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From Billie Weiss, Boston Red Sox, via Getty Images

Opening Day 2021: New Blood on the Red Sox

Can you blame Red Sox fans for tuning out the 2020 season? Amidst the shortened season rife with COVID scares and rescheduling, the Sox were a laughingstock. They had a historically bad pitching staff, comically poor defense, and uninspired leadership from fill-in manager/scapegoat Ron Roenicke. John Henry & company had just given fans the middle finger by trading Mookie Betts, the second-best position player in the league, to save money. Eduardo Rodriguez followed up his breakout 2019 by missing the season with a scary bout of myocarditis. Chris Sale was out as well while recovering from Tommy John. Midseason the Sox shipped out the popular Mitch Moreland, the exciting Kevin Pillar, and what little bullpen value they had. This resulted in yet another last-place finish in the boom-or-bust cycle of the last decade. So how has the front office responded in 2021?

New Faces

Before meeting the new Red Sox players, let’s remember the shoes they’re trying to fill. The Killer Baby B’s, only 3 years ago one of the best young outfields the league had seen in decades, have evaporated. Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi followed Mookie out of town in the offseason. Michael Chavis is starting the year in the minors despite his torrid spring training and playing 70% of the team’s games last year as a roving INF/OF. This signals he may be on the trade block.

Of the three utilitymen to play second base last year, only Christian Arroyo (15 games) remains on the roster. The production of these losses is mixed at best. JBJ was maybe the team’s best all-around player last year, while we don’t talk about Benny’s season from hell. Coupled with the aforementioned midseason trades, though, the Sox have a lot of plate appearances to replace.

Surprisingly, the pitching staff isn’t as dire. If Sale and E-Rod return to form at some point and Nasty Nate Eovaldi, Martin Perez, and last year’s thrilling surprise Tanner Houck resume their rightful places at the back end of the rotation. Besides those three, it appears ZERO of the Sox’ top nine starters in 2020 are on an MLB roster. Enough said. And while this probably isn’t a good thing given last year’s performance, the only significant bullpen losses are Brandon Workman, Heath Hembree, and Josh Osich. They were moved at the trade deadline. Now let’s meet this year’s new crop!

Position Players

Marwin Gonzalez, OF/INF

Versatility is the name of the game for the switch-hitting Gonzalez. He came up as a shortstop with the Astros and has played all over the infield along with the corner outfield spots these last few years. Gonzalez’ huge red flag is, of course, his involvement in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal. He hasn’t gotten the same level of vitriol as his more famous former teammates. But the stink hovers over his career-best 2017 season (.303/.377/.530, 23 HR, top 20 in MVP voting).

Will a reunion with his former coach Alex Cora bring back that Gonzalez, sans cheating? Or will we get the guy who slashed career lows of .211/.286/.320 in Minnesota last year? He’ll likely play mostly left field to start the year with plenty of time at first base. He may offer more than what little Benny gave the team last year. However, as a de facto replacement for JBJ, Pillar, and even Moreland, I see him as a clear downgrade.

Hunter Renfroe, RF

No, not that one. This Renfroe is your classic power-hitting right fielder who strikes out a ton. In his first three full seasons in the bigs, despite only once playing 140+ games and most of those in the vast expanse of Petco Park as a Padre, he launched 85 homers to go with his career .486 slugging percentage. As with many players of his profile, his problem is putting the ball in play. His career batting average sits at .228 after posting an ugly .156 in 42 games in Tampa Bay last year. He also doesn’t walk a lot, only once in his career sneaking over the .300 OBP mark. Pair that with his mediocre defense and, although I’m excited to see what he can do as an everyday player in the friendly confines of Fenway and surrounded by this lineup, I see him as a slight downgrade until he proves otherwise.

Enrique Hernandez, 2B/INF

Another versatile player for the Red Sox, this super-utilityman has even more range than Gonzalez. Every year since 2017 except the shortened 2020, Kike has made at least two appearances at every position on the diamond except pitcher and catcher. He even made a 16th-inning appearance on the mound in 2018! But don’t look up how he fared. Unlike others of his profile, he brings some pop to the lineup. Hernandez swatted 49 home runs in his three full seasons as a Dodger from 2017-2019. He can also get on base fairly well with a career .313 OBP. This will be crucial in his new role as Sox leadoff hitter. He should get the lion’s share of playing time at 2B this year, making him a clear upgrade over last year’s platoon of Arroyo, Jose Peraza, and Jonathan Arauz.

