A new season means the return of a traditional series here at Bless You Boys. If this is your first season with us, let me introduce you to Behind Enemy Lines, the Q&A that aims to provide some expert insight into the upcoming competition. We take time to chat with the folks who run our sister sites, and pick their brains about under-the-radar stars, who might be our biggest threat, and what’s been going on with their clubs.
To kick off the first BEL of the new year, we chatted with Matt Collins, managing editor of the Red Sox site Over the Monster, to see how Sox fans are feeling about their AL East competition, and how hard it’s been to lose Chris Sale just before things got going.
BYB: The Sale move to the IL obviously isn’t what anyone wanted to see. How do you think the Red Sox will work around that this season, and how has the Sale acquisition felt in retrospect?
OTM: Very carefully. More seriously, they are going to work around it basically by crossing their fingers and hoping for the best. They added to their rotation (after losing your new friend Eduardo Rodriguez) by bringing on questionable veterans in Rich Hill and Michael Wacha, neither of whom is expected to pick up the Sale slack. Instead, they’re hoping that Tanner Houck can develop a third pitch and stick in the rotation, and/or James Paxton is back from Tommy John sooner than expected (i.e. before the break) and can contribute in a significant way, and/or Garrett Whitlock eventually makes it to the rotation and is as good there as he has been in the bullpen. Their best bet of those three, at least in my view, is probably Whitlock. They do also have Nick Pivetta, who is better than his Philly days and has his moments, but overall this rotation is Nathan Eovaldi and a whole lot of prayer emojis.
As for the Sale acquisition, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a Red Sox fan against that part of it. Even the biggest prospect huggers can agree he totally changed this rotation and was a big reason they had their best season in franchise history in 2018, complete with his strikeout to win the title. The part that is up in the air perception-wise is the contract extension. He has barely pitched at all since he signed that new deal, and when he has pitched it largely hasn’t been pretty. I think at the time it was a deal you have to do because, well, it’s Chris Sale, but there’s really no positive spin you can put on how it’s worked out to this point.
BYB: The AL East is looking to be the toughest division in baseball this year, where do you think the Sox stand, and who is their biggest competition?
OTM: I think on paper the Red Sox are probably fourth in this division, which sounds worse than it is to your point about the division’s strength. Boston’s offense is good enough to hang around with most any of those teams, I think, but their pitching has more questions and less upside. The gap between them and first place isn’t so big that it’d be a total shock if they won, but I think if you’re looking at these teams objectively it’s hard to say the Red Sox are clearly better than any of the others. As for the biggest competition, it’s got to be Toronto. I think I like their pitching more than most, and their offense speaks for itself. Throw in the built-in advantage of being in Canada and the whole vaccination rules around that, and they should be the favorites to win, though again it’s not at all a given.
BYB: Coming out of spring training, which players are you most excited for this season?
OTM: It kind of feels like cheating, but I’m going to go with Rafael Devers. He was already arguably the team’s best player before this season, but he looks like he’s ready to take another leap. And through the first two games (I’m writing this prior to Sunday’s series finale in New York) he very much looks like he should be mentioned at least close to some of the best young hitters in the game. He’s not a Soto or a Vlad, but I think he’s the next tier down, and could be near the top of that tier. His defense remains a question, but even there I think he can grow and really turn into an MVP candidate.
BYB: Obviously small sample size, but who has surprised you the most, for better or worse, in these opening games?
OTM: Like I said, I’m writing this before having seen the final game, but I’m surprised by good of a left field Alex Verdugo has played. His defensive stock has taken a hit since coming to Boston, and he’s now basically a left field only player. He’s made some huge plays early in this season, though, and alongside Enrique Hernández and Jackie Bradley Jr. this should be a very good defensive outfield. And that’s a good thing for the Red Sox too because their infield defense is, uh, a bit worse.
BYB: Bold prediction: which Red Sox players will be representing the team at the 2022 All-Star Game?
OTM: Not sure how bold this is, but I’ll go Devers, Xander Bogaerts, Trevor Story, and Nathan Eovaldi. If I must get bold, I’ll go with Garrett Whitlock as a fifth.
BYB: Which player on the Tigers roster worries you most for this upcoming series?
OTM: I gotta say, I’m really intrigued by this Detroit roster and think they’ll at least be frisky Wild Card contenders all the way through. Part of me wants to say Rodriguez, though I’m more excited than worried, not because I don’t think he’ll be good but rather I just like watching him pitch. I miss that changeup already. I guess I’ll go with Austin Meadows, partially out of familiarity. Someone like Torkelson does too, but that’s mainly from reading about him than seeing him. I’ve seen what Meadows can do for a few years now, and with the Red Sox expected to start two righties with Whitlock, a righty, expected to piggyback after Hill, it’s almost three in the series. Like I said, I know what Meadows can do against righties when he’s on.
Thanks so much to Matt for taking the time to talk to us. If you want to read more of his work, go check out Over the Monster.