Maybe it’s a little premature to do a Red Sox’ postmortem on Oct. 14 when the team is still among baseball’s final four after their improbable five-game ALDS victory over the AL’s top seed, the Tampa Bay Rays.
But the fact is that while I didn’t always put it in print, I felt that the Red Sox significantly underachieved after the August calendar page turned, and while plenty of blame for the team’s shortcomings were rightly directed at the players who took nosedives in the final couple of months, the actions or (perceived) inaction on the part of Boston management was also going to be brought up as critical to the team’s failures.
But the Red Sox turned things around rather remarkably, and against most odds, in the final 16 games of the regular season, finishing 11-5 down the stretch (despite getting swept at home by the Yankees and dropping two of three to the pitiful Orioles), but those 11 wins were obviously the reason why the Red Sox are still playing baseball in the ALCS.
So I’ll tip my proverbial cap to the players and begrudgingly admit that perhaps I was a bit too hard on management’s moves — because some of those transactions, while controversial at times, in retrospect look pretty good.
Let’s grade Sox GM Chaim Bloom’s moves prior to, and during, the 2021 season.
Rehiring Alex Cora
Look, when a team finishes in last place in the previous season and thereby earns the No. 4 overall pick in the MLB draft, then becomes a final-eight team in the subsequent season, one cannot ignore that the rehiring of Alex Cora after a year-long cheating suspension was a huge part of the team’s success. In the pandemic-shortened season under veteran skipper Ron Roenicke, Boston finished 24-36, which extrapolates to pretty much a 99-loss team, but the 2021 edition, with Cora back at the controls, finished 92-70. In three seasons, Cora has a record of 282-202, which translates to nearly a 59-percent winning percentage, along with a 2018 World Series championship. For comparison, Joe Maddon, long considered an elite manager and the manager of the 2016 Cubs championship team, currently has a career winning percentage of .533. Grade: B+.
Preseason pitching acquisitions
Engineering a trade with the Yankees of all teams, Bloom dealt for reliever Adam Ottavino, who was coming off a disappointing 2020 that saw his ERA balloon to 5.89, a season after he was lights-out with a 1.90 ERA. Ottavino was hot and cold for the Sox, too, but he became a key figure out of the bullpen once closer Matt Barnes struggled in the final months of the season, and earlier in the year had a stretch where he gave up just one run over the course of 15 appearances. He finished this season at 7-3 with a decent 4.21 ERA. Grade: B.
In another borderline theft from the Pinstripers, Boston grabbed 25-year-old pitcher Garrett Whitlock from the Yankees’ roster (although he had never appeared in an MLB game) in the Rule 5 draft, and Whitlock in middle relief was a godsend for Boston, as he went 8-4 with a 1.96 ERA. Grade: A.
One of the Sox’ big free-agent signings was starter Garrett Richards, whose previous stops included Anaheim and San Diego, where he was a combined 47-41 in 10 seasons. Maybe the East-Coast atmosphere didn’t agree with him, because he struggled in the starter’s role for most of the season before getting demoted to the bullpen in early August. He was pretty effective as a middle reliever, giving up a run or fewer in 16 of 19 appearances, and finished 7-8 with a 4.87 ERA, but he hurt his hamstring Thursday and is out for the balance of the Sox’ playoff run. Grade: B-
Righty reliever Hirokazu Sawamura was signed out of the Japanese pro leagues, and quietly went 5-1 with a nifty 3.06 ERA and 61 K’s in 53 innings. Grade: B+.
Midseason pitching acquisitions
Desperate to make it appear they were doing something at the trade deadline, the Sox acquired relievers Hansel Robles and Austin Davis, and neither did much to garner many accolades after their arrivals. But Robles ultimately became Cora’s most reliable arm out of the bullpen, keeping the opposition off the scoreboard in his final 16 appearances, and finished with an 0-1 record with a 3.60 ERA, which was a big improvement from his 4.91 ERA in Minnesota. Meanwhile, Davis notched a 1-1 record for the Sox along with a 4.86 ERA, but failed to give up a run in 12 or his 14 appearances down the stretch. Grades: Robles: B+; Davis: B-.
Preseason position-player acquisitions
There was quite a bit of fanfare when Bloom signed free agents Hunter Renfroe and Kiké Hernández, and acquired Franchy Cordero in the Andrew Benitendi trade. Renfroe hit .259 with 31 homers and led the team in outfield assists out in right field, while utilityman Hernández hit .250 with 20 homers in a COVID-shortened season (but has been lights-out in the postseason). Cordero struggled for most of his time in Boston before spending the majority of the rest of the season at Triple-A Worcester. He hit just .189 for the parent club in only 48 games. (If you’re interested, Benintendi hit .276 for KC while slamming 17 homers.) Grades: Renfroe: B+; Hernández: B (B+ if you include postseason); Cordero: D.
Midseason position-player acquisitions
While the Yankees, Jays, and Rays were trumpeting big deals at the July trade deadline, Boston’s trade for Washington’s Kyle Schwarber was mostly criticized because of his injury status (hamstring), but ultimately the acquisition of the outfielder/DH was a huge success despite his missing the first two weeks of August in recovery. In 41 games, Schwarber hit .291 with seven home runs and 18 RBIs, and while it doesn’t look like he’ll ever be an everyday first baseman, he is a great clubhouse guy and the Sox would be wise to re-sign him. (For the record, the Yankees’ high-profile deals didn’t pan out nearly as well: Anthony Rizzo hit .249 with eight homers and Joey Gallo batted just .160 with 13 home runs, but he struck out 88 times in 188 at-bats. The Rays’ Cruz, meanwhile, hit just .226 with 13 homers, so Schwarber was clearly the best addition at the deadline.) Grade: A-.
The early-July decision to sign closer Matt Barnes to a two-year, $18.75M contract extension shortly after he was named an All-Star for the first time now looks regrettable. As of Aug. 4, Barnes had 24 saves, but his effectiveness took a plunge thereafter, and he didn’t register a save the rest of the way and was relegated to middle-relief duty down the stretch. He originally didn’t even make the postseason roster, but Richards’ injury allowed Barnes to take his place, but the prospect of paying a middle reliever $9M a year for the next two years — if he even makes the team in 2022 — appears to be a big mistake on Bloom’s part. Grade: D.
Upcoming decisions to make
Sluggers J.D. Martinez and Xander Bogaerts can opt out after this season, and Renfroe, Schwarber, catcher Christian Vazquez, and starting pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez and are all free agents, as are bullpen arms Robles, Richards, Matt Andriese, Martin Perez, and Ottavino. Additionally, 24-year-old third baseman Rafael Devers is likely deserving of a long-term contract extension.