Boston's keys to becoming surprise contender in AL

March 28th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Ian Browne’s Red Sox Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

SEATTLE -- Opening Day. It’s the best day of the baseball season.

Why is this?

Perhaps Red Sox manager Alex Cora put it best on Wednesday, when he was in the middle of a family activity with his partner Angelica and his six-year-old twin sons Xander and Islander.

“Right now, standing here in the aquarium in Seattle, we all have a chance,” Cora said in his weekly radio interview on WEEI.

For the 2024 Red Sox, the chance to defy the prognosticators starts on Thursday night at T-Mobile Park, a long way from home.

Here are the things that can help the Red Sox be a surprise contender in the American League:

The return of Colorado Story
In Trevor Story’s first two seasons with the Red Sox, he didn’t have a chance to be the player he was with the Rockies, because he wasn’t healthy enough to do so.

Now he is. And Story spent Spring Training looking like a player determined to get back to who he was not all that long ago.

Helped by his first healthy offseason in years, Story has a sturdier physique and the tools to be a high-impact player on both sides of the ball.

Bello’s emergence into a front-line starter
It says a lot about the confidence the Red Sox have in the 24-year-old Brayan Bello that they are presenting him the chance to start on Opening Day in what will be his second full Major League season.

The Sox put their faith in Bello earlier this month when they signed him to a six-year, $55 million contract extension that includes an option that could keep the talented righty pitching for Boston through 2030.

While the team’s brass had the long term in mind with this contact, the reality is that Bello needs to be a front-line pitcher this season for the Sox to contend.

Another starter steps forward
Bello can’t do it by himself. In a rotation of largely unproven commodities, somebody from the trio of Garrett Whitlock, Tanner Houck and Kutter Crawford needs to take a significant step forward.

Judging by Spring Training, Whitlock -- backed by a new cutter he plans on using to improve his success against lefties -- has the best chance to be that person.

O’Neill stays healthy
How good is a healthy Tyler O’Neill? In 2021, the right-handed hitter finished eighth in the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award voting.

A barrage of health ailments prevented O’Neill from being that player the last two years in St. Louis. While O’Neill battled some calf tightness in Spring Training, the Red Sox took it easy on him to make sure he would be good to go on Opening Day.

Though the season starts with a 10-game West Coast trip, a healthy O’Neill could do serious damage playing half of his games at Fenway Park. Cora seems most excited about O’Neill’s quickness on defense.

Casas cleans up
Last year, the Sox were perfectly content to let Triston Casas ease into his rookie season, figuring he would have some struggles along the way. He did. But the team’s patience paid off, and so did the first baseman’s tireless work behind the scenes. By the second half, he became one of the most dangerous hitters in the American League.

If Casas can do that from the start this season, the Sox could have a fearsome threat hitting fourth, providing plenty of protection for Rafael Devers and Story in front of him.

Duran sets the tone
The first batter to step to the plate for the Red Sox this season will be speedy outfielder Jarren Duran. At this time last year, he was an after-thought, opening the season at Triple-A Worcester.

When he got his call back to the Majors early in the 2023 season, Duran turned into a sparkplug at the top of the order. He frequently turned singles into doubles with his speed. If the muscular Duran can add a little more power this season, the Red Sox will have a well-rounded hitter leading off.