Step-by-Step Blueprint for '21 Red Sox to Win AL East, Be World Series Contender

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistJanuary 14, 2021

Step-by-Step Blueprint for '21 Red Sox to Win AL East, Be World Series Contender

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The 2021 Boston Red Sox as American League East winners and World Series contenders?

    You must be kidding.

    That was undoubtedly the immediate reaction of more than a few of you upon reading that headline. But before you toss this into the clickbait nonsense bin, hear me out.

    It's not all that long ago the Red Sox went from 93-loss cellar-dwellers in 2012 to World Series champions in 2013, and it sounds like they have their sights set on a similar turnaround this offseason.

    On Tuesday, Buster Olney of ESPN tweeted: "There is a sense that the Red Sox have talked about a ton of possibilities and are preparing for a series of moves before the start of spring training. They haven't done much yet, but the expectation is that they will in an effort to upgrade the '21 team."

    What would it take for a team that went 24-36 with a minus-59 run differential to once again go from zero to hero?

    That's what we've mapped out ahead, and spoiler alert: Some of this is going to be out of the Red Sox's control. We'll start with a series of proposed signings and trades before giving a full projected roster and breaking down what has to happen with the rest of the AL East to make it happen.

    Away we go.

Step 1: Trade Andrew Benintendi to the Miami Marlins for Pitching Help

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    Louis DeLuca/Associated Press

    Outfielder Andrew Benintendi has been a popular name on the rumor mill of late, and he was recently linked to the Miami Marlins, according to Jim Bowden of The Athletic.

    Trading the 2015 first-round pick when his value is down may seem counterproductive, but his long-term potential and short-term upside still give him enough value to bring back an impactful return.

    The 26-year-old is set to earn $6.6 million in 2021 in the final year of a two-year, $10 million extension he signed to buy out a pair of arbitration years. After that, he's still controllable in 2022 in what will be his final year of arbitration eligibility.

    He batted just .103 with a 27 OPS+ over 52 plate appearances in 2020. But in the three seasons prior, he hit .276/.354/.440 for a 108 OPS+ while averaging 36 doubles, 16 home runs, 82 RBI and 17 steals.

    The Marlins could use another corner man to join Starling Marte and Corey Dickerson in what has a chance to be an underrated outfield.

    Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez and Sixto Sanchez are not going anywhere in a Benintendi trade, but controllable right-hander Elieser Hernandez showed some intriguing potential in 2020.

    The 25-year-old posted a 3.89 FIP with a terrific 34-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 25.2 innings, including nine strikeouts in five shutout innings against a stacked Atlanta Braves lineup. He's controllable through 2024, so he's more valuable than Benintendi in a trade, but not by a ton.

    So consider, if you will, the following trade proposal:

    • To MIA: OF Andrew Benintendi, SS Antoni Flores
    • To BOS: SP Elieser Hernandez

    Benintendi and a former hot-shot international signing who is still just 20 years old and could use a change of scenery for a controllable young starter with No. 3 starter potential? Done deal.

Step 2: Sign Eddie Rosario to Be the Starting LF

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The Red Sox have a right-handed-heavy lineup even before a potential Benintendi trade, so it would make sense to target a left-handed bat in their search for a potential corner outfield replacement.

    Eddie Rosario fits the bill, and he would plug nicely into the middle of the lineup alongside right-handed sluggers Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez and Christian Vazquez.

    The 29-year-old posted a 115 OPS+ with 13 home runs and 42 RBI for the Minnesota Twins in 2020, garnering some down-ballot AL MVP support for the second year in a row.

    Despite that production, he was cut loose at the non-tender deadline, due in part to a projected salary in the $10 million range and a perennial lack of on-base ability. But his .310 career on-base percentage aside, Rosario is a productive middle-of-the-order bat, and in this market, there's a good chance he'll be available for less than that $10 million figure.

    The two-year, $16 million contract Kole Calhoun signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks last winter seems like a fair comparison as far as his expected market value, and that would be a small price to pay to plug a hole both in left field and in the middle of the lineup.

