Monday, April 15

5 questions facing Red Sox ahead of ‘22 season

Last year, the Red Sox exceeded the expectations of just about everyone when they won 92 games during the regular season, beat the Yankees in the American League Wild Card Game, upset the Rays in the Division Series and gave the Astros a huge scare in the ALCS before bowing out in six games. They will try to improve on that finish this season without being able to sneak up on teams.

Here are some key questions that need to be answered before Opening Day.

Will Schwarber be back?
There are very few in-season trade acquisitions who had such an instant fit with the Red Sox from both a talent and a chemistry standpoint as Kyle Schwarber did after he came on board for the stretch run of 2021. Schwarber’s patient yet relentless hitting approach seemed to rub off on his teammates. Now it will come down to business. Can the Sox and Schwarber, a free agent, find common ground on a deal that can keep him in Boston?

When J.D. Martinez opted back in rather than exercising his final opt-out, it led some to believe it would lessen the chances of Schwarber returning. But the Red Sox played their best baseball last season with both sluggers in the lineup. Martinez is only under contract for one more year. Manager Alex Cora could be creative with his defensive alignments again this year and Schwarber could transition to full-time DH in 2023, assuming Martinez signs elsewhere.

Garrett Whitlock, brilliant and powerful as the Rule 5 rookie a year ago, is an obvious fit to take over as closer. But he also has the flexibility to start. And Barnes could be given a chance to win his old job back in Spring Training. Ryan Brasier has also done a decent job as a closer in limited opportunities. The free-agent market isn’t flush with marquee closers, and it isn’t chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom’s style to spend big on a closer. Don’t be surprised if Bloom scours the trade market for a pitcher with experience in the ninth inning.

What about a right-handed bat to replace Renfroe?
Hunter Renfroe was huge for the Sox last season against lefties, belting 11 homers to go with an .885 OPS in 208 plate appearances. Many eyebrows were raised when Renfroe was traded to the Brewers in December. Bloom made that deal as much for the two prospects he received (Alex Binelas and David Hamilton) as he did for the unforeseen opportunity to bring Jackie Bradley Jr.’s elite glove back just one year after losing him as a free agent.

In recent years, the AL East has been loaded with lefties, so it would seem important to get a right-handed bat to replace Renfroe. Perhaps the most intriguing option is Japanese outfielder Seiya Suzuki, who cranked 38 homers for the Hiroshima Carp last season. The Red Sox have heavy interest in Suzuki, but so do a few other teams.

However, Kiké Hernández did a much better job replacing Bradley in center in ’21 than anyone could have expected, all while also turning into a force on offense. Cora felt that Hernández’s best fit on last year’s team was center field, though the veteran utility player has the versatility to play all over the field. Could Bradley move to right field?

Bradley will also have to hit far better than he did last season in Milwaukee (.163/.236/.261) to be a regular in Cora’s lineup. It will be interesting to see how all of this plays out. And don’t forget about Jarren Duran, the outfield prospect who created so much buzz last year in the Minors before he came up and struggled. It is too early to give up on Duran.

Contract extension for Devers?
Red Sox fans don’t want to see another exciting homegrown player get away. The loss of Mookie Betts still stings the fanbase. The Red Sox have two arbitration-eligible years left on Devers, which means there isn’t urgency to sign him now. However, this also could represent their best chance to sign him if Devers craves long-term security. Given the fact that Devers is pretty much always smiling, it seems clear he loves playing in Boston.

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