With healthy arms, Sox optimistic in '21

March 29th, 2021

The Red Sox know they are lying in the weeds when it comes to the loaded American League East due to a last-place finish a year ago.

They also know the current roster is better and deeper than the one that stumbled to a 24-36 record in 2020.

For that reason, this team can’t wait to take the field for Opening Day at Fenway Park on Thursday against the Orioles because it will be its first chance to prove that it can be better than the prognosticators are expecting.

“Definitely we’ll be better than last year,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “No doubt about it. I feel good about the team. We know where we’re playing. We know the division. But we’ve done a pretty good job of working and getting better. The work doesn’t stop now. The work doesn’t stop on April 1.

“Obviously the games matter, but at the same time, we’re going to keep getting better. We have to keep working if we want to go to where we want to go. But we do feel very comfortable with the team. It’s a good baseball team. You guys have seen it.

“In a division [in which] there’s a lot of good baseball teams, we’ve just got to battle each day and see where it takes us. But on a personal note, I do believe we’re good. We have obviously some holes that we need to improve, but overall, it’s been a great camp and we’re ready to go.”

What needs to go right?
The starting rotation has to hold up and provide innings and consistency. Typically, the rotation is the foundation of any good baseball team, and that’s why the bottom fell out for Boston last year. One thing that helps is the return of lefty ace , who didn’t pitch in 2020 due to myocarditis.

Though Rodriguez had dead arm at the end of camp, which knocked him out of getting to pitch Opening Day, it was just a temporary issue. Rodriguez is expected to miss a minimal amount of time, perhaps not even a full turn in the rotation. Things could get even better if is able to return at midseason from Tommy John surgery and get back to his pre-injury form.

Great unknown
Speaking of Sale, the seven-time All-Star will hit the one-year anniversary of his surgery on Tuesday. The Red Sox still haven’t laid out a timetable for his return to action. In fact, Sale has yet to throw off the mound, though the club said that could happen reasonably soon. If Sale can be back by close to midseason, it could have a big impact on if the Red Sox can make a legitimate run at an AL Wild Card berth.

Of course, every pitcher rebounds differently from Tommy John surgery. If Sale can be as effective as John Lackey was for Boston when he came back in 2013, the Red Sox will be thrilled. With three full seasons left on his contract after this one, it stands to reason the Sox will stay on the conservative side with their power lefty.

Team MVP will be …
. The third baseman has enormous skill and power as a hitter, and the only thing that separates him from being a superstar is more discipline at the plate. If Devers can do a better job of controlling his at-bats, he should have a monster year -- perhaps even better than the one he had in 2019. Devers also needs to shore up his defense, and he’s been working hard at that all spring.

Team Cy Young will be …
Rodriguez. For whatever reason, his maturation as a pitcher has been underrated. In 2019, the lefty was in top form for nearly every start for the final four months of the season. If he can pitch like that for a full season, he might finally get his just due, and it would be good timing, given that 2021 will be his final season before free agency.

Bold prediction
Jarren Duran will take over center field (and leadoff) by June. Almost unfathomably, the thrilling and homegrown outfield trio of Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts that helped the Red Sox to a World Series title in 2018 is entirely gone. Though the Sox have one solid everyday piece in Alex Verdugo, their other two outfielders are more like platoon pieces in Franchy Cordero (left-handed hitter) and Hunter Renfroe (righty). This could pave the way for the club’s No. 4 prospect, Duran, to make his entry to the Major Leagues fairly early in the season. Duran has speed to burn and emerging power and projects as a leadoff hitter.

If he can complete his development at the alternate site and at Triple-A Worcester in a timely fashion, Duran could provide a major spark for the Red Sox. While Kiké Hernández deserves credit for embracing the chance to be the leadoff hitter, he would need to make a significant jump in his career stats to be effective in that spot.