November 5, 2021
It’s been a couple weeks since my last column, and anybody that’s been reading probably feels like I was too crushed by the Red Sox’ American League Championship Series loss to the Houston Astros to face up to the result. I rubbed the team’s success into the noses of doubters all season long, even telling them point blank that the Sox would prevail in the ALCS. Was I too crushed to move on? Was I too scared to stand tall and admit to my tens of readers that I was wrong?
In fact, despite the end result, I couldn’t be prouder of what the Red Sox accomplished this season. I’ve reminded everyone of the expectations that the baseball world had for this team going into 2021 ad nauseum, so I won’t revisit that here. They were a joy to watch this season. Even through the perilous August stretch where they seemed destined to sink like a stone to the bottom of the standings, the way they continued to fight and scratch and crawl all year long was about as heroic an effort as you could expect from a baseball team.
On paper, they were average. But they pulled together all year long and managed to become something far greater than the calculated sum of their parts. Every city should be lucky enough to have a team like this to root for, and I made sure to step back and appreciate that whenever things looked bleak this year. Chaim Bloom and Alex Cora worked wonders this season, and I was privileged to be able to witness it.
The truth of the matter is, this baseball season took a lot out of me. I won’t act like I watched every inning of every Sox game in 2021, but this is the first time I ever covered them for an entire season. Staying on top of the ups and downs of a season with so freaking many ups and downs was borderline exhausting. These guys played six or seven games a week for nearly seven months. They went from dominant, to bleh, to awful, to captivatingly mysterious, to the brink of legendary, before finally fizzling out in the ALCS. It was a season unlike any other that I can remember. After all that, I absolutely needed to step back and take a breath.
That ALCS was really fun for while, wasn’t it? The pinnacle of the season for me was the hour or so after the end of Game Three, where rabid fans on Landsdowne Street took over the TNT post game show. Those lunatics straight up ruined that broadcast, screaming non-stop in support of the Red Sox, genuflecting before David Ortiz, and even forcing the guys in the TV truck to essentially mute the on-stage panel so the missives being hurled at Alex Rodriguez would not make the air.
But when the series was all said and done, there was no doubt who the better team was. The Astros bats came alive late in four of the six games, whereas the Red Sox bats went to sleep after the early innings Games One through Three before falling into a coma for the final 27 innings of the series. You’re not going to win a playoff series scoring 3 runs over the course of three games, especially when you have a grand total of two dependable arms in your bullpen. In the end, their bats failed them. The Red Sox could not manage to win a single ALCS game where they did not hit a grand slam.
But good lord, were those grand slams fun to watch or what?
The Red Sox did not have a championship caliber team this year. Could they have won a World Series in spite of that? Sure. But the odds of keeping that kind of magical run alive through four rounds of postseason baseball were as narrow as the odds of a team of talented, professional fighters quitting after a “lackluster” trade deadline. Kike Hernandez could only hit four lasers per game for so long. Rookies Tanner Houck and Garrett Whitlock could only extinguish so many late inning jams. A bullpen that was sabotaged and left in shambles by the disintegration of Matt Barnes’ confidence could only retire elite hitters so many times.
The better team won. And it’s ok to admit that.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I was absolutely elated to see the Atlanta Braves defeat the Houston Astros to win their first World Series since 1995. The Braves have been my second favorite MLB team ever since Sid Bream beat Barry Bonds’ throw to the plate. Glavine, Gant, Justice, Pendleton, Maddux, Avery, Wohlers, Smoltz, Grissom, both Joneses … those were my dogs back in middle school.
And it’s impossible to not like the 2021 World Series Champions, who somehow managed to win it all without the electric bat of Ronald Acuna Jr. This is especially true considering the fact that they won the title by beating the biggest villains that this game has seen since Darth Steinbrenner was slain by the 2004 Red Sox.
Still, I’m not going to try to claim a false victory by acting like the Braves winning the World Series was anything close to as good as the Red Sox winning. Deep down, I still felt hollow inside watching another team dance on the lawn at Minute Maid Park. It was like watching Mark Wahlberg blow away Matt Damon after Leonardo DiCaprio had already been killed. Sure, the bad guy got what he deserved in the end. But it was a small consolation compared to the conclusion we truly wanted to see.
Luckily, we have a whole lot to look forward to in 2022 and beyond. Next year’s Boston Red Sox will look very similar to this year’s crew, but they will have a good deal of financial flexibility to add to the team because a lot of money came off the books after the final pitch of the 2021 season.
Dustin Pedroia’s $13.75 million and Andrew Benintendi’s $2.8 million will not be on the 2022 payroll. Eduardo Rodriguez ($8.3 million), J.D. Martinez ($22 million), and Kyle Schwarber ($11 million) are the only impactful free agents that are expected to hit the market this winter.
Of the three, Schwarber is the only one I expect to see return. He has a mutual player/team option with Boston for 2022, meaning both he and the Red Sox would have to agree in order for him to stay for one more season under his current deal of $11 million. He was the most complete hitter on the team — the best hitter on the team — from the first day he put on a Red Sox uniform until the playoffs when Kike Hernandez somehow morphed into Barry Bonds from 2002. Schwarber (29) will opt out of his contract in search of a long-term deal, and I hope the Red Sox are able to lock him up for 4-5 years. His teammates seemed to mimic his plate discipline after he came aboard, and he fit the top of this lineup like a glove.
