Alex Verdugo’s first spring training as a member of the Red Sox was far from a conventional one.
After coming over from the Dodgers in the Mookie Betts/David Price trade last February, the young outfielder — then 23 years old — reported to Fort Myers, where it was revealed that he was working his way back from a stress fracture in his lower back.
When the Red Sox began their Grapefruit League slate later that month, Verdugo was unable to play in any spring games and would instead spend his time rehabbing, getting treatment, or hitting in the cage.
The following month, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic really took off and eventually forced Major League Baseball and its clubs to shut down their spring training facilities on March 12.
Despite the shutdown, which would last into July, Verdugo was still able to go to the Sox’ Fenway South complex in order to continue getting treatment on his back.
By the time players reported to their respective teams’ summer camps, the 24-year-old was essentially a full-go, but he would have to prepare for a shortened season without the benefit of a spring training schedule to work off of.
“When we had the spring training 2.0, there still wasn’t very many games,” Verdugo explained on Tuesday via Zoom. “We were kind of just playing against ourselves. It was good because I was getting at-bats, I was seeing pitches. But physically, I felt a little bit off. When the season kicked in, it took me probably a week — maybe a week-and-a-half — into the season for me to finally get that adjustment and realize, ‘Oh, OK, this is what I got to do.’ And from there, I didn’t look back.”
In his first eight regular season games of 2020, Verdugo went a mere 6-for-26 (.231) at the plate with two walks and seven strikeouts from July 25 through August 23.
Starting on the night of August 4 — in which he went 1-for-2 at the plate against the Rays, the Arizona native put up an impressive .320/.378/.514 slash line to go along with six home runs and 15 RBI over 45 games and 193 plate appearances en route to leading the 2020 Red Sox in bWAR (2.2), per Baseball Reference.
Having solidified himself as an everyday big-league outfielder who was on the rise, Verdugo came into the 2021 season with the opportunity to actually play in some Grapefruit League games for the first time in his career.
Leading up to Tuesday’s contest against the Braves in North Port, though, the left-handed hitter carried with him an OPS of .508 through his first 11 games of the spring.
“For the spring I’m having, it’s been a different one,” Verdugo said. “I think if we go performance-wise and batting average-wise, it’s not quite where I would want it. But physically and all that, I’m in a lot better position than I was last year. I think right now, it’s just getting up there and just letting my eyes see the pitches, having some at-bats. I’ve been having better at-bats, working the count deep. Maybe 3-2, couple of pitches have gotten me. But I’m feeling really comfortable and feeling really good about where I’m at right now.”
Despite the statistical struggles so far this spring, Verdugo did go 1-for-2 with a single, an RBI forceout, a run scored, and a walk while playing six innings of center field against Atlanta on Tuesday afternoon.
“He’s been getting better. He’s making good decisions at the plate,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora in regards to the progress Verdugo is making this spring. “He’s not chasing pitches — in the first at -bat he did — but the walks, trying to stay up the middle, the other way, that’s what he does… He’s feeling good about his swing and he’s been getting a lot of at-bats in the backfields, too.”
Verdugo reinforced some of these points himself when discussing how he should be more locked in when the 2021 season begins as opposed to where he was at in late July last year.
“I’ve been kind of going through some things, fighting some stuff at the plate,” he said. “My biggest thing for me is I use the entire field. So I just got to get back to using left field, letting the ball travel just a split-second more, and then just throwing the hands at it. Like I said, the last couple games, I hit a line-drive over the shortstop, been having better at-bats, walking a little bit more. So we’re right on the final path. This next week, we got to just lock it in a little bit more and get it ready.”
Last season, Verdugo went 22-for-39 (.564) at the plate with a pair of home runs and four RBI when pushing the ball to the opposite field. He will look to replicate that sort of production this year, as he will likely slot into the No. 2 spot in the Sox’ regular lineup behind former Dodgers teammate Enrique Hernandez.
Defensively, Verdugo figures to see the lion’s share of his playing time come in either center or right field.
The former second-round draft pick out of Sahuaro High School only played eight innings in center field in 2020, but he said Tuesday that he’s had no problems getting more acclimated with a position that can be a little more challenging to play inside Fenway Park as opposed to other ballparks.
“The biggest thing, like I said health-wise, is taking care of my body and making sure my legs and everything’s under me,” said Verdugo. “Really, the position doesn’t matter. Center, we do have a little bit more run since it’s gap-to-gap, but there’s no problem with that yet. With our corner outfielders and everybody, we all do a really good job of communicating, shifting, and going where we need to be.”
Outside of J.D. Martinez, Verdugo is technically the longest-tenured outfielder on the Red Sox’ major-league roster following the Andrew Benintendi trade and Jackie Bradley Jr. signing with the Brewers.
One of the reasons Boston has gone through such a seismic shift in regards to roster construction this offseason is because of how poorly they played in 2020. Another reason for it is because the organization, spearheaded by the return of Cora as manager, clearly expects to be more competitive in 2021.
With the infusion of talent chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom and Co. have added to the mix, the Sox are a group this spring that has generated a lot of internal positive energy and excitement.
And with the prospect of a limited number of fans returning to Fenway Park for Opening Day on April 1 and beyond, that leaves someone like Verdugo — who can feed off that energy from the crowd — feeling excited for what’s on the horizon.
“It just kind of felt like gut-punch after gut-punch,” Verdugo said about the 2020 season. “This year, going through the trials and errors last year, we got some new pitchers, got some new guys, got some new talent. I think everybody’s just excited. We’re all excited to have fans back, excited to get back into this normality. We’re excited to get back to this normal life that we’re living in.
“This year, we know that we can be pretty good and be competitive,” he added. “We’re just keeping a positive mindset and everybody’s working and doing what we need to do.”
(Picture of Alex Verdugo: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)