April 7, 2022
The 2022 MLB season starts Friday, and the Boston Red Sox have some bigtime expectations to live up to.
This time last year, the Red Sox were viewed as an underwhelming collection of miscreants whose front office had no ambitions of competing. Most fans figured Chaim Bloom had punted on the season to play out a meaningless string of 162 games that he was hoping to buzz through as quickly as possible so he could shed some payroll and get to work trying to win in 2022 and 2023.
Then they won 92 games and knocked the Yankees and Rays out of the playoffs before running out of steam against a more complete Houston Astros team. A short bullpen and an offense that fell off a cliff cost the Red Sox a chance at a championship in 2021. An imperfect team with a few holes came two wins short of representing the American League in the World Series on grit, balls, chemistry, and a little luck.
Bloom’s job during this offseason was to fill those holes and turn the Red Sox from an underdog full of warriors into a legitimate championship caliber team that would not need to catch lightning in a bottle win it all.
Did he accomplish that?
Here’s a look at the roster that I would field on opening day if I had final approval.
While the offense went through a prolonged cold stretch spanning from late June all the way through the end of July, the Red Sox still finished with the fifth highest scoring offense in the Major Leagues. As impressive as that sounds, they were only the third highest scoring offense in the AL East, which just goes to show how tough of a season 2022 is going to be.
While the Red Sox only had Kyle Schwarber for the last two months of the regular season and the playoffs, watching him leave for Philadelphia during free agency was a big loss. His presence lengthened the Boston lineup considerably, and his plate discipline seemed to rub off on this crew full of free-swinging hackers, turning them into a far more patient group of professional hitters. Re-signing him was my number one priority this offseason. Once J.D. Martinez opted in for 2022, I was even ready to watch Schwarber spend the season gradually figuring out the first base position before becoming the new DH/left fielder in 2023. Alas, it’s pretty clear now that Schwarber was never in Bloom’s long-term plans.
Luckily, Bloom was patient enough to replace Schwarber’s production with that of Trevor Story, the last marquis free agent to sign after the end of the lockout. Schwarber immediately shined under the microscope of the Boston market, and he quickly became a key member of the 2021 Red Sox. However, all things considered, Story is the better fit for this team. Regardless of the fact that he has built his impressive career while playing his home games in that launching pad in Colorado, Story will be an outstanding complimentary piece to the trinity of Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez, and 2022 AL MVP Rafael Devers.
One of the better defensive shortstops in the league, Story selflessly agreed to defer to incumbent shortstop Xander Bogaerts and play second base for Boston. Inserting Story at second goes a long way toward patching up an atrocious defense from last year, while simultaneously providing enough pop to make up for the loss of Schwarber. Like Schwarber, Story is a solid fit either at the top or in the middle of the lineup. Unlike Schwarber, Story is also a difference maker in the field and on the base paths, averaging 22 stolen bases in 30 attempts with a 5.8 WAR over a 162-game season. Schwarber, by comparison, averages a 2.2 WAR over a 162-game season.
I could care less if he’s popped out a few homers this spring … Jackie Bradley Jr. can’t hit. We all know it. We’ve all seen it. It’s no mystery. His career average is .230, propped up immensely by the fake season of 2020, where he managed to hit .283 in 55 games that kind of didn’t even happen. He’s never hit well before, and he won’t hit well this year. I’d like to see Bradley start in right field against righthanded pitchers only, with Alex Verdugo sliding from left to right when a southpaw takes the hill so energy guy Christian Arroyo can play left field during those games.
It is worth noting that JBJ actually sucks slightly more against righties (.229 career AVG) than lefties (.231 career AVG). But Arroyo hits lefties (.264 career AVG) far better than righties (.213 career AVG), so there is more potential in that configuration than there is with any other platoon. Bradley’s exceptional fielding is yet another huge defensive upgrade, so he will be a significant contributor as a late-inning defensive replacement in those games where he doesn’t start.
