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5 questions facing Red Sox for '21 season

December 31, 2020

A team that is coming off a 24-36 season is going to have a lot of question marks. How well the Red Sox answer them will determine how successful the club will be in rebounding in 2021. Here are the top five questions that face the Red Sox heading into

A team that is coming off a 24-36 season is going to have a lot of question marks. How well the Red Sox answer them will determine how successful the club will be in rebounding in 2021.

Here are the top five questions that face the Red Sox heading into next season.

Who will pitch in?
Sure, the Red Sox plan on getting Eduardo Rodriguez back at full strength after he didn’t throw a pitch last season. And, yes, Chris Sale should re-enter the equation at some point during 2021. However, the Red Sox still need more pitching both in the rotation and in the bullpen.

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Chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom and his staff are on the hunt for help. And now Red Sox Nation waits to see what type of help it will be. Trevor Bauer, the top pitcher on the market, doesn’t seem likely. If the Red Sox thought they were a player away from winning it all, that type of blockbuster move would make more sense.

Instead, look for Bloom to prioritize someone like Corey Kluber, the former Cy Young Award winner who is a free agent and trying to prove he is healthy again. As an aside, Kluber has lived in a Boston suburb in the offseason for many years, so it stands to reason he would jump at the chance to pitch for the Red Sox if they show interest. A reunion with lefty Rich Hill -- the pride of Milton, Mass. -- shouldn’t be ruled out, either. And if the Red Sox think that Jon Lester has more left in the tank than he showed last year, he is also an enticing option.

Can J.D. and Benintendi rebound?
The Red Sox could -- and perhaps should -- have an elite offense if J.D. Martinez and Andrew Benintendi return to their expected levels of performance. Both players were barely recognizable in the shortened 2020 season. Martinez looked completely out of sorts at times, as evidenced by his -0.6 WAR as calculated by Baseball-Reference. Martinez’s line of .213/.291/.389 was simply stunning. He couldn’t have lost it that fast, so the guess is that the shortened season simply messed up his routine and he will get back to an elite level of performance in ’21.

The biggest question is Benintendi, who looked like one of the game’s rising stars when he helped the Red Sox win a World Series in 2018. His average dipped 34 points to .266 in ’19, with his OPS dropping from .830 to .774. Not only that, but Benintendi seemed more passive on defense. Those hoping for a rebound in ’20 were disappointed when Benintendi had just four hits in 39 at-bats before going down for the season with a strained right rib cage. The 26-year-old needs to regain his groove with two seasons of club control left.

How soon will Sale make it back?
Every pitcher recovers differently from Tommy John surgery. The Red Sox are hoping that Sale returns with force like John Lackey did in 2013. Considering that Sale’s work ethic is off the charts, it’s a given that he will dominate his rehab and won’t skip any steps along the way.

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Best-case scenario has the lanky lefty back in the rotation at some point during June. The hope is that Sale can get back to being an ace shortly after his return because that could change the entire outlook of the Red Sox heading down the stretch of the season. If it is deemed that Sale needs more time and can’t be rushed, then the 2021 season could wind up as a time period in which he regains his feel to set up for a full comeback in ’22.

Given that Sale is earning $30 million next season, the hope is that he hits the ground running in his return to action.

Can the kids play?
Thanks to slugger Bobby Dalbec and Tanner Houck, some actual excitement surrounded the Red Sox for the final few weeks of the 2020 season. But now that teams have scouting reports on both players, we’ll see how quickly both of them can adjust and, in turn, make their own adjustments.

Dalbec smashed eight homers in his first 80 MLB plate appearances, including in five consecutive games. He will have the chance to win the starting first-base job, but Michael Chavis will also be vying for playing time. As for Houck, he was mostly electric in winning all three of his starts while allowing just one earned run in 17 innings. The Red Sox are due to develop a successful MLB starter and Houck is out to prove he can be the one.

Who takes over at second?
Manny Machado didn’t just send Dustin Pedroia’s career spiraling downward when he slid into his left knee on April 21, 2017, but he created years of subsequent limbo at second base for the Red Sox. For a couple of years, the Red Sox looked for stopgaps in hopes that Pedroia would return. By this point, they know it will be a mini-miracle if Pedroia plays again.

Hot Stove Tracker

So where do the Sox go from here? Christian Arroyo, a former first-round pick of the Giants, showed some flashes when he played late in the 2020 season. But it would be hard to bank on someone who has had a hard time living up to his potential for so many years. Chavis could give the Red sox a reason to give him playing time at second if he can start hitting again. The right-handed hitter has lacked consistency since the powerful first month of his career in 2019.

This is an area where Bloom could upgrade from outside the organization. DJ LeMahieu would be the dream scenario here. Kolten Wong, Jonathan Villar, Cesar Hernandez, Tommy La Stella and Jonathan Schoop are among the other free agents at the position.

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