When John Henry declared the Red Sox ahead of schedule, I couldn’t put my finger on what struck me about the quote. But after watching a superior Houston Astros team clinch the American League Championship Series on Friday night, it finally hit me.
They weren’t expecting this next year, either.
Boston’s rebuild remains a long-term project, and Red Sox fans should prepare themselves for what happens when improvement inevitably fails to follow a straight incline. Just like the commodities markets that made Henry his fortune, sometimes the rise is followed by a dip, and we should keep that in mind when the 2022 season begins — or if it begins, given the looming labor battle, which is a story for another day.
For now, it’s fair to wonder what the future holds. We will be examining this subject in greater detail over the coming weeks and months, but for now, here are some quick-hitting thoughts on where the Red Sox are set, where they can improve, and what the landscape of the American League East might look like by next summer.
First, the good. There’s a solid offensive core. Shortstop Xander Bogaerts, third baseman Rafael Devers, and left fielder Alex Verdugo look like long-term pieces, though Bogaerts’ ability to opt out at this time next year could force a reckoning over his future at shortstop. If he’s determined to stay there as his defensive skills erode, then he may be forced to leave. If he’s willing to consider a position switch, as any number of Hall of Famers have before him, maybe he can actually retire a member of the Red Sox.
The supporting pieces are cost-controlled and solid, whether it’s center fielder and playoff wrecking ball Kiké Hernández or mercurial right fielder Hunter Renfroe. The latter’s inconsistencies became glaring in the ALCS, but MLB Trade Rumors projects he’ll only make about $7.5 million in arbitration, and that’s a small price to pay for 30 home runs and defense that can be improved with more discipline.
Former first-round pick Christian Arroyo probably won’t make more than a million bucks and could have a home in a utility role, and Kevin Plawecki is not only a solid offensive backup, he’s also ace Nathan Eovaldi’s favorite receiver.
There are questions, of course. Designated hitter J.D. Martinez can opt out of the final year of his contract, but he has to make that decision within days of the end of the World Series, and it’s hard to imagine he’d want to risk unemployment when the owners could lock out the players and freeze the market.
Martinez’s future impacts that of new hero Kyle Schwarber, whose arrival transformed the lineup and whose leadership and postseason experience play well in Boston. He’s a free agent and should be one of the most desirable bats on the market. He’ll need to improve substantially at first base for the Red Sox to pay both of them if Martinez opts in.
“This is a World Series clubhouse,” Schwarber said, “and I would love to hopefully see if that opportunity comes back.”
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The pitching side is where things get murky. The bullpen needs an overhaul, and the first order of business will be determining where relievers Garrett Whitlock and Tanner Houck fit. Both can start, both can be effective multi-inning relievers, and Whitlock could easily close. Let’s say that one of them ends up in next year’s rotation, with Whitlock the likelier bet thanks to a more expansive arsenal.
That still leaves tons of questions. Will ace Chris Sale pitch like ace Chris Sale in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery? Is there a home for free agent Eduardo Rodriguez or has he, as I suspect, thrown his last pitch in a Red Sox uniform? What are we to make of Matt Barnes’ implosion? How aggressive will chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom be in the free agent and trade markets to add another starter? Will the Red Sox bullpen experience the churn we associate with the Tampa Bay Rays and be almost completely remade?
They won’t make any moves in a vacuum, and it’s worth considering the state of the division, which is scary loaded. The Sox may have to contend with the two best players in baseball over the next few years in Tampa wunderkind Wander Franco and Blue Jays slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr. The Rays aren’t going anywhere, and the Jays were a force whose season ended one game short. Had they visited the Red Sox for a play-in, they might be headed to the World Series right now.
The rest of the division is in flux. The Yankees retained GM Brian Cashman and manager Aaron Boone, but they’re an unathletic, one-dimensional mess that’s not a quick-fix away. The Orioles aren’t ready to contend, but their farm system is considered the best in baseball, with the No. 1 position prospect (catcher Adley Rutschman) and the No. 1 pitching prospect (right-hander Grayson Rodriguez) in the game. Pretty soon, there will be no easy outs in the East.
So don’t be surprised if the Red Sox take a step back next year. They struck lightning with Renfroe, Hernández, and others, and they caught the Jays before they blossom into a behemoth. Assuming the next CBA includes expanded playoffs, the Red Sox may not even need to finish in the top half of the American League to reach the postseason.
“We didn’t accomplish what we wanted to, but we did some special things,” Hernández told reporters in Houston. “And the Red Sox are going to be a problem for a long time.”
Maybe, but there’s a reason Henry sounded so delighted about this unexpected run to the ALCS. We should prepare ourselves for the possibility that the Red Sox might not be this good again for two or three years. It doesn’t mean they won’t be entertaining or relevant, but it’s all part of the journey, which rarely follows a straight line.