Sports

Was This Red Sox Season a Sign of Things to Come, or Just a Surprising One-off?

Underdogitude is an unfamiliar status for a franchise as storied and well-resourced as the Boston Red Sox. But they adapted to it well this October.

In the regular season, Boston was a clear step behind Tampa Bay in the standings, finishing in a dead heat with a Yankees team that forgot how to hit and only just holding off Toronto’s furious late charge. They made the wild-card game on the last day of the season—but despite being the lower seed in both their wild-card and ALDS matchups (against the Yankees and 100-win Rays, respectively) they dispatched their opponents fairly easily. There are wild-card teams that are unlucky to find themselves in geographical proximity to a titanic powerhouse, and then there are wild-card teams that play like the fourth- or fifth-best team in the league. For most of the year, the Red Sox were the latter.

It’s not like Boston woke up one morning in October with superpowers. A lot has gone wrong this postseason: Inconsistent starting pitching, a bullpen with a Rule 5 guy as the only reliable reliever, suspect defense, and offensive catalyst Rafael Devers playing through an injury to his right forearm—a crucial limb for hitting and playing third base. And they were within a whisker of winning the pennant anyway.

The wholesale ass-beating Boston took in the final 20 innings of the ALCS against the Astros belies how close they were to having this series won. Over the first four games, Red Sox pitchers held Jose Altuve to only two hits in 16 at-bats. But both hits were crucial game-tying home runs, one in the sixth inning of Game 1 and the other in the eighth inning of Game 4. If either of those had bounced off the left-field wall instead of arcing over it, Boston would probably have had the better part of a week to pack for either Atlanta or Los Angeles.

Alex Cora managed like he was aware of this possibility, calling on de facto ace Nathan Eovaldi in the ninth inning of Game 4. The longer the series went on, things like Yordan Álvarez’s offensive reign of terror, or the ludicrous pitching performances Framber Valdez and Luis Garcia put on in Games 5 and 6, were bound to happen. But Cora knew that if his club could hold off the Astros and take a 3-1 lead in the series, they’d be home free. It came within an iffy third strike call and a couple big hits by Altuve from happening.

The Red Sox made this run to the brink of a pennant with such style, and with so little warning or expectation, that it has to ultimately go down as a positive memory. Or rather, as a series of positive memories: Nick Pivetta finally harnessing his curveball at the perfect moment and stomping off the mound in a fit of exuberance, Hunter Renfroe hacky-sacking the ball into the bullpen to inadvertently stave off a Rays rally, Kiké Hernández being visited by George Baruth. The laundry cart. And you know what? Just for shits and giggles, here are some key statistics for Devers and Carl Yastrzemski through age 24:

Key Statistics Through Age 24

Player Games AVG OBP SLG HR OPS+
Player Games AVG OBP SLG HR OPS+
Yastrzemski 610 .293 .370 .448 59 121
Devers 548 .279 .338 .509 112 120

That the Red Sox fell short doesn’t matter that much. Teams that achieved no more than this have been practically canonized in Colorado, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and elsewhere.

But this isn’t Pittsburgh. It’s Boston, a city that expects championship baseball. There’s a reason the Red Sox don’t usually do underdog status. Less than four years ago, Cora and the Red Sox were putting a bow on the best season by any MLB team in the past 20 years.

The 2018 Red Sox’s star-studded roster won 108 regular-season games and got even better come October. That postseason, Boston tore through the Yankees, Astros, and Dodgers like a saber saw through a block of Velveeta and lost just three games total en route to a World Series title. They were a colossus, but one that was quickly dismantled over luxury tax concerns—and one of this era’s most foolish trades.

Is a surprising, fun run to the ALCS enough to satiate the appetite for excellence that ought to define this franchise?

The Red Sox emerged from a two-year playoff drought this season, but this team did not stem from a rebuild in the conventional sense of the term. There was no blank slate on which to start anew, as was the case with the turn-of-the-century Marlins or 2010s Astros and Cubs. In fact, most of the core of the 2018 team remains, and so do many of its most expensive contracts. That group and the Mookie Betts–and–David Price trade is the chrysalis from which the current Red Sox emerged.

The man ownership brought in to execute that trade is former Rays executive Chaim Bloom. Bloom learned his craft at the feet of Andrew Friedman, Matthew Silverman, and Erik Neander—a trio of executives who’d corner the market on pennants in 2020. Bloom’s group finished last in the AL East in 2020 as his team weathered the predictable effects of injury and aging. And after the trade that sent Betts and Price to L.A., Bloom’s 2021 roster resembled, in some respects, the kind of teams he helped build for a decade in Tampa Bay.

Bloom didn’t install any spectacular players around Devers, Xander Bogaerts, and J.D. Martinez. But Alex Verdugo, the cornerstone of the Betts trade, is a solid two-way corner outfielder. Hernández played all over the field, as did Christian Arroyo, while Renfroe provided power from the right side and good defense in a tricky Fenway Park right field. (Arroyo and Renfroe are both recent ex-Rays.)

Not every move has panned out. The Andrew Benintendi–for–Franchy Cordero trade was a stinker, and Boston has been unable to replicate Tampa Bay’s ability to pull lockdown relievers out of the ground like potatoes. But the deadline acquisition of Kyle Schwarber was a masterstroke. On the aggregate, Boston fielded good players at almost every spot in the lineup almost all of the time. Few teams—including playoff teams—can say the same. The result was a roster that put last year’s annus horribilis firmly in the rearview mirror and ended up not only exceeding preseason expectations, but performing like more than the sum of its parts.

The question is whether the current standard of play is sustainable. Do the Red Sox feel like a good bet to make the playoffs in a division that the Rays have won two years running, with the Yankees on equal footing and the Blue Jays improving at a frightening rate? Between salary commitments, projected arbitration awards, the dead salary on Price’s deal, and other odds and ends, Boston could end up with a payroll near $190 million without even dipping into free agency; will they keep free-agent-to-be Eduardo Rodriguez? If not, how will they replace him? And where else can they upgrade without running a Dombrowskovian payroll, if that’s still off the table?

Look at this offseason, and look back at the winter of 2018. Do the Red Sox feel more sustainable or competitive now than they did then? Or are they merely 15 percent cheaper and 15 percent worse?

Whether this season brings joy or ambivalence depends entirely on the standards the Red Sox are judged by, and those they impose upon themselves. If Hernández’s home run rampage and the laundry cart are enough, this is a win. And if that’s the case, that’s fine—only one team per year gets to cuddle the big hunk of metal, after all. But given where this team was four years ago, one could be forgiven for expecting more.

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