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    Five pressing questions heading into Opening Day

    Almost 100 days of lockout silence between baseball’s players and owners mercifully came to an end on March 10, 2022, the longest work stoppage in the history of the sport. Now that baseball is back, the real work has begun for Boston Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. 

    Despite the recent signing of star shortstop Trevor Story, and currently entrenched in an unusual March MLB free agency period, Bloom hasn’t done enough to address the needs of a team that was two games from a World Series in 2021. Make no mistake, Story is certainly a welcome addition. Adding a career .272 hitter with pop and speed who can hit 30 HR and steal 20 bases, and instantly becomes the starting second baseman, makes this lineup even more formidable. But scoring runs was never going to be the issue. The competition has only improved, and with just two weeks left before Opening Day, holes are left to fill. Here are 5 questions that need answers if the Red Sox want to compete in the toughest division in baseball.

    Do they have enough pitching?

    No team can ever have enough, so the answer will always be no. But even before the Red Sox lost Chris Sale to injury, possibly for half the season, the team was already thin in both the bullpen and starting rotation. Before the lockout, Bloom added depth pieces in 42 year old Rich Hill, journeyman Michael Wacha, and talented but injury prone southpaw James Paxton who likely won’t be ready to contribute for at least a few months. If one of those three turn into a regular contributor, and Sale returns healthy midseason, the team is in good shape. But those are big IFS. Nathan Eovaldi is the opening day starter, but the rest of the rotation is very much up in the air. Nick Pivetta earned himself a spot with his performance last year, but with the loss of Eduardo Rodriguez to the Detroit Tigers in the offseason, and the recent Sale injury news, acquiring another arm before Opening Day would be significant. Someone who can eat innings and give the team a chance to win. Since there aren’t remaining aces left on the free agent market, the Sox must get creative. The Oakland Athletics are in a clear rebuild. Their fire sale began by trading star third baseman Matt Chapman and ace Chris Bassitt.  Everyone in Oakland is available including two legitimate starters, Frankie Montas and Sean Manaea.  Montas had a 3.37 ERA in 2021 with over 200 strikeouts finishing 6th in Cy Young voting. Manaea was also solid, posting a 3.91 ERA with just under 200 K’s. Adding one immediately addresses a need. The bullpen: Also filled with question marks. Ryan Brasier, Josh Taylor, Hirokazu Sawamura, and Garrett Whitlock will make up the core. But the rest of the spots appear up for grabs. Post lockout, Bloom signed lefty relievers Jake Diekman and Matt Strahm. Diekman is a nice piece who likely will be a significant contributor, but Strahm in all probability starts the season in Triple A.  With Tanner Houck presumably bound for the rotation, his role will need to be filled. Add to that last year’s  struggles of “closer” Matt Barnes. Will Barnes reclaim what once was a dominant role in the bullpen, or has he completely lost Cora’s trust? Bloom must address that situation, and add arms to protect Whitlock who would be certain to replace Barnes.  Ryan Tepera, Kenley Jansen, Collin McHugh, and Steve Cishek would have been perfect additions to the pen, but have since signed elsewhere. Trading for Brewers flamethrower Josh Hader might be a pipe dream, but one Bloom should investigate. Former Sox closer and current Chicago Cubs hurler Craig Kimbrel has been rumored to be on the trade market. It’s been proven that come playoff time, dominant pens are what win championships.  Acquiring Hader or Kimbrel immediately makes the bullpen a weapon. 

    Is the outfield a concern?

    Alex Verdugo is locked in as your left fielder, and Kiki Hernandez is going to man centerfield. That’s written in stone. As it stands, old friend Jackie Bradley Jr. will play right. While one should feel very good about Verdugo and Hernandez, the same can’t be said for JBJ. He’s your perfect No. 4 who makes for an ideal defensive replacement late in games. Bradley hit a pathetic .163 last year making him a weak spot in any lineup. Pitchers hit better. So what’s the solution? Sign an OF who hasn’t yet inked a deal, or find someone via trade?  Free agent and former New York Met Michael Conforto is the only big name left via free agency.  A lefty power hitter like Conforto would make this offense even scarier. But the cost will be too much, and it doesn’t make a ton of sense. As constituted, the team will not only hit, they will likely outscore most of the league. The Sox should add a cheaper veteran bat to compliment JBJ, and instead spend their resources on pitching. The loss of right fielder Hunter Renfroe and his 31 Home Runs will hurt, and while Bradley Jr. isn’t a Silver Slugger candidate, his defense is a sure thing. With the signing of Story, the team can afford to have a right fielder who doesn’t hit like everyone else, instead saving runs with his glove. Having an All-Star at every position is not only unreasonable, it’s not required.

    Who’s at first?

