Two weeks from Thursday, the Red Sox open their 2021 season against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park for what hopefully is the first game of a full 162-game slate.
Because Opening Day is exactly two weeks away and spring training is more than halfway over, it’s a good time to take stock of where the Sox stand heading into the new season. Let’s get to it.
Left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez will make his first career Opening Day start and pilot a five-man — not a six-man — starting rotation to kick off the year for the Sox.
Based off the way the club’s presumed starters have been used so far this spring, it’s fair to assume that Boston’s five-man rotation will start with Rodriguez, then right-handers Garrett Richards and Nathan Eovaldi, left-hander Martin Perez, and end with right-hander Nick Pivetta.
Tanner Houck, one of the organization’s top pitching prospects who impressed in three starts with the big-league club last season, was viewed as a potential Opening Day rotation candidate. But he has since been optioned to the Sox’ alternate training site in Worcester, where he will likely start the 2021 season.
As noted by MassLive.com’s Chris Cotillo earlier this week, Red Sox manager Alex Cora is “pleased” with what he has seen from his starters since spring training began last month.
“It’s a solid one,” Cora said of the team’s starting rotation on Tuesday. “Everybody has their strengths, obviously they have their weaknesses. We have changeups, we have fastballs at 97 (mph), we have breaking balls. It’s not just velocity, either. For certain teams, you know you’re going to get from 97 to 100 (mph) and you prepare for that. With us, it’s going to be a little different. The constant is we can get people out in the strike zone. It doesn’t matter what stuff you have. We’ve been preaching that and they’ve been doing a good job with us.”
While Houck will more than likely start the year in Worcester, the 24-year-old righty could very well get called up again sooner rather than later.
With Houck beginning the season in the minors and swingmen like Matt Andriese and Garrett Whitlock beginning the season in Boston’s bullpen, the Red Sox certainly have a plethora of starting pitching depth, which is something they haven’t had much of the last two years.
“That’s what makes this group a solid one, because we have options,” Cora said about the club’s rotation depth. “We do believe whatever route we take, it’s going to be a good one. Also, we’re going to have people who are capable of stepping in whenever we need them
“The difference is we’re deeper this year than in previous years,” he added. “And that’s a testament to where we’re at as an organization and what we did during the offseason.”
The Red Sox have yet to name a closer, though we do know the competition for the role is between right-handers Adam Ottavino and Matt Barnes.
Ottavino, 35, has tossed 2 1/3 scoreless innings out of the Boston bullpen so far this spring, while Barnes, 30, has yet to allow a run over 3 1/3 innings of work.
Both veteran relievers are slated to become free agents at the conclusion of the 2021 campaign, so they should be plenty motivated to carve out a significant role for themselves going into their walk year.
Once we get past Barnes and Ottavino, who figure to see the lion’s share of work in late-inning spots, left-handers Darwinzon Hernandez and Josh Taylor figure to play key roles for Boston as well.
Like Rodriguez, Hernandez and Taylor were hindered by bouts with COVID-19 last season, though the two southpaws were able to pitch in a total of 15 games.
After Hernandez and Taylor, newcomer Hirokazu Sawamura and Andriese and Whitlock all figure to crack the Sox’ Opening Day roster assuming they are healthy.
Ryan Brasier would be in this mix as well, but it was recently revealed that the 33-year-old right-hander suffered a a small fracture below his right pinkie finger while working out back in November. That fracture put him behind schedule, and it more than likely means that the Texas native will start the season in the injured list.
With that in mind, Cotillo also wrote earlier this week that with two open spots left in Boston’s bullpen, “the three key competitors for those openings are Colten Brewer, Austin Brice, and Phillips Valdez.”
Brice, as Cotillo notes, is out of minor-league options, so that might give the right-hander an advantage over the likes of Brewer and Valdez, who do have options remaining.
“There’s competition,” Cora said of the composition of the Sox’ bullpen on Tuesday. “I can’t tell you if it’s one spot or two. We know we’re going with 14. We can do the math, and in the end, it’s probably one or two spots. It has been fun to watch. That’s the difference, too, this year compared to other camps. We actually have competitions in different spots. They’ve been doing an amazing job.
“First of all, it doesn’t matter if you’re competing with this guy or whatever, they’re helping each other to get better,” he added. “They’re producing on the field, doing everything right in the clubhouse and they’re making it hard on us to make decisions.”
The starting lineup the Red Sox drew up for Wednesday’s Grapefruit League contest against the Twins looked like this:
- Kiké Hernández 2B
- Alex Verdugo CF
- J.D. Martinez DH
- Xander Bogaerts SS
- Rafael Devers 3B
- Hunter Renfroe RF
- Marwin Gonzalez LF
- Christian Vázquez C
- Bobby Dalbec 1B
As MassLive.com’s Christopher Smith wrote, this lineup also looks like one Boston could be using on Opening Day if outfielder Franchy Cordero is not yet ready to return to action.
“It’s a good lineup,” Cora said Wednesday morning when asked about this particular lineup. “It’s a deep lineup. When you have Christian Vazquez hitting eighth, that means we have a deep lineup. Somebody had to hit eighth. Somebody had to hit ninth. We feel comfortable where we’re at. The lefty-righty stuff, we’ll see how it plays out. But there’s good at-bats throughout. There’s power. There’s athletes… It’s good to see them together and see what they can do.”
Because Cora has already made it clear that the Red Sox will be carrying 14 pitchers to begin the year, that means the maximum number of position players they can carry on their 26-man Opening Day roster is 12.
Taking into account the nine players listed in the above lineup as well as the fact that backup catcher Kevin Plawecki is a lock to make Boston’s Opening Day roster, that would leave the club with two vacancies on their bench.
Among the players still at major-league camp, Christian Arroyo and Michael Chavis have been two of the Sox’ most impressive performers as they compete for a spot on the team’s roster.
Both Arroyo and Chavis are redundant in that they both hit from the right side of the plate and are both limited to playing around the infield. But with Yairo Munoz being reassigned to the minor-leagues and Danny Santana sidelined while recovering from a right foot infection, there doesn’t seem to be much competition for them.
Jonathan Arauz is certainly an appealing option since he is a switch-hitter, but the Red Sox may feel it is in their best interest to start the 22-year-old infielder off at the alternate site this year so he can continue to develop.
Having written all that, here’s an early Red Sox Opening Day roster projection:
Starting rotation (5): Eduardo Rodriguez, Garrett Richards, Nathan Eovaldi, Martin Perez, Nick Pivetta
Bullpen (9): Matt Andriese, Garrett Whitlock, Austin Brice, Darwinzon Hernandez, Josh Taylor, Hirokazu Sawamura, Phillips Valdez, Adam Ottavino, Matt Barnes
Catchers (2): Christian Vazquez, Kevin Plawecki
Infielders (7): Bobby Dalbec, Enrique Hernandez, Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, Marwin Gonzalez, Christian Arroyo, Michael Chavis
Outfielders (3): Alex Verdugo, Hunter Renfroe, J.D. Martinez
(Picture of Alex Cora: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)