2021 Red Sox Preview: Agitation in the Outfield
The 2021 Boston Red Sox have more question marks going into the season than they have in a long time. The 2018 team was stacked and ready at every position. The 2019 team was basically the same. The 2020 team was an atrocity, but everyone knew heading into the season that it was a rebuilding year.* The 2021 squad won’t be that bad. In fact, if a lot (A LOT) of things break right, the 2021 Boston Red Sox may even snag a wild card. But to accomplish that goal, lofty as it is, the team needs to address some of their needs, and they need to do it soon.
*Ownership-speak for making the fans sit through the most torturous display of ineptitude since (at least) the turn of the century
Now, we know a few things for certain: Xander Bogaerts is going to be starting at shortstop, and Rafael Devers will be at third. Christian Vazquez will be the team’s primary catcher, and Bobby Dalbec will at least be the right-half of a platoon at first. Alex Verdugo will be a starting outfielder. These are pretty much the only sure-things we have going into the 2021 season with regards to the starting lineup. Furthermore, we know that J.D. Martinez is the DH, and that Kevin Plawecki is more than likely the backup catcher. That’s the list of what we know.
“What we don’t know” is a much, much longer list. Jackie Bradley, Jr. is still a free agent. He could still be resigned by Boston, and that possibility looks more likely today than it did a few weeks ago, but it is still not the most likely scenario. Without him, the Red Sox would play Andrew Benintendi in center. It seems like a perfect in-house answer, other than the fact that the team has been actively shopping him for the better part of a month. The chatter has died down a bit over the past week, but no one should feel comfortable penciling Benintendi in as a Sox starter in 2021. The team could resign Jackie and Benintendi, and would have the starting outfield set—Beni in left, Jackie in center, Verdugo in right. The team might instead trade Benintendi and let JBJ walk, leaving the lineup with two gaping holes and not a ton of time to fill either, let alone both, in a satisfactory way. Boston did recently sign former-Dodger Kiké Hernandez, who is a utility man in the mold of Brock Holt, and has played outfield frequently. Ken Rosenthal has reported, however, that Hernandez desires to play a single position, and to be the everyday player at the position. Assuming that the team was aware of this desire prior to offering the contract, and given the need for a second baseman who isn’t painful to watch bat, it feels safe to write Hernandez’s name at second—anything can happen, so maybe write his name in pencil rather than pen, but Kiké Hernandez is a safe bet to start most of the games at second base.
There are other outfield options available, should the Sox lose JBJ, Beni, or both. Marcel Osuna is a free agent, and his bat would make the team’s offense extremely dangerous and balanced. However, the man’s defense is tragic, and J.D. Martinez currently occupies the DH position. Plus, Osuna wants a deal of AT LEAST four years. How many awful-fielding thirty year-olds age gracefully when they can’t DH? Approximately zero. If the Sox wanted to really tank the season, they could start both Osuna and Martinez in the outfield, which would be horrible but at the very least would also be wildly entertaining, similar to how it was both hilarious and sad watching Hanley attempt to navigate the monster in 2016. Assuming the team doesn’t want to go that route, I see an Osuna signing as very unlikely. I think the best bet for Boston in terms of contention is to keep both JBJ and Benintendi. Hope JBJ’s defense remains at its all-world level, and pray Benintendi’s 2020 was a fluke and he hasn’t actually turned into the worst hitter since 1907.
Compared to the outfield, the infield looks completely put together. There are still a few question marks, however. We know Xander is at short and Raffi is at third. We know Vaz is the starting catcher, and Kevin Plawecki is almost definitely his backup. As I said up above, Kiké Hernandez is most likely going to be the starting second baseman. The only real questions surround first. Bobby Dalbec broke out in a huge way last season, hitting 8 homers in only 23 games. He had an OPS of over .900 against righties, so it’s not like he performed even remotely bad against them, but it remains to be seen if the team trusts him and his performance enough to give him the full-time starting job in 2021. Currently, his backup would be Michael Chavis, who I hope to never see play for the Sox again. Triston Casas is an extremely exciting LHB first base prospect, but he’s not going to be ready in time to save the Sox if Dalbec turns into Chavis against righties. It’s unclear what the team will do, and I’m not sure of any first basemen currently on the market that would be cheap, would not need to start every game, and hits righties well.
Not including pitchers (that deserves an entire article), the team’s biggest question marks surround left- and centerfield and first base. Smaller question marks exist at second base, where the team will need to find someone if Hernandez is needed in the outfield, and on the bench, where the team sorely lacks adequate depth. There are very real paths that this team could take to be one of the best offenses in the game—it would just take a lot of things going right and very few things going wrong. We’ll know more in the coming weeks, when Beni and Jackie are either resigned, off the trade block, or on other teams, and at that point we’ll be able to more accurately project this team’s ceiling. Until then, all we can do is trust Chaim.