Boston Shouldn't Be Satisfied by Abrupt Rise to Contention

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It’s hard to believe that in the span of just 15 months, Red Sox fans have gone from inconsolably lamenting the Mookie Betts trade to canceling their October travel plans.

Not many would have predicted the franchise’s fortunes could change so quickly after what Red Sox fans viewed as a “once-in-a-generation mistake” in trading the former MVP to the Dodgers. But six weeks into the 2021 season, Boston suddenly has the look of a true-blue title contender—seemingly by accident.

The abridged 2020 season marked a new low for the franchise, as the Red Sox posted their worst winning percentage in 55 years. That level of ineptitude led to ample schadenfreude throughout the league, as one of baseball’s most successful and richest franchises fell flat on its face all while ownership turned its pockets inside out and cried poor.

This past offseason didn’t exactly signal a desire to win now, either, with big-league additions like Garrett Richards, Enrique Hernandez, Matt Andriese and Marwin Gonzalez looking more like stopgaps rather than difference-makers. The short-term, relatively low-dollar commitments appeared in keeping with the team’s cost-cutting philosophy that was parroted as justification for the Betts trade in the first place.

The Yankees spent more than three times as much money as the Red Sox this winter, while the Blue Jays spent over $150 million more. But while it's easy to point out that the Dodgers won the World Series last year after acquiring Betts, it's worth remembering they played against the Rays—a team with a shoestring budget and a foundation built by Red Sox executive Chaim Bloom. The Yale graduate previously served as Tampa Bay's senior vice president of baseball operations and wrote the franchise's player development handbook, which helped the team grow countless arms into useful starters, bulk guys and relievers. He seemingly deserves some credit for Boston's pitching suddenly becoming a strength despite financial constraints, as may Alex Cora in his first year back in the dugout.

Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora looks on during the first inning against the Atlanta Braves at CoolToday Park.

FanGraphs gave Boston a 38.9% chance to make the playoffs before Opening Day, a number that fell to 22.7% following a three-game sweep by the Orioles to start the season. It would be hard to begrudge Red Sox fans who resigned themselves to another summer of misery. 

Since that forgettable Baltimore series, watching the Red Sox play has been anything but miserable. Even after Wednesday’s 4–1 loss to the A's, Boston sits atop the AL East standings and ranks among the top five in hitting and pitching WAR, per FanGraphs. The loss to Oakland signified just the second series defeat for the Red Sox since that Orioles sweep, and the team’s success at avoiding prolonged slumps is largely due to its sneaky good rotation that doesn’t have a bona fide ace in the bunch.

The group of Richards, Nathan Eovaldi, Eduardo Rodríguez, Nick Pivetta and Martín Pérez has been surprisingly durable so far, and more effective than preseason projections indicated. Boston’s rotation has pitched even better than the results would indicate, with a 3.31 FIP that ranks second in the AL. Now, the club's FanGraphs playoff odds are practically a coin flip. 

Recent history suggests that it takes teams about three to five years to rebuild from one contending window to the next. The Cubs, Astros and Blue Jays are examples of clubs that employed some version of a tear-down-to-build-back-up approach to construct title contenders. With the Betts trade and subsequent spending (or lack thereof), the Red Sox seemed to be following a similar playbook, one that’s likely to be thrown out the window if the team can maintain this level of success.

Suddenly, a franchise that appeared to be a few steps away from contending now faces the reality that its newly ajar window could close this winter just as suddenly as it opened. Designated hitter J.D. Martinez and star shortstop Xander Bogaerts are having outstanding seasons, and each will be able to opt out of their current contracts in 2021 and '22, respectively. A team that could have been pegged as potential sellers come the trade deadline now should be in a position to add and help plug whatever roster holes arise over the next two and a half months, with the return of Chris Sale looming large as well.

Red Sox ownership could not have predicted to be looking down at the Yankees and Blue Jays in mid-May when the team traded away Andrew Benintendi and opted to let Jackie Bradley Jr. walk in free agency, but baseball has a funny way of surprising you sometimes. It’s still early, but the Red Sox are the latest example of how the rich can get richer—even under a self-imposed budget.

Quick Hits

• Control master Corbin Burnes still has his incredible walk-less streak going, but Yankees ace Gerrit Cole is making history of his own on that front. Cole struck out 12 in eight shutout innings against the Rays on Wednesday, bringing his streak to 56 punchouts without issuing a free pass. That ties him for the longest such streak since the mound was moved to its current distance—way back in 1893. Overall on the season, Cole has 78 strikeouts and just three walks in eight starts and 52 2/3 innings.

• It took a while, but 2015 first-round pick James Kaprielian finally made his first big league start on Wednesday, holding the Red Sox to just one run over five innings for his first career win. Kaprielian has overcome a long injury history to finally reach the majors, and his dad seemed plenty fired up to watch his son reach the milestone.

• Matt Harvey made his return to Citi Field and received a warm welcome from Mets fans, who gave him a standing ovation. New York scored seven runs off Harvey in 4 1/3 innings in a 7–1 win, and might have scored even more had Orioles shortstop Freddy Galvis not momentarily defied gravity:

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