Don’t count the Red Sox out yet … here’s why

February 8th, 2020

It looks like the Red Sox will not have in 2020, and that hurts.

It hurts them on the field, because Betts is one of the best players in the sport -- an irreplaceable star in the prime of his career. No doubt it also hurts the hearts of many in Red Sox Nation who understandably wanted their homegrown MVP and World Series champion to remain in Boston for at least one more season.

Any discussion of the 2020 Red Sox has to begin there. Leadership in Boston believes the reported three-team trade with the Dodgers and Twins will benefit the organization in the long term, and that’s a debatable point. What isn’t debatable: The Sox did not improve their chances this year by shipping off a guy who trails only Mike Trout in WAR over the past five seasons (not to mention losing ).

But that’s not the same thing as saying that the Red Sox can’t get better results than they did in 2019, when their 108-victory, championship-winning run in ‘18 gave way to a disappointing 84-78 finish that left them outside the playoff picture. That task has grown significantly more difficult, to be sure. This is still a good team, however, one with a chance to compete

As’s Anthony Castrovince pointed out prior to the Betts trade, the team WAR projections at FanGraphs -- converted to win totals -- had the Red Sox projected to gain 12 wins, putting them at 96-66. That would drop to 92-70 after the trade, factoring in both the players lost and gained, with Boston still ranking sixth in MLB and fifth in the AL in total WAR.

Even given the usual caveats with projections, that feels awfully aggressive under the circumstances. As analyst and ZiPS projections developer Dan Szymborski put it in his transaction analysis at FanGraphs, “Boston looks like an 86-89-win team on paper right now and while those types of teams make the playoffs all the time, they do need some luck.”

Even 92 wins would far from guarantee a return to October. Every American League playoff team won at least 96 games last year, and all five of those clubs (Astros, A’s, Rays, Twins and Yankees) look strong again. The Angels should continue to get better assuming their related trade goes through, the White Sox have aggressively improved and the Blue Jays and Rangers have taken some positive steps.

Boston was already looking at a steep hill, and now it’s steeper. But there are ways for the club to climb it anyway. Here are six reasons why the Mookie-less Sox still have a chance to fight their way back to the postseason in 2020. (Though first they will need to find a new manager).

1) Last year was better than it looked
As mentioned, the 2019 Red Sox were 84-78, but they had a +73 run differential, and their estimated BaseRuns record, based on their underlying offensive and defensive performance, was 89-73. That difference of five wins was one of the largest in MLB and suggests the club was better than its results but suffered from factors such as poor sequencing of hits and hits allowed. Now more than ever, the Sox need that dynamic to flip in 2020.

2) The cupboard is hardly bare
Even without Betts and Price, the Red Sox have two top-20 projected position players on the left side of their infield ( and ), a DH who mashes (J.D. Martinez), an intriguing young outfielder (more on him below), an ace starting pitcher () and another who received Cy Young Award votes in 2019 (Eduardo Rodríguez). That’s still an enviable core. Those six players are projected for a combined 25 WAR, stacking up favorably with the top sixes of fellow AL contenders such as Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Cleveland and Oakland. There are depth concerns here, but that elite talent goes a long way -- if those stars can stay healthy.

3) Sale's ceiling remains high
The Red Sox need their ace back. The bad news is that elbow issues limited the left-hander to 147 1/3 innings in 2019, and seven games with at least five earned runs ballooned his final ERA to a stunning 4.40. But Sale also mixed in plenty of dominant outings, striking out at least a dozen batters six times. He still misses bats better than almost anyone, and even in 2019, his 35.6% K-rate was the highest of any starter besides Gerrit Cole. The elbow and velocity dip are concerns, but this is still a potentially elite pitcher, health permitting. Even 180 innings of the Sale the Sox saw in 2017-18 (13.8 WAR) would provide a massive lift.

4) is no afterthought
The 23-year-old, expected to head from Los Angeles to Boston in the trade, is in a tough spot. He’s not going to make anyone forget Betts -- but he shouldn’t be overlooked. This is a player who has pedigree (he was a top 50 prospect before last season) and already proved he can translate that to big league performance. Verdugo hit .294/.342/.475 last year in his first extended taste of the Majors. He has to show he can hold up for a full season, but if so, the projections see a 3-plus WAR player in 2020. Verdugo’s contact-oriented bat and rocket arm seem like good fits for Fenway Park, which would make Sox fans feel at least a bit better.

5) has more to offer
It wasn't Boston's biggest problem last season, but Benintendi backsliding to league-average offensive numbers (a park-adjusted 100 wRC+) was a disappointment. The seventh overall pick in the 2015 Draft looked like a blossoming star in 2018, when he slashed .290/.366/.465 (122 wRC+) and posted 4.4 WAR. Benintendi needs to find a way to reverse last season's concerning strikeout spike, but as a 25-year-old with significant success already on his resume, a step forward following that step backward is hardly far-fetched.

6) Remember ?
The 2019 season was a mess for Eovaldi. An elbow injury required surgery and held him out for most of the first half. He returned in the bullpen, then moved to the rotation and never really found his rhythm in what turned out to be a replacement-level season. But there's a reason the Red Sox signed him to a four-year, $68 million deal last winter. Eovaldi was a crucial contributor after the Sox acquired him in 2018, both down the stretch and in the postseason (2.83 combined ERA). And even in '19, he suffered from one of the largest gaps between his expected numbers (per Statcast) and actual numbers of any pitcher who faced at least 300 batters, suggesting some bad luck. With high-90s heat in hand, Eovaldi, who only turns 30 on Feb. 13, could play a key role in the 2020 rotation -- and he'll have to, with Price now heading to L.A.

None of these are sure things. The Red Sox face other questions, too, including at the back of the rotation, in the bullpen and at second base. Perhaps they will still add some reinforcements around the margins, including a right-handed-hitting outfielder to complement lefties Benintendi, Verdugo and And there's the manager situation and MLB investigation.

This was already going to be a challenging season at Fenway, and giving up a generational player ratchets up the degree of difficulty. Nonetheless, Betts leaves a talented, if flawed, roster behind. If some things that went wrong in 2019 go right in '20, the Sox still have a chance at October.