Red Sox

As MLB teams report, let's count the ways the Red Sox will be worse in 2020

As MLB teams report, let's count the ways the Red Sox will be worse in 2020

It is time for a Red Sox reality check. They were never, ever meant to contend in 2020.

This 60-game sprint will probably keep them from plummeting completely out of the playoff race, but let's not kid ourselves. They'll be in the wild card hunt in much the same way a 6-8 NFL squad technically maintains postseason aspirations come late December — by relying on mathematical gymnastics rooted more in hope ("If the Bengals and Bills play to a scoreless tie …") than substance.

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They're worse than they were last year, and they weren't very good last year. With Spring Training 2.0 set to open on Friday, let us recount how much has changed since 2019 ended with a disappointing 84 wins and the Sox 12 games out of the playoff race.

Before the season even concluded, the Red Sox fired Dave Dombrowski, architect of 2018's World Series juggernaut, whom they had hired in 2015 to put them over the top. They didn't view him as a builder, however, tabbing Chaim Bloom from the Rays to oversee what could be a lengthy rebuild.

Needless to say, a team that wants to win now does not fire Dombrowski and replace him with Bloom. That only happens when prioritizing the long view.

Bloom's first order of business, even if it took the entire winter to accomplish, was trading MVP Mookie Betts and former Cy Young Award winner David Price to the Dodgers. This provided much-needed salary relief. It did not make the Red Sox better, a fact Bloom acknowledged the night he announced the deal.

"I certainly think it's reasonable to expect that we're going to be worse without them," he said, "but we have real good talent coming back."

Right fielder Alex Verdugo, the centerpiece of the trade, may not be Betts, but he's a lot better than people think. He's also coming off a cracked bone in his back that sidelined him for the last two months of 2019 and would've delayed the start to this season if COVID-19 hadn't shut it down first. The Red Sox need him to be a star, and that's asking a lot.

Offense is supposed to be a strength, but it could be a problem.

In Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, and J.D. Martinez, the Red Sox possess an impressive heart of the order. Perhaps Verdugo and the perpetually underachieving Andrew Benintendi can expand the attack. If they can't, the Red Sox could end up being no better than average offensively at catcher (Christian Vazquez), first base (Mitch Moreland), second base (Jose Peraza), and the entire outfield (Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr., Verdugo).

In an age when even teams like the Twins can suddenly mash 300 home runs, that doesn't sound like nearly enough offense to compensate for a pitching staff that has been absolutely decimated.

It's worth repeating exactly what the Red Sox lost this winter. In dealing Price, dismissing Rick Porcello, and disabling Chris Sale, they watched over 400 innings vanish. Because John Henry locked his checkbook below deck on the Iroquois, they replaced that trio with Martin Perez and, if he's healthy, Collin McHugh.

They're banking on left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez to repeat his breakout 19-win campaign, even though inconsistency has been a hallmark of his career, and they need forever-injured right-hander Nathan Eovaldi to give them a lot more than the 5.99 ERA he provided in just 67.2 innings last year.

After that? Hold your nose.

Perez posted an ERA over 5.00 and soft-tossing Ryan Weber, a favorite of manager Ron Roenicke, is expected to claim the fourth spot despite barely cracking 89 mph. The Red Sox hope McHugh recovers from a non-surgical offseason procedure on his elbow, but he's still ramping back up as he throws off a mound, and his spot in the rotation is more likely to be manned, at least initially, by an opener.

Overseeing all of this considerable change is Roenicke, who emerged from Alex Cora's scandal-fueled departure to oversee what amounts to an interim two-month season. Cora's leadership was indispensable to the 2018 title run, and there's no guarantee the 63-year-old Roenicke will be able to push the right buttons in a truncated campaign. Though the Red Sox have technically struck the interim from his title, it wouldn't shock anyone if they're in the market for a longer-term solution come fall.

So to recap: the new baseball chief is here to rebuild but can't spend any money, the offense looks top-heavy, the starting rotation is made of paper clips and gum, and the new manager might only be on the job for nine weeks.

Does that sound like a contender to you? Me, neither.

Plummeting Red Sox could land one of these monster prospects atop 2021 MLB draft

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Plummeting Red Sox could land one of these monster prospects atop 2021 MLB draft

A 60-game baseball season creates unique opportunities for efficiency, none more than this:

Tanking.

Asking a fan base to endure six months and 162 games of misery could have serious brand implications. Doing so for 60 games that mostly overlap with the NBA and NHL playoffs, at a time when we're primarily concerned with hoarding hand sanitizer, is a much easier sell.

And that brings us to — you guessed it — the Red Sox.

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On Wednesday, they dropped their third straight to the Tampa Bay Rays. They're now 6-12, not only last in the AL East, but last in the entire American League. Only the 3-13 Pirates have a worse winning percentage than Boston's .333.

If the season ended today, the Red Sox would own the No. 2 pick in the draft — maybe. Under the March agreement between MLB and the MLBPA, commissioner Rob Manfred can modify the draft order if the season lasts fewer than 81 games. Because baseball belatedly imposed a 60-game schedule, that choice is now on the table.