If I were Alex Cora, this would be the starting lineup template that I would use to begin the season.
Kike Hernandez CF
Trevor Story 2B
Rafael Devers 3B
Xander Bogaerts SS
J.D. Martinez DH
Alex Verdugo LF / RF
Bobby Dalbec 1B
Christian Vazquez C
Jackie Bradley Jr. / Christian Arroyo RF / LF
I’ve seen some fans complain that about the depth of this team, claiming that the bench is trash. But honestly, whose bench isn’t trash? There is depth on this team, and it comes mostly from the versatility of the players listed above.
Hernandez and Arroyo can play all over the field, Bradley is a defensive wizard all over the outfield, Verdugo can play adequately all over the outfield, Story can play both middle infield positions, and Dalbec can play both corner infield positions. No one or two injuries will force this team to scour the waiver wire or the deep recesses of the minor leagues to find a replacement. With this kind of versatility, Cora can simply shift a couple starters into different positions, insert Arroyo somewhere on the field, and use either Travis Shaw or Jarren Duran to make up the shortfall.
Yes, I believe Jarren Duran should be on the 28-man (extended due to the abbreviated offseason) opening day roster. His game-changing speed gives him value both in the outfield and on the base paths. I understand the argument that he needs more at bats in AAA before graduating to the majors, but having a weapon like that to deploy on the bases late in a close game is a rare opportunity. He played 60 games in Worcester last year with a .258 AVG and an OBP of.357, so it’s not as if he’s playing like Jeter Downs. I think it’s worth it to give Duran a chance to start the year in The Show. With enough hard work in practice and the film room, he may figure out MLB pitching in a trial-by-fire environment. And even if he doesn’t hit, he can still turn out to be a big asset coming off the bench.
Christian Arroyo IF/OF
Travis Shaw 1B
Kevin Plawecki C
Jarren Duran OF
The Pitching Revolution
The Red Sox apparently plan to start the year with 15 pitchers, and I have no doubt that Chaim Bloom has 15 more on standby that could somehow perform well if called upon. I haven’t the slightest clue how the Tampa Bay Rays can find an infinite amount of effective MLB-caliber pitchers to replace the ones they keep losing to injury and free agency, but I’m damn pleased that Boston’s general manager spent his formative years gaining insight into their model.
My own personal theory is that the Rays, and now the Red Sox, take all the excess money they save on payroll and allocate it toward scouting, specifically toward the scouting of pitchers. I think Chaim Bloom’s entire pitching philosophy focuses on scouring the planet for underrated pitchers and developing them into versatile (there’s that word again) big leaguers that can perform a number of different functions. I don’t think he tries to build teams with five starting pitchers and seven relievers. I think he wants to build staffs of 12-15 guys that can get outs, and then rely on Alex Cora to figure out how to best deploy them.
I think Tampa Bay began blurring the lines of pitching roles because it’s easier to re-sign nondescript pitchers than the specialists (starters, setup men, closers) that other teams covet. When it worked out so well for them, I think the Rays embraced that strategy and set out to become the best organization in the world at scouting undervalued pitchers. Bloom was in on the ground floor of that concept, and I think that’s the biggest reason why we’re so lucky that the Red Sox poached him away from the Rays.
That’s why I didn’t scoff when Bloom brought in Michael Wacha and Rich Hill to fill out the starting rotation this season. He doesn’t want five pitchers that will throw six strong innings every time they take the mound. He wants 20 pitchers that will get 4,374 outs over the course of 162 games.
Nathan Eovaldi and Nick Pivetta are the only traditional starting pitchers that I see on the opening day roster. Eovaldi was outstanding last year, and I expect Pivetta to make a big leap to become a bona fide front line starter in 2022. His command has wavered throughout his career, leading to a lot of walks, high pitch counts, and early exits, but he seemed to find another gear last October. In his first postseason, Pivetta went 1-0 with a 2.63 ERA, 14 Ks, 5 walks, and 9 hits in 13.2 IP. He was sharper at the end of last year than perhaps any stretch of his career, and pitchers who can unlock something great in themselves when the pressure is at its peak are ideal for Boston.