Step 3: Sign Enrique Hernandez to Fill the Utility Role

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    It doesn't take a rocket scientist to draw a line between Brock Holt's success in Boston and Enrique Hernandez's availability in free agency.

    Holt spent seven seasons in Boston, tallying 8.5 WAR while serving in a super-utility role and even earning an AL All-Star nod in 2015.

    The Red Sox attempted to use Jose Peraza, Michael Chavis and Tzu-Wei Lin in a utility capacity in 2020 to little success, and they would be wise to treat that as a roster hole that needs to be addressed this offseason even if it's not the No. 1 priority.

    Chris Cotillo of MassLive.com reported last month that the Red Sox were showing "strong interest" in Hernandez, so there's something to this potential fit beyond just the Holt comparison.

    Hernandez, 29, played six different positions for the Los Angeles Dodgers last season, but he fits best at second base and the corner outfield spots, which just happen to be where the Red Sox need the most help.

Step 4: Roll the Dice on Corey Kluber and Kirby Yates

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    Corey Kluber
    Corey KluberLouis DeLuca/Associated Press

    There are a handful of free agents every offseason who could change the complexion of their next team for pennies on the dollar if they are able to return to even 75 percent of their pre-injury form.

    Corey Kluber and Kirby Yates fit neatly into that box this offseason.

    A two-time AL Cy Young winner, Kluber was one of the best pitchers in baseball as recently as 2018 when he went 20-7 with a 2.89 ERA and 222 strikeouts in 215 innings.

    However, he missed the bulk of 2019 after suffering a fractured arm on a line drive back through the box, and he lasted just one inning for the Texas Rangers last year before a teres major muscle tear sidelined him for the duration of the season.

    The Red Sox have reportedly shown interest, and he impressed in a recent showcase, so there's reason to believe he could be an asset in the Boston rotation. Even after his showcase, he's still likely headed for a one-year deal, and the payoff could be huge.

    As for Yates, he was the consensus best closer in baseball in 2019 when he converted 41 of 44 save chances with a 1.19 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and 15.0 strikeouts per nine innings for the San Diego Padres. He, too, missed the bulk of 2020 with an injury, throwing just 4.1 innings before undergoing season-ending surgery to repair bone chips in his elbow.

    At 33 years old, he comes with some obvious risk. But on an incentive-heavy one-year deal, there would be little risk and a ton of room for reward.

Step 5: Let the Youngsters Play!

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    Jeter Downs
    Jeter DownsElise Amendola/Associated Press

    The Red Sox gave slugger Bobby Dalbec and right-hander Tanner Houck a chance to prove themselves down the stretch, and the returns were encouraging.

    • Dalbec: 92 PA, 152 OPS+, .263/.359/.600, 8 HR, 16 RBI
    • Houck: 3 GS, 3-0, 0.53 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 21 K, 17 IP

    Granted, Dalbec will need to cut down on his 42.4 percent strikeout rate, and the 3.25 FIP Houck posted is a better indication of how he pitched. But it was a promising debut for both players nonetheless.

    Both should be part of the Opening Day roster.

    They have room to improve, but their upside is also significant. And at some point, the front office will need to find a healthy mix of high-priced veterans and low-cost young talent.

    But let's take it one step further.

    Jeter Downs, the key prospect piece of the Mookie Betts blockbuster, hit .276/.362/.526 with 35 doubles and 24 home runs in 119 games between High-A and Double-A in 2019, and he had another year of development time at the alternate site in 2020.

    With Hernandez signed as a safety net in this hypothetical, what's the harm in letting Downs break camp as the starting second baseman to see if he's ready?

    While the Red Sox are at it, hard-throwing right-hander Bryan Mata belongs on the roster, too. With a 65-grade fastball and a 60-grade slider, he could be Boston's version of what Brusdar Graterol was for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2020.

    All four players are ready to contribute, and there's no reason to hold them back.

2021 Proposed Roster

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    So there you have it. Five steps to retool the Boston Red Sox and better position them to contend in 2021 and beyond.

    Here's a look at what the Opening Day roster might look like if those steps are followed, with bold indicating a proposed addition.