There's no word yet on what Manfred plans to do — he probably won't decide until after the season — but for the purposes of this exercise, let's assume the draft is determined by winning percentage.

Nothing kickstarts a rebuild faster than a top-three selection, and if Chaim Bloom does nothing to address the gaping holes in his rotation, the Red Sox may very well challenge the lowly Pirates for the first overall pick.

Since baseball implemented the June draft in 1965, the Red Sox have picked in the top five just three times, all from 1965 through 1967, when they selected outfielder Billy Conigliaro (1965, 5th), left-hander Ken Brett (1966, 4th), and right-hander Mike Garman (1967, 3rd).

Since then, they've picked seventh three times: outfielder Trot Nixon (1993), left-hander Trey Ball (2013), and outfielder Andrew Benintendi (2015).

Flaming out for the rest of this year could present a unique opportunity to add impact talent in a portion of the draft they typically watch from afar. And make no mistake, champions are built atop the draft, whether it's the Nationals nabbing Stephen Strasburg first overall in 2009, the Cubs landing Kris Bryant at No. 2 in 2013, or the Astros selecting Alex Bregman second in 2015.

So who might be available to the Red Sox if the land in the top three? The lack of spring seasons or summer showcases leaves us more in the dark than usual, but a scan of prospect rankings at MLB.com, Baseball America, and elsewhere suggests we should focus on three names.

The first is Vanderbilt right-hander Kumar Rocker, a 6-foot-4, 255-pounder who looks like he could play the Elephant role in a Bill Belichick defense, and with good reason: his father, Tracy Rocker, won the Lombardi Award and Outland Trophy as an Auburn defensive lineman in 1988 and is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

Kumar Rocker burst onto the scene in 2019 at Vanderbilt, where he became Baseball America's Freshman of the Year after leading the Commodores to a national title. He threw a 19-strikeout no-hitter of Duke to avoid elimination and was named the Most Outstanding Player at the College World Series.

Rocker throws 99 mph with a dominating slider. He has earned comparisons to former Vanderbilt ace and No. 1 overall pick David Price. He went 12-5 with a 3.25 ERA as a freshman, striking out 114 in 99.2 innings. He was 2-1 with a 1.80 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 15 innings when the pandemic halted his sophomore season.

He might not be the best pitching prospect on Vanderbilt's staff, though, because next on the list is right-hander Jack Leiter, who's also blessed with strong bloodlines.

His dad, left-hander Al Leiter, made a pair of All-Star teams and won World Series rings with the Blue Jays and Marlins during a 19-year career. His uncle, Mark Leiter, pitched for 11 years, and his cousin, Mark Jr., spent two years with the Phillies and Jays.

Thanks in part to that impressive lineage, Leiter is considered a more polished prospect than Rocker, with a higher floor and lower ceiling, per MLB.com's prospect expert Jim Callis. He throws a fastball that touches 95 mph, as well as a slider, curveball, and changeup.

At 6 feet and 195 pounds, Leiter isn't as imposing as Rocker, and he lacks the track record, too, since he only threw 15.2 innings as a freshman, going 2-0 with a 1.72 ERA before the pandemic hit. If he's picked first overall, it will be because of his advanced arsenal.

Leaving the college ranks, the third prospect to watch is Georgia high school shortstop Brady House. Already built like a big leaguer at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, House has drawn comparisons to Bryant, who was similarly mature as a Las Vegas high schooler before dominating at the University of San Diego.

House throws 96 mph and is considered draft-worthy as a pitcher, but scouts agree that his future rests at the plate, where he hit .653 as a junior and projects to develop plus power. His size may necessitate a move to third base, but wherever House ends up, he's not short on confidence.

"If you're playing baseball right now, your main goal is, 'Hey, I want to play in the big leagues one day,'" he told Baseball America. "But my goal is to make it even further. I want to be the best of the best. The Hall of Fame is where the big dogs live."

The Red Sox would settle for an All-Star, and if they land atop the draft, that's what they should get.

Andrew Benintendi injury: Red Sox OF could be out 'a while' with rib strain

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USA TODAY Sports

Andrew Benintendi injury: Red Sox OF could be out 'a while' with rib strain

Andrew Benintendi's nightmare 2020 season is hitting pause.

The Boston Red Sox placed the 26-year-old outfielder on the 10-day injured list Wednesday with a right rib cage strain.

X-rays on Benintendi's rib came back negative, but Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke suggested the outfielder could be sidelined for some time.

"He’s going to be a while," Roenicke told reporters in a video conference. "It’s going to be more than that 10 days."

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Benintendi injured his rib while stumbling on the basepath between second and third base during Tuesday's loss to the Tampa Bay Rays.

The injury overshadowed Benintendi's rare night of success at the plate: He went 2-for-3 with a pair of singles, doubling his hit total for the 2020 season.

Yes, you read that right: The slumping outfielder has four hits in 52 plate appearances, sporting an abysmal .103 batting average with 17 strikeouts.

With Kevin Pillar and Alex Verdugo handling corner outfielder duties, the Red Sox likely will take their time bringing Benintendi back in what already feels like a lost season.

Boston lost its third straight game to Tampa Bay on Wednesday and sits last in the American League East at 6-12.