Tanner Houck and Garrett Whitlock, both rookies last year, are the antithesis of traditional. Houck showed a lot of promise as a starting pitcher in the regular season and then excelled through the ALDS when a paper thin bullpen forced him into a critical postseason relief role. Whitlock, although electric out of the bullpen all season long, may have the type of stuff to be a very good starting pitcher.
Houck will be in the rotation to begin the year, but I expect his role to vary as the season goes on. Even if he has success as a starter, his slider is a filthy weapon that Bloom and Cora may decide can be most useful for handpicked moments late in big games when James Paxton joins the team and if Chris Sale ever takes the mound again.
After suffering through yet another late season collapse from Matt Barnes last year, I wanted to see Whitlock cemented back in the closer role in 2022. But that would be too easy for Chaim Bloom, who seems to prefer him in some wonky hybrid role backing up starters that can’t get through four innings. I can’t argue with the logic of wanting Whitlock to pitch more innings, but I could argue all day with the logic of not having someone trustworthy to slam the door on a tight victory.
What nobody can argue is that pitching is different now. Pitchers throw way harder, pitch way less, and hurt themselves way more often now than in any other time period in baseball history. Just look at the deteriorating husk formerly known as the body of Chris Sale. Maybe a handful of Red Sox pitchers should alternate starting games and coming out of the bullpen depending on the health and recent use of the staff.
Perhaps the days of having five starters and seven relievers will soon be a thing of the past. In 20 years, will people be talking about Chaim Bloom’s role in innovating the designation of the, by that time, universally accepted designation of hybrid pitcher (HP)?
Nathan Eovaldi (R – SP)
Nick Pivetta (R – SP)
Tanner Houck (R – HP)
Michael Wacha (R – HP)
Rich Hill (L – HP)
Garrett Whitlock (R – HP)
Jay Groome (L – HP)
Hirokazu Sawamura (R – RP)
Matt Strahm (L – RP)
Jake Diekman (L – RP)
Matt Barnes (R – RP)
Ryan Brasier (R – RP)
Hansel Robles (R- RP)
Kutter Crawford (R – RP)
I’d be remiss not to mention lefthanded relief pitching, which was yet another gaping hole on the 2021 Red Sox aside from the couple months when Josh Taylor magically turned into a lockdown reliever. For the balance of the season, he was hit-or-miss, as the majority of relievers tend to be. Austin Davis was even more mediocre, and Taylor’s back injury at the end of the season left the Red Sox crippled against tough lefthanded hitters in the playoffs. Matt Strahm and Jake Diekman have been added to provide Cora with a couple more lefthanded options for late-inning matchups, especially with Taylor’s balky back still acting up six months later. Whether or not one or both of these new lefties will be effective is essentially a coin flip.
I think the 2022 Red Sox are better armed for championship contention than the 2021 Red Sox, even the late-season version that featured Kyle Schwarber. I am picking Boston to finish second in the AL East behind an absolutely beastly Blue Jays team and just ahead of those inexplicable Rays.
The holes on offense appear to be patched, with a lengthy lineup that looks poised to be one of the top five in the sport once again. The “starting rotation” is stocked with talented pitchers that are effective in very different ways, which should help keep opposing lineups off-balance from night to night.
All-in-all, a bullpen that feels rather hollow will likely be the biggest obstacle that stands between the Boston Red Sox and a chance to win the 2022 World Series. The closer situation in particular needs to be addressed, unless we are faced with the dreaded closer-by-committee campaign that almost derailed the 2003 season before it started.
Pitching models that downplay specialization have yet to win a championship in the history of the sport. If these Red Sox can become the first, another Red Sox GM legend will be born and Tampa Bay will look the fool for the thousandth time in franchise history.
Ya know, the way things are supposed to be.