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How Boston replaces Betts, Price to define 2020

@IanMBrowne
February 6, 2020

BOSTON -- Mookie Betts will be thousands of miles away in Arizona when the Red Sox open Spring Training next week without their erstwhile superstar. However, it’s unlikely a day will go by in Fort Myers, Fla., without Betts being a topic of conversation. The Red Sox are going to

BOSTON -- Mookie Betts will be thousands of miles away in Arizona when the Red Sox open Spring Training next week without their erstwhile superstar.

However, it’s unlikely a day will go by in Fort Myers, Fla., without Betts being a topic of conversation. The Red Sox are going to be asked about him every day from not only their own sizable media contingent, but also the flood of national reporters who will stop by.

The line of questioning will go something like this: How can you win without Mookie?

The scrutiny will be fair, because that’s how valuable Betts was in the team’s lineup for the last five years. So it will be up to the Red Sox to answer the challenge.

The Nationals proved last year without Bryce Harper that you can win a World Series a season after losing your signature player. For Boston to stay in contention -- let alone make a deep postseason run like Washington -- many things will have to go right.

It starts with ace Chris Sale. The lefty only pitched like an ace at times last season. His overall numbers (6-11, 4.40 ERA) were almost unrecognizable. Not only that, but Sale didn’t pitch the final six weeks of the season due to a left elbow injury.

Boston’s quickest path back to contention is for Sale to reclaim the type of dominance that he made commonplace from 2012-19. Nobody is more competitive than Sale, and the 30-year-old will have a chip on his shoulder bigger than the Green Monster.

But Sale can’t do it alone. In case you missed it, the Sox also dealt David Price to the Dodgers in that Betts blockbuster.

The Red Sox need solid starting pitching from the rest of the rotation -- something only Eduardo Rodriguez delivered last season. After winning 19 games in 2019, E-Rod will need to build off it, rather than take a step back.

Nathan Eovaldi needs to do something that’s been too infrequent in his career and stay healthy. He also has to get back into that comfortable groove he was in during the 2018 season and postseason.

Together, Sale, E-Rod and Eovaldi have the makings of a solid top three. But will Boston’s mystery manager -- they still haven’t named a successor for Alex Cora -- have enough depth in the rotation after the big three?

The hope is that lefty Martin Pérez, a free-agent acquisition, can pitch like he did before the All-Star break last season for the Twins, when he went 8-3 with a 4.26 ERA.

And who will be the fifth starter? At this point, that’s anyone’s guess. The Red Sox don’t have much starting depth in their upper Minors and no obvious candidate on the existing roster to claim the No. 5 spot. The most realistic options are that: a) chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom acquires a starter with some of the club’s newfound financial capital or b) the Sox deploy an opener in the fifth spot.

No matter how it evolves, the Red Sox will need a big improvement from their pitching staff, which underachieved in ’19.

Though the offense obviously loses a huge piece in Betts, the Red Sox might have enough quality hitters to overcome it. Shortstop Xander Bogaerts, third baseman Rafael Devers and designated hitter J.D. Martinez are elite hitters at their positions.

While the production of those three players is close to a given, what the Red Sox need badly is for Andrew Benintendi to return to his 2017-18 form. For Boston to maximize its potential, Alex Verdugo -- the main acquisition piece in the trade of Betts and Price -- needs to be a key cog in the offense.

Clearly, the Yankees are better than the Red Sox on paper. The same might be true of the Rays.

But the big story for the 2020 Red Sox will be if they can exceed expectations without one of the most dynamic players in franchise history.

Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.