    Lineup

    1. CF Alex Verdugo
    2. 3B Rafael Devers
    3. SS Xander Bogaerts
    4. DH J.D. Martinez
    5. LF Eddie Rosario
    6. C Christian Vazquez
    7. RF Hunter Renfroe
    8. 1B Bobby Dalbec (R)
    9. 2B Jeter Downs (R)

    Bench

    C Kevin Plawecki
    IF Christian Arroyo
    IF Michael Chavis
    IF/OF Enrique Hernandez

    Rotation

    RHP Nathan Eovaldi
    LHP Eduardo Rodriguez
    RHP Corey Kluber
    RHP Elieser Hernandez

    RHP Tanner Houck (R)

    Bullpen

    RHP Nick Pivetta
    RHP Matt Andriese
    RHP Garrett Whitlock
    LHP Darwinzon Hernandez
    RHP Ryan Brasier
    RHP Bryan Mata (R)
    RHP Matt Barnes
    RHP Kirby Yates

In-House Improvements and Health Will Be Key

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    Chris Sale
    Chris SaleTony Dejak/Associated Press

    Even with that projected roster, some things will need to break right in order for the Red Sox to make a surge up the standings.

    J.D. Martinez will need to return to form after hitting .213/.291/.389 with seven home runs and 27 RBI in a brutal 2020 campaign.

    In the two seasons prior, he batted .317/.392/.593 and averaged 40 home runs and 118 RBI, so there is ample room for improvement.

    Eduardo Rodriguez will also need to bounce back from a season lost to COVID-19 complications.

    The 27-year-old appeared to be on the cusp of stardom in 2019 when he went 19-6 with a 3.81 ERA and 213 strikeouts in 203.1 innings to finish sixth in AL Cy Young balloting.

    And, of course, the big one is the eventual return of Chris Sale.

    He's not expected to be ready to go until midseason as he continues to recover from Tommy John surgery, but he could make a huge impact as an in-house trade-deadline addition of sorts for the stretch run. Getting him back after the All-Star break could go a long way even if he's only at 75 percent of what he was pre-injury while he builds his arm back up.

    All this is extremely doable, but it's also far from a foregone conclusion and will be paramount to the team's success in 2021.

How the Rest of the AL East Can Help

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    Gerrit Cole
    Gerrit ColeGregory Bull/Associated Press

    Even if all goes according to plan, the Red Sox could still use some help from the rest of the AL East to accomplish those goals of division supremacy and title contention. Here's a quick rundown of what the other four AL East teams could do to help:

               

    Tampa Bay Rays (40-20, 1st in AL East in 2020)

    The Rays already shipped out Blake Snell and let Charlie Morton walk in free agency as a result of their financial limitations, and failing to properly replace those key arms in the starting rotation would be a significant blow to their hopes of repeating as division champs.

            

    New York Yankees (33-27, 2nd in AL East in 2020)

    Likewise, the Yankees are in serious need of rotation help. If they open the season with Jordan Montgomery serving as the No. 2 starter behind Gerrit Cole while heaping a ton of hope on the shoulders of a rusty Domingo German and an eventually healthy Luis Severino, then they'll be asking for trouble.

           

    Toronto Blue Jays (32-28, 3rd in AL East in 2020)

    The Blue Jays have somehow been both loud and quiet this offseason, seemingly kicking the tires on everyone but sitting on their hands outside of re-upping Robbie Ray on a one-year deal. They need to fill plenty of holes if they aim to build on last year's postseason trip, and standing pat could mean a step backward while they continue to develop their young talent.

           

    Baltimore Orioles (25-35, 4th in AL East in 2020)

    The Orioles quietly went 12-8 to start the 2020 season before slipping back down the standings, but there is some reason to believe they could be on the upswing even if they're still a few years away from contention. If they can steal a few more wins from the rest of the division in 2021, then it could wind up helping the Red Sox in the long run.

            

    It features a lot of what-ifs and hypotheticals, but a path does exist for the Red Sox to make a quick climb back up the standings. Now we just have to wait and see how the rest of the offseason will play out.

           

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.