Boston Red Sox play-by-play men Joe Castiglione and Dave O’Brien both feel this year’s team is a playoff-caliber club.
But pitching will dictate how far the team will go with the Red Sox opening on the road against the New York Yankees on Friday after Thursday’s game was rained out.
Castiglione, who is beginning his 40th year behind the microphone on WEEI, the Red Sox radio network, said the offense is strong with good balance, particularly after the recent signing of Trevor Story, a two-time All-Star shortstop who will play second base with Xander Bogaerts entrenched on the other side of the bag.
“It’ll all come down to pitching,” Castiglione said. “How is the bullpen going to play out?”
The Red Sox signed Story to a six-year, $140-million deal during spring training. They made only minor moves in their bullpen, which labored through last year’s playoff run. Closer Matt Barnes was an All-Star in the first half of the season, but he struggled so badly in the second half that he was initially left off of the playoff roster.
The bright spot was Garrett Whitlock, who emerged as the top fireman for the Red Sox with a 1.96 ERA and figures to be a key contributor. The team also signed Jake Diekman, a left-handed reliever who pitched for Oakland last year and was 3-3 with a 3.86 ERA with 83 strikeouts in 60 2/3 innings. He had a miniscule 0.42 ERA in the shortened 2020 season.
“Somebody made the comment that the bullpen is like Frankenstein’s monster. You get pieces from everywhere, you put them together and see if it can walk,” said O’Brien, who is beginning his 16th season calling games, first on radio and now on TV on the New England Sports Network.
Manager Alex Cora will carry 15 pitchers on the roster this year, giving him the ability to mix and match in the late innings. O’Brien praised his management of the bullpen, calling Cora “a real force” for the team.
O’Brien feels the starting rotation is “fine” even though ace lefty Chris Sale (rib stress fracture) and off-season acquisition James Paxton (Tommy John surgery) won’t be able to pitch until at least June. Both are 33-year-old lefties. Paxton won 15 games for the Yankees in 2019 but has appeared in just six games the past two seasons with New York and Seattle.
So the starting rotation to open the season consists of Nathan Eovaldi (11-9, 3.75 ERA, 195 strikeouts in 182 1/3 innings last year), Nick Pivetta (9-8, 4.53), Tanner Houck (1-5, 3.52), and 42-year-old lefty Rich Hill (6-4, 3.87 with Tampa Bay) with Michael Wacha (3-5, 5.05 with Tampa Bay) also in the picture.
“Eovaldi is a real number one. He was fourth in the Cy Young voting last year,” said O’Brien. “Pivetta is a terrific competitor. Houck has great stuff and Rich Hill has another good year left in him.”
“Hill has a young arm and he is a wonderful guy in the clubhouse,” Castiglione added.
The lineup will feature Bobby Dalbec at first (.240 average, 25 homers, 78 runs batted in), former Golden Glove finalist shortstop Story (.251-24-75) at second, Bogaerts (.295-23-79) at shortstop and Rafael Devers (.279-38-113) at third; Alex Verdugo in left (.289-013-63), Kike Hernandez in center (.250-20-60) and Jackie Bradley Jr. in right (.163-6-29).
Bradley spent eight seasons in center field with Boston before spending one season in Milwaukee and being obtained in a trade by Boston as the Red Sox gave up outfielder Hunter Renfroe (.259-31-96). Despite his recent light hitting, Bradley is a Gold Glove winner.
“Right field is cavernous in Fenway Park and Jackie is a perfect fit,” said O’Brien. “Hernandez played very well in center field and Verdugo is a natural in left.”
Christian Vazquez (.258-6-49) will do the majority of the catching and J.D. Martinez (.286-28-99) will be the regular designated hitter and play some outfield.
O’Brien said the infield defense must improve dramatically because the Red Sox gave up more ground ball hits than any team in baseball last season. He feels the addition of Story and his range will help Bogaerts and the rest of the infield.
“Devers has been more explosive (getting) to the ball and Dalbec really improved at first over the second half of last season,” said O’Brien.
One problem for the Red Sox is that all the teams in the American League East have improved as well, the two broadcasters said. Many are predicting the Red Sox to finish as low as fourth place. But because the playoffs have been expanded to include six teams in each league (three division winners and three wild-card teams), O’Brien said the Red Sox could still finish fourth and make the playoffs.
“But they will finish higher than fourth,” predicted O’Brien.
“They are better offensively and defensively than they were last year,” Castiglione said.
Boston tied with the Yankees for second behind Tampa Bay last year and beat the Yankees 6-2 in a wild card playoff game before beating Tampa Bay three games to one in a best-of-five series and losing to Houston four games to two in the best-of-seven AL championship series.
“Last year was a bonus. It was a surprise (to get that far),” said Castiglione.