    With Rafael Devers at third base and Xander Bogaerts at shortstop, the left side of the infield for 2022 is locked and loaded. Devers and Bogaerts are two of the best players in the big leagues. Newly acquired power hitting shortstop Trevor Story will shift from his natural position of shortstop, to become the Sox everyday second baseman. With Bogaerts at short, and his contract up at year’s end, Story adds insurance in the event of a Bogaerts departure in 2023. But for now, the infield is a strength. Except for first base. Bobby Dalbec is your Opening Day first baseman. The 26 year old batted .240 last year and hit 25 home runs. While 25 dingers is nothing to laugh at, there is something that just doesn’t feel right. How many of those came in critical situations? How many came in blowouts? How many times when the game was on the line with him at the plate, did he look at three pitches right down the middle without swinging? If he’s someone you trust, why wasn’t he even in the lineup during last year’s playoffs? Dalbec has pop, that’s undeniable. But does he have the makeup to be the future at first? It’s a major question mark that has yet to be answered. He’s not a prospect, and he’s certainly not young by baseball standards. 27 years old in June, and hearing footsteps from 22 year old phenom Triston Casas, it’s now or never for Dalbec. Ranked as one of MLB’s top ten first base prospects by Baseball America, and the number one prospect in the Red Sox farm system, Casas could very well be the future. But as with any prospect, you’re rolling the dice if you assume he’s the answer. By all accounts, he needs at least a few more months in the minors to be Major League ready. So where does that leave the team? The top free agent at the position, Freddie Freeman, was signed by the Dodgers. Veteran Anthony Rizzo, a player ideally fit for Boston, and a much needed left handed bat who plays above average defense, re-signed with the Yankees. So unless you’re looking to sign 42 year old Albert Pujols, or trade for something the fanbase doesn’t see coming, it’s Dalbec and Casas who will man first for the immediate future. It’s anyone’s guess who finishes 2022 at the position, but Sox fans have to hope one sticks like glue.

    What do you do with Tanner Houck and Garrett Whitlock?

    Heading into this season, two of the team’s most talented pitchers don’t have defined roles. Putting Whitlock as the closer seems like the obvious move. Sure. But would it be more beneficial to the team to stretch him out, and have him pitch every 5 days? Whitlock is a stud. He has multiple pitches that have been proven to get top hitters out. However, if you remove him from the pen it leaves question marks as to who finishes out games. It’s a tough decision for Cora, one in which he and the team’s decision makers must weigh. Then you have Houck. Another young arm who has shown he belongs. The problem with the 25 year old righty, is that he really only has two pitches. Fastball and slider. He’s worked on a third, but hasn’t yet been able to find it. This becomes problematic when Houck faces an opponent the third time through an order. Throwing him in the starting rotation has high upside, but the downside could be a severe taxing of the bullpen on his start days if he can only go 4 or 5 innings. Dream solution? Keep Whitlock and Houck in the pen and find another starter via trade. But with the Sale injury, it’s likely that at least for the first few months of the season, one is headed for the rotation. Houck the likely candidate. Once things settle, managing talents like Houck and Whitlock properly, may just be the key to the entire season.

    Can the team relive the unexpected magic from 2021?

    The Red Sox surpassed everyone’s expectations last season. Making it all the way to Game 6 of the ALCS was farther than most predicted. The run took fans on a magical ride, one that brought baseball fever back to Boston. From the electric Wild Card victory over the evil empire at Fenway Park, to the deep playoff push that took the team two games from a World Series, the 2021 Boston Red Sox were an incredibly likeable group of underdogs. But here’s the problem. When you don’t markedly improve, and your competition does, the likelihood of taking fans on another captivating journey decreases. The American League East is stacked with talent. The Toronto Blue Jays have perhaps the best pitching staff in all of baseball. The New York Yankees arguably one of the deepest lineups. The Tampa Bay Rays are annually one of the toughest all around teams in the entire league. If the Sox want to compete with any of them, they need to start addressing glaring weaknesses. The lineup will score runs. Devers, Bogaerts, Story, Hernandez, and J.D. Martinez will hit. Alex Cora will once again be in the manager of the year conversation.  With the additions of Bradley Jr. and Story, the defense will be better. But will a rotation filled with question marks, hold off the mighty Yankee and Blue Jay lineups? Will the bullpen blow more games than it will save? Those two questions will answer the fortunes of the 2022 Red Sox. Bloom has the payroll and the assets to bring the city another World Series.  Adding more pop to an already potent lineup was nice. But pitching wins championships.

    mm
    Sam Berger
    Sam Berger is a lifelong Boston sports fanatic who closely follows the Celtics, Bruins, Red Sox, and Patriots. He is the host of the Sam Berger Show podcast.

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