Not much good for Red Sox, so here's the bad and ugly of 2021 start

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John Tomase
·8 min read
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Tomase: The good, bad and (plenty of) ugly from Red Sox' first series originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Three games do not a baseball season make, but they're more than enough time to freak the bleep out.

As the Red Sox face the reality of a winless start after getting swept by the thoroughly mediocre Baltimore Orioles -- those same O's of the 64.5-win over/under, per Vegas -- now is a good time to ask a simple question: What's concerning, and what's simply noise?

The Red Sox have done a little of everything wrong so far. In Friday's opener, they were practically no-hit and committed a costly error. A day later, Rafael Devers ill-advisedly dove in front of shortstop Xander Bogaerts to cut off a grounder and then even iller-advisedly lollipopped it into right field to spearhead a game-losing rally.

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Sunday's finale was pure carnage, the Orioles chasing starter Garrett Richards in the third inning en route to a 10-0 lead and 11-3 victory.

Three games into the season, the Red Sox rank last in the American League in hitting (.160) and 12th in ERA (5.33). They've hit one home run and stolen one base. It goes without saying that they've yet to record a save.

"It's three games in a season," pitcher Garrett Richards noted. "It's kind of an early panic button."

Well, it is and it isn't. Let's try to make sense of this misery, one step at a time.

The Good: J.D. Martinez, starters not named Garrett Richards

It's not all bad, so let's get that out of the way right off the top. After a woeful 2020 and a nondescript spring, Martinez has been hammering the ball. He owns four of the team's five extra-base hits, including its only home run. After mystifyingly struggling to hit fastballs last year, he's 4 for 7 vs. them this year with a homer and two doubles. He's also averaging 95 mph of exit velocity.

He's not remotely the problem.

Lone bright spot

J.D. Martinez' OPS through three games


Red Sox' team OPS through three games




"He's staying on the ball," said manager Alex Cora. "We talked a few days ago, actually at the end of spring training, there was a pitch that caught my attention. It was a pitch up and in, I think it was the Braves. It was right by his face and I don't know if he didn't see it, or he wasn't prepared for it, I said, 'J.D., I know you're working on your mechanics, but you have to compete.' I don't want to say it was a wakeup call, but since that day, the approach is different. He's such a workaholic.

"In spring training we saw him swinging and swinging and swinging, chasing pitches. And all of a sudden, boom, the strike zone gets smaller, he gets pitches that he can handle, and he's driving the ball."

The Red Sox also should have little complaint about their first two starts. Nathan Eovaldi grabbed the ball on Opening Day and took a shutout into the sixth. Replacement starter Tanner Houck struck out eight in five innings on Saturday but allowed three runs (two earned) in part because of a passed ball and Devers' error.

Richards? A very different story, and we'll get to him later.

The Encouraging: Garrett Whitlock

Cora desperately wanted to give Whitlock a clean inning in his big league debut. Not only had the Rule 5 right-hander never pitched above Double A, he hadn't pitched in over a year, thanks to Tommy John surgery.But after watching the Orioles smash left-hander Josh Taylor all over Fenway on Sunday, Cora finally summoned Whitlock with runners on first and second and two outs. He escaped the jam and proceeded to shut out the Orioles over the next three frames, allowing three hits and striking out five.

It was a hugely impressive debut that merely falls under the "encouraging" heading because the 10-0 game wasn't exactly in doubt.

"Adrenaline was rushing," Whitlock said. "I think anyone that tells you otherwise is lying to you. It was just a ton of fun and just loved soaking it up."

So that's it for the good news. Hope you enjoyed it. Now comes the bad news.

The Disappointing: The offense, the newcomers

Five regulars have yet to record a hit: Alex Verdguo, Hunter Renfroe, Franchy Cordero, Devers, and Dalbec. Xander Bogaerts and Kiké Hernández are each 1-for-2021, making those seven players a combined 2 for 61. Grab the magnifying glass, because that's an average of .033.

The good news, such as it is, is that Verdugo, Devers, Bogaerts and Hernández have long enough track records to trust they'll produce.

It is fair to ask, however, if we overinflated the offense's ceiling. Renfroe is a lifetime .227 hitter. Cordero checks in at .232, while Hernández's cold start has dropped him to .239. Gonzalez (.261 lifetime) is the one newcomer who has made a few things happen, and he's only hitting .250 with a steal.

Silent Sox

Red Sox' team batting average (28th in MLB)




For all the focus on roster versatility, Gonzalez is the lone newcomer who has ever reached 450 at-bats in a season, and he has never crossed 500. That means the Red Sox are asking a bunch of part-time players to play full-time roles, even if they've generally placed at the upper end of the part-time spectrum.

The offense was supposed to be the team's strength. Instead it has been a zero. It's hard to imagine that lasts.

The impact of the newcomers is a bigger concern. Hernández was wildly popular in Los Angeles as a turbo-charged Brock Holt. That doesn't make him a full-time player. Renfroe owns one 30-homer season and more strikeouts than games played.

The Red Sox are the third organization hoping to tap Cordero's potential. Gonzalez could end up playing more third if Devers continues to struggle defensively.

The Disastrous: Rafael Devers, defense, Richards, Taylor

Hoo boy. We spent the feeling winter uneasy over Devers' ability to stick at third base, wondering why the Red Sox refused to try him at first, especially since the incumbent, Dalbec, is a pretty good third baseman.

Three games into the season, Devers found himself on the bench after bouncing multiple throws in the opener and chucking a ball away the next day. This is a hugely concerning issue for the Red Sox, because in a perfect world, they'd be signing Devers to a long-term extension and nailing down a vital piece of their future. That task becomes trickier when they have no idea if Devers is a third baseman, first baseman, or DH.

While it's true that Devers has started slowly and then recovered both offensively and defensively, the fact is he was terrible at third last year and he's already off to a rough start. The Red Sox do not want their season heading south before Marathon Monday, which makes playing Devers every day a more fraught exercise.

"You like the effort," Cora said. "Sometimes, obviously, the decisions are not sound, but the effort is there. He puts in work. Whoever says he needs to work on defense, they should join us in the mornings and the afternoons. He puts in work. That's what you ask for in a player. Do we need to get better? Of course."

Meanwhile, Richards struggled in his debut and then partially chalked it up getting beaten by the shift, an excuse which does not play well in Boston, especially when the pitcher in question allowed six runs in two innings. The Red Sox bet big on Richards for reasons that related partially to track record -- he has generally pitched well when healthy -- and partly to more amorphous characteristics like the spin rates on his fastball and curve.

Assuming left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez returns soon, the Red Sox will actually have one extra starter in Houck, so they've at least got some wiggle room if Richards, Martin Perez, or Nick Pivetta struggles. The problem is they're relying on Richards to be a top-of-the-rotation arm, not back-end filler, and he's off to a rough start.

In the bullpen, both newcomer Matt Andriese and holdover left-handers Taylor and Darwinzon Hernandez have struggled. There's time to sort out the arms back there, at least, with Whitlock and Hirokazu Sawamura impressing in their debuts.

The bullpen represents a lower level of concern, especially with veteran right-hander Hector Rondon coming aboard and World Series contributor Ryan Brasier working his way back from a broken finger and calf strain.

But otherwise, there are concerns up and down the roster. And to think, it only took three games to get here.