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Five players bringing early-season excitement to surprising Red Sox

Five players bringing early-season excitement to surprising Red Sox originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Here's a word we haven't used to describe the Red Sox in a while: exciting.

They make diving catches. They take extra bases. They pound the strike zone. What young teams lack in experience, they can often make up for in energy, and the Red Sox are thriving this way early in the 2024 season.

Monday night's 9-0 thumping of the embarrassing A's featured five Oakland errors, yes, but also three steals from Jarren Duran, 10 strikeouts and zero walks from Tanner Houck to complete a stellar first turn through the rotation, and even a clutch hit from Triston Casas, whose two-out single in the first opened scoring rather than let the A's strand a leadoff runner on third.

It's too soon whether it will last, because the division remains brutal, the young pitchers haven't proven they can hold up, and early shoulder woes for third baseman Rafael Devers bear watching, but that's a story for another day. For right now, the Red Sox are worth watching and that's a victory in and of itself.

So where's the excitement coming from? Let's take a look around the roster.

Ceddanne Rafaela, OF

The rookie center fielder set the tone right from the jump when he stretched a double into a daring triple on opening day in Seattle, but he didn't stop there. Rafaela has also made a couple of diving catches and aggressively taken extra bases while playing with energy that's reminiscent of a young Mookie Betts.

In Monday's blowout, he contributed a pair of sacrifice flies while continuing to justify manager Alex Cora's decision to put him in the starting lineup. He still swings at everything – not only has he not walked yet, he's only reached one three-ball count – but he has brought life to the lineup.

Jarren Duran, OF

Duran's game-changing speed has been most evident not in his team-record five steals through five games, but the one he left on the table when he danced down the line on opening day with a clear swipe of home in his sights before aborting 20 feet from paydirt. It's safe to say he's going to get one of those before the year (month?) is over.

Duran's a threat to run every time he reaches base, and putting him in left field gives the Red Sox one of the best defensive outfields in baseball just a year after being mostly a trainwreck.

Tyler O'Neill, OF

Talk about someone with folk hero potential. O'Neill isn't particularly tall, but he's on the short list (alongside Duran) of baseball's most ripped physiques. His bodybuilder dad is a former Mr. Canada, and he clearly inherited that gene.

He set a quirky record by homering on opening day for the fifth straight year in one of those only-in-baseball moments. He's not only hitting the ball hard, he's also entertaining in the outfield, where he uncorks somersault throws that evoke former Red Sox outfielder Gabe Kapler. He also makes difficult plays look easy, which befits his status as a two-time Gold Glover.

O'Neill is the early leader for sneaky great acquisition by Craig Breslow.

Enmanuel Valdez, 2B

Didn't see this one coming. Valdez bobbled the first ball he had to handle and fans could be excused for wishing Vaughn Grissom, the presumed starter at second, a speedy recovery. But Valdez won the finale against the Mariners with a three-run bomb, and he contributed to the bottom of the order killing the A's on Monday while scoring on a hustle play and also making a beautiful diving stop at second.

Valdez's glove probably doesn't play in the long haul, but good on him for making the most of this early opportunity.

Garrett Whitlock, SP

This honestly could've been devoted to the entire starting rotation, what with Brayan Bello winning the opener despite throwing zero four-seam fastballs, Nick Pivetta and Houck striking out 10 apiece, and Kutter Crawford continuing his stealthy evolution into legitimate starter.

But for my money, the most fascinating outing thus far belonged to Whitlock, who remade his physique and then remade his arsenal, too. Instead of building around his power sinker, Whitlock threw a ton of changeups in a 5-1 win against the Mariners while also introducing a new pitch, the gyro or bullet slider that featured sharp downward bite.

The slider gives Whitlock another weapon to throw inside against left-handed hitters and offers a reminder that of all the members of the pitching staff, he might own the best pure stuff.

Honorable mentions

It was fascinating to watch Houck fill the strike zone on Monday while matching his career-high in K's. Command hasn't always been his friend, especially against lefties, but after adding velocity this spring, he may actually be ready to take the next step. ...

Pivetta became a completely different pitcher last year when he added a sweeper, and it was his greatest weapon against Seattle. The fiery Canadian pitches with a surly intensity that makes him the natural leader of the staff. ...

Trevor Story hasn't done much with the bat yet, but his defense has lived up to its billing, with a throw from the hole against the Mariners his weekend the kind of play the Red Sox had no hope of making at this time last year.