Franchy Cordero, OF

What to make of this guy? The Sox will rely heavily on the awesomely named 25-year-old as their 4th outfielder. They are hoping he’s the heir apparent to left field after bringing him onboard in the Benintendi trade. Between injuries and minor league stints, he’s only played 65 MLB games since April of his rookie year in 2018. But when he does play, he shows “elite” power and speed that makes teams salivate at his potential. Unfortunately, they also agonize over his failure to get on base so far. The Sox hope surrounding the Dominican prospect with player’s manager Cora and a lineup of both veterans and more proven youngsters like Rafael Devers and Alex Verdugo will lead to his breakout year. Cordero is the wild card of 2021. Since he’s not clearly replacing anyone from 2020 (yet), I’ll call him a push.

Pitchers

Garrett Richards, SP

As the only truly new addition to the atrocious 2020 Red Sox rotation, the Sox are putting a lot of faith in Richards to be a solid back-end starter. During his quietly average 10-year career in California he’s experienced ups (.261 ERA/1.038 WHIP in his first full season as a starter in 2014) and downs (leading the league in wild pitches three times and twice posting BB per 9 innings rates over 4.0). He’s also been plagued by injuries. He’s started only 41 games over the last five years and got Tommy John surgery in 2018 after deciding not to in 2016. Last year, his first “full” season after TJ, he was moved to the bullpen for the first time since 2013. Richards offers little to get excited about. Given how bad last year’s rotation was, though, I’ll still give him a slight upgrade.

Adam Ottavino, RP

The crown jewel of the new class of 2021, which says more about last year’s bullpen than Ottavino himself. Things were so bad last year that the Sox made a rare trade with the Yankees for the former prized reliever, who the Yankees had signed after an impressive 2018 season in Colorado that included 34 holds (tied for most in the majors) and 6 saves in 75 appearances while posting a 0.991 WHIP and 13.0 Ks per 9 innings.

He was similarly excellent in 2019 before regressing in 2020, allowing 12 earned runs in 18 1/3 innings – you knew there was a reason the Yankees gave him to their rivals, right? If Ottavino can reach even 70% of his top form he’ll be lightyears better than almost anyone the Sox trotted out last year. Whether Cora names him closer or he remains 8th-inning setup man for Matt Barnes, he brings a massive upgrade to the ‘pen.

Hirokazu Sawamura, RP

Sawamura will make his MLB debut after a decade in the Japanese Leagues where he posted a career .282 ERA and 1.196 WHIP. He’s had a rocky first few spring training appearances but neither he nor Cora seem worried, and the Sox have an excellent track record of helping Japanese pitchers adjust to the MLB. Based on his experience and the way Cora talks about him, I’m optimistically calling him an upgrade.

Garrett Whitlock, RP

A rookie who will make his major league debut after undergoing Tommy John in 2019 (sensing a theme here?), Whitlock is perhaps most notable for the Red Sox stealing him from the Yankees in the Rule 5 draft a few months ago. His promising spring training combined with the odd Rule 5 structure – he gets returned to the Yankees if he doesn’t stay on Boston’s active roster all season – means we’ll probably see a lot of him this year, barring catastrophe. For the potential to rub it in Yankees’ fans faces, I’m calling him another upgrade.

Matt Andriese, RP

The final new Red Sox bullpen addition, Andriese has had a pretty nondescript 6-year career – 183 appearances, 50 of them starts mostly early on in Tampa Bay, with 7 saves scattered throughout for good measure. He posted a solid 10.1 Ks per 9 innings in a career-high 54 appearances in 2019, but he’s never strayed far from his career 4.57 ERA. Though he’s your standard journeyman middle reliever, I’m ending this column on a high note by predicting another upgrade – honestly you can’t be much worse than last year’s cast of bullpen characters.

There you have it – a fully scientific and totally subjective introduction to the new Red Sox tasked with improving on last year’s squad. The bar is set pretty low and hopes aren’t high among Sox fans for 2021, but there are certainly opportunities to shine among these players. Here’s hoping the return of Cora can bring the most out of these guys.