The Red Sox opened spring training amidst seriously depressed expectations. They had just completed a lackluster offseason that led to boos at Winter Weekend, with little reason to believe they'd finish any better than fourth in the rugged AL East.
Three weeks into a camp that has already created some reasons for concern, particularly in the starting rotation, it's worth noting that we've also seen slivers of optimism. Here are five things to feel good about as we cross the halfway point.
1. Chris Sale
I know, I know. Don't get fooled again. But this is less to do with Sale's results (which were encouraging on Monday, by the way) and more about his demeanor. The veteran left-hander who has basically lost the last three seasons to injury looks like a new man, and it feels authentic.
Sale has sported an ear-to-ear smile all camp, and maybe this makes me a sucker, but I refuse to believe he'd be this outwardly enthused were he worried about his arm or ribs or wrist. This doesn't mean a setback can't suddenly punch him (and us) in the face, but right now we should be taking our cues from the seven-time All-Star, and he's clearly feeling himself.
It's a lot easier to picture the Red Sox hanging tough in the wild card race with a vintage Sale fronting the staff. He'll need to prove it when the games actually count, but for now it's OK to be encouraged.
2. Masataka Yoshida
Yoshida's last official act in camp before departing to join Team Japan at the World Baseball Classic was to take a Sale fastball off the hip during a live batting practice. "That was him wishing me luck," Yoshida joked. Though the $90 million man recorded just one hit in five at-bats during his brief introduction to big league pitching, he did enough in BP to open the eyes of teammates and coaches, who marvel at his consistently loud contact and surprising power to all fields.
"I feel like there is a gap between the image I expected and what I felt in games," Yoshida countered, which was music to Alex Cora's ears.
"If he feels that way, that's awesome," Cora said, "because we thought he looked great driving the ball. He put some work in. You can see it."
While Yoshida was hailed as a potential leadoff hitter, it's a better bet that he ends up batting cleanup, since Cora wants to separate him from Rafael Devers in the 2-hole. If he delivers on the promise that made the Red Sox value him more than anyone else, the complexion of the lineup changes considerably.
We wrote about this last week, but however you define good vibes, the Red Sox are exuding them. The clubhouse is loose, the focus is professional, and it's apparent within seconds of walking in that all those World Series winners from the Dodgers and Braves know what they're doing.
Justin Turner, Kenley Jansen, Chris Martin, and Adam Duvall are used to winning. The same goes for Kiké Hernández, Sale, and Rafael Devers. They don't carry themselves like a last-place team, and there are no David Price-like figures creating an atmosphere of paranoia.
The old cliché about winning making good chemistry is only partly true. Sometimes a unit pulling on the same rope, as Duvall put it, has already taken the first important step.
4. Raimel Tapia
Someone surprises us every camp, and right now it's the speedy former Blue Jays outfielder. Red Sox fans undoubtedly remember him from one of the low points of last season, when Jarren Duran lost his flyball in the lights and then stood with a hand on his hip while Tapia circled the bases with an inside-the-park grand slam.
Tapia can play all three outfield spots and is only two years removed from stealing 20 bases with the Rockies. He has been the team's best hitter this spring, batting .412 with a homer and a 1.294 OPS in six games.
"He brings energy," Cora said. "He's a good baserunner. He's an offensive player. There's a reason he's here. I think we got lucky to get him here on a non-roster invite."
Although the outfield is already heavily left-handed between starting corners Alex Verdugo and Yoshida, Cora sees room for another bat from that side. It could be youngster Jarren Duran, or it might be Tapia, who must be added to the 40-man roster by March 25 or he can opt out of his contract.
5. Bryan Mata
Speaking of surprises, Mata has already shown why he was such a highly regarded prospect before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2021. He returned last year to go 7-3 with a 2.49 ERA at all four levels of the minors, and entered camp with a chance not so much to make the team, but put himself atop the line when the time inevitably comes for reinforcements.
Consider that mission accomplished. Mata is a burly 6-foot-3 and 238 pounds, with the fastball to match. His power sinker sits routinely in the upper-90s, and through four shutout innings this spring, he has allowed just one hit while striking out four. Most importantly, he has walked only one.
While his big-league future probably rests in the bullpen, if Mata can improve his command (he walked 5 per 9 innings last year), there's a chance he earns starts in Boston. He'll probably open the season in Triple-A Worcester's rotation, but he looks like a potentially exciting piece of the future.