slammed eight homers in only 80 at-bats last season while exhibiting power to all fields. And even though Cordero has dazzled with tools more than production, there's no missing his ability to blast balls over 450 feet.
Twenty-two games into the 2021 season, however, the Red Sox are getting nothing from that trio in particular or the bottom of the order in general. They own just one home run from the 7-8-9 spots, tied with the Miami Marlins and Chicago White Sox for the lowest total in baseball.
The bottom of the Red Sox order is hitting just .210 with a .570 OPS. Instead of providing thunder, it has produced little more than a whimper.
"I just believe we have fallen in this slump of not putting the ball in play," manager Alex Cora said. "Everybody was praising us for putting the ball in play, doing the little things. ... There were a few games over the homestead that we had a man on second and third, less than two outs and we didn't score. When you're not swinging the bat the way you're capable of, those at-bats matter the most.
"I do believe we haven't put the ball in play in certain situations and that's where we've been failing lately. We're going to strike out. We knew that coming into the season. But there are certain at-bats that are our at-bats. Team at-bats. And we have to do a better job of it."
Cora's words were meant for the lineup as a whole, but they particularly apply to the bottom third, where the Red Sox could soon have some decisions to make.
Cordero is hitting .200 with an unsightly 23 strikeouts in 49 plate appearances. Dalbec has provided some solid contact, but he has yet to leave the yard while hitting .241 with 21 strikeouts. Renfroe is only hitting .176 with the trio's lone homer.
Because minor league seasons haven't begun yet and alternate sites simply can't simulate live game action, there's nowhere to send struggling players with options. Cordero, whom Cora admits is "striking out a lot lately," would certainly be a candidate for demotion otherwise.
"We have to keep working with him," said Cora. "People might say, 'Let's send him down to get competitive at-bats.' Where? Where are the competitive at-bats? If I can get that answer, we might make a decision like that, but there are no competitive at-bats in the minor leagues right now. There are no competitive at-bats in spring training, or in Triple-A right now in Worcester. We're going to stick with the player, trust the player. It's not like he doesn't have talent."
Cora noted that Renfroe has been off-balance at the plate and as a result lunging at pitches.
"That's why you see those pitches outside," Cora said. "He probably feels like they're way off and they're actually good pitches. It's something we saw last year with the Rays. He was in such a good place in spring training and we feel we can get him back to do that again."
As for Dalbec, he is barreling the ball as consistently as anyone on the roster -- ranking in the 88th percentile in that metric -- but hasn't had a lot to show for that solid contact. And after leading the Grapefruit League in homers with seven last month, he has yet to hit one this season.
"He came out of the shoots slow and I think he put a lot of pressure on himself," said hitting coach Tim Hyers recently. "He really wanted to get off to a good start and it just didn't happen. You could just tell in some of his swings that to me, his stride got longer, he started to lose that lower half and not stand above the ball with his body as much, and so I felt like his swing got a little loopy and inconsistent. . . . He just has to figure out, he doesn't have to carry this team, he just has to have competitive ABs, do his thing, and he's going to be in our lineup for a long time."
Changes could be coming in at least one spot. Veteran outfielder Danny Santana has been sidelined by a foot infection since March, but he's nearing a possible return. The minor league season opens next week, which could create an opportunity for Santana to play himself into the big leagues and Cordero to work on his swing in Worcester.
Renfroe and Dalbec have both played solid defense, so at least they're contributing. What's clear is that the Red Sox aren't so much of an offensive juggernaut that they can carry three dead spots in the batting order.
As legitimate contenders with a thin margin for error, the Red Sox need help from every spot in the lineup, and that includes 7-8-9.