RED SOX INSIDER

Tomase: Making the case for Red Sox as playoff contenders in 2021

RED SOX INSIDER

The producers at "Early Edition" earlier this week were so moved by Alex Cora's contention that the Red Sox can contend in 2021, they ran his comments with a laugh track. (A cheap shot that left their baseball writer guest feeling ambushed! But I digress ...)

And while it's easy to dismiss their chances after an abysmal 2020, it is not, in fact, crazy to suggest the Red Sox can reach the playoffs this season -- even if making that case admittedly requires more than a little luck breaking their way.

But after consistently dismissing their winter as do-nothing because it lacked star power, it's worth delving into the roster and making the case for why the Red Sox can be a playoff team in 2021 (Fangraphs puts their odds at 44.3 percent), imperfect though the roster may be.

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The first place to start is at the top. The return of Alex Cora means the return of stable leadership. Ron Roenicke is a fine man, but he may as well have had ONE-AND-DONE stamped on his forehead even pre-pandemic, and it probably didn't help his cause that Cora remained in touch with half the roster while players openly pined for his return.

Cora proved in 2018 that he can lead a team to a championship. Since then, he has been humbled not just by his yearlong suspension for his role in the Astros sign-stealing scandal, but also the disappointing finish of 2019, when the Red Sox refused to turn the page and ended up missing the playoffs. Cora is very smart, and while his cockiness gave the team its edge in 2018, he recognizes that there's much to learn from his mistakes. Getting knocked to the canvas will do that.

 

"I was out of the game for the wrong reasons and deservedly so, but moving forward I'm not going to hide it," Cora said. He's well-positioned to imbue the rest of the roster with that attitude of accountability.

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And the roster remains talented. You don't spend $205 million without returning some talent, and even if more than $30 million is tied up in players who aren't here anymore like Dustin Pedroia, David Price, and Andrew Benintendi, there's still plenty to work with, especially on offense.

The Red Sox enter the season with four position players legitimately capable of making the All-Star team in shortstop Xander Bogaerts, third baseman Rafael Devers, outfielder Alex Verdugo, and DH J.D. Martinez. Catcher Christian Vazquez is a more remote possibility, but could conceivably make five.

This will require a major bounce-back effort from Martinez, who hit just .213 last year while being overwhelmed by fastballs, but if you're asking me what's more likely -- that Martinez rebounds, or that he's cooked -- that's an easy bet. He's only 33.

Bogaerts has established himself as one of the best and most consistent shortstops in baseball. Devers is a 50-homer season waiting to happen. Verdugo plays with energy and excitement and showed flashes of becoming an elite leadoff hitter. Vazquez was one of nine catchers to post an OPS above .800.

Meanwhile, the bottom third of the order shouldn't be a wasteland, with chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom seeking power bats to upend the traditional thinking of manufacturing runs in that spot. Instead, he'll look for instant offense with all-or-nothing home run hitters like Franchy Cordero, Hunter Renfroe, and Bobby Dalbec. Any one of them could hit sixth in a traditional lineup.

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Cora will also have a lot more versatility at his disposal, thanks to new second baseman Kike Hernandez and the pending arrival of human jackknife Marwin Gonzalez. Each has played pivotal roles on a championship team -- Hernandez with the Dodgers, Gonzalez with the Astros -- and each could play virtually every day even without a set position, though Hernandez should see the bulk of his reps at second base.

That's a better, deeper, more versatile lineup than Roenicke featured last year with the likes of Jose Peraza, Michael Chavis, and (until he got hurt) Benintendi receiving regular at-bats. The Red Sox still managed to finish fifth in the AL in runs. There's no reason they shouldn't rank among the top three this time around. Of course, offense won't mean much if the starting pitching folds, and while there's no sense pretending the rotation couldn't go south faster than a flight to Cancun, it's worth noting that the ceiling is a lot higher than last year.

For one thing, Cora described former 19-game winner Eduardo Rodriguez as a full go in his return from COVID-related myocarditis. While it's unrealistic to pencil E-Rod in for 200 innings, it's safe to say he'll throw more than last year's zero. A healthy Rodriguez gives the rotation a bonafide No. 1 starter.

 

He's followed by two pitchers with frequent injury issues in Nathan Eovaldi and Garrett Richards. The former is actually coming off his best season, albeit in only nine starts, while the latter owns a lifetime ERA of 3.62. Neither is remotely a sure thing, with five elbow surgeries between them. But unlike most of the pitchers who took the mound for the Red Sox last year, these two at least have the ability to produce above-average results.

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Even if they don't stay healthy, the Red Sox are much better positioned to withstand injuries to the rotation, which should be rounded out by hard-throwing right-hander Nick Pivetta and reliable lefty Martin Perez.

Veteran swingman Matt Andriese, 2020 revelation Tanner Houck, and perhaps even prospect Bryan Mata represent far better depth options than the parade of Ryan Webers, Matt Halls, and Kyle Harts inflicted upon us last year. Rule 5 pick Garrett Whitlock was a highly regarded prospect before surgery, as well. And it's possible that ace Chris Sale makes an impact sometime in the second half.

Meanwhile, we probably haven't paid enough attention to bullpen upgrades like former Yankees righty Adam Ottavino, who will earn $9 million this season for a reason, as well as Japanese import Hirokazu Sawamura, who's blessed with a 99 mph fastball and 90 mph forkball. The returns to health of Darwinzon Hernandez and Josh Taylor give Cora a pair of power lefties in front of presumed closer Matt Barnes.

And unlike the last couple of years, when it seemed like every Red Sox reliever had the same profile of big fastball/12-to-6 curveball/iffy command, now there's a better variety of stuff and approach.

Add a presumed step back for the Rays and Indians after the departures of former Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell and All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor, and it looks like Boston's primary competition for one of the two wild card spots will be the retooled but unproven Blue Jays, the young White Sox, and perhaps the Angels.

"We can contend in 2021," Cora said. "This is a good baseball team. It's a team that's very versatile, dynamic, a bunch of good athletes, not only on the position player side but on the pitching staff wise. You've got sinkers and sliders and cutters and curveballs and fastballs up and fastballs down, changeups. We're not one dimensional. We have a good pitching staff. I'm very excited about what the organization has done since I got here in November. I said it a few days ago if you look at who we were in Nov. 5 or 6 to where we're at now, we are a lot better."