Speaking of hitters with infectiously good habits, J.D. Martinez (34) may not have what it takes to make it through a full season anymore. However, I do expect him to exercise his opt-out clause and become a free agent and I do not think Boston should try to re-sign him. He’s been terrific for the last three years, and he set the offensive tone here that whole time. But he’s a lower body injury waiting to happen, as we saw on the last day of the season in Washington, and his body has taken quite a toll over his career. The Red Sox owe a lot to J.D. Martinez, but they do not owe him a new multi-year contract.
Eduardo Rodriguez is a pretty good number three starter, but pretty good number three starters tend to get over $15 million per year on the free agent market. I think the Red Sox can do much better than him for that kind of money. They already have Chris Sale, Nathan Eovaldi, Nick Pivetta, and Tanner Houck healthy and ready to roll in April. Just find a veteran that throws strikes to add to the back of the rotation and play ball.
The bullpen is where this team needs to spend their cash this offseason, and I can’t wait to see them do it. Kendall Graveman and Raisel Iglesias will be coveted relief pitchers on the free agent market, and I want the Red Sox to back up the Brinks truck for both of them. There is literally nobody reliable left in this bullpen besides Garrett Whitlock, who the team actually projects as a starter.
Personally, I’d like to see Whitlock stay in the bullpen next year to help form a ball-busting back end trio with Iglesias and Graveman. The starting rotation already looks respectable, and you can always stretch Whitlock back out and slot him in as a starter if injury issues pop up for the starters. But this team needs some major relief in, well, relief.
If Chaim Bloom wants to make this team drastically better in one offseason, he needs to retool the entire bullpen. Josh Taylor and Hirokazu Sawamura can stick around for middle relief, but Boston needs to make serious waves in the setup and closer roles. We are unfortunately stuck with poor, damaged, soft-as-cookie-dough Matt Barnes for two more seasons. But after the second half of last year, I’d rather see the other Matt Barnes take the hill late in a game before that perennially anxious mess sees a high-leverage situation again.
I’ll cover some more offseason thoughts, including the second base/shortstop free agent market and collective bargaining issues another time. But there’s one more subject I need to touch base on before I wrap this up this column.
Red Sox legend Jerry Remy passed away from cancer at the age of 68 this week, and his death shook me in a way I never would have expected. I never met the man. In fact, the closest I’ve ever been to him was in the seats while he called games from five stories overhead. But after he died, a lightning bolt of realization hit me.
I’ll turn 40 in three months. I first remember watching Red Sox games in 1988, when Clemens, Boggs, Greenwell, Burks, and Evans were winning the American League East before getting smoked by Oakland in the playoffs. This whole time, dating back 33 years, Jerry Remy was a color commentator for the Boston Red Sox. I’ve never known this team without Jerry Remy calling their games. Starting with the great Ned Martin and continuing with the dreadful Bob Kurtz, Jerry Remy was an ironman, very rarely missing a game for NESN.
He didn’t call every game of the season until 1995, when he first teamed with Sean McDonough to form the best sports commentary duo I’ve ever heard. Until that point, Remy was always a very knowledgeable and incredibly insightful color guy that I always enjoyed listening to and learning from. But after teaming up with McDonough, Remy’s organic personality really came to the forefront. Sean’s dry, snarky wit really seemed to loosen Remy up, and before long we got to see drips and drabs of the affability and sense of humor that would later evolve into the marketing powerhouse known as the RemDawg.
The Red Sox let go of McDonough after the curse ended in 2004. Younger generations of Sox fans cherish the fifteen years that Remy spent with Don Orsillo, now with the San Diego Padres, and remember Orsillo and Remy as the best broadcast team to ever call Red Sox games. But for those who grew up when I did, nobody will ever touch Sean and Jerry.
Six or seven bouts with cancer obviously slowed Jerry down and took him out of the booth for much of the past several years. For all the cringy PR moves the Boston Red Sox have made under this ownership group, the decision to bring in Jerry Remy to throw the ceremonial first pitch of the 2021 American League Wild Card Game to Dennis Eckersley was magnificent. Jerry was weak, dying, and suffering both physically and emotionally. He’d been through all kinds of unimaginable hell throughout the last 10 years of his life, but seeing him walk into Fenway to pass the torch to Eck and set the tone for an unforgettable night for Sox fans, all with a giant smile on his face, was the best possible way for us all to say goodbye.
I spent thousands of hours of my life listening to Jerry Remy. Aside from my grandfather, there’s not a single person on the planet that taught me as much about baseball as Jerry did. Whenever I watch a game, in many ways I’m still that pudgy six-year-old boy sipping on a glass of Coke listening to my grandfather explain the infield fly rule to me while Jerry Remy explains how YUGE it is to get the second out of an inning during a bases loaded threat.
I’ve heard a lot of national baseball broadcasts in my life. This year, my first season subscribing to MLB.TV, I’ve heard a whole bunch of second-rate color guys. Those of us lifelong Red Sox fans from my generation are damn lucky that we got to enjoy Jerry Remy for over three decades.
Oh … he was a pretty good player too.