Unless the Red Sox suddenly change heart and sign two-time Cy Young winner and free agent Blake Snell, a remarkable streak is set to end.
For 56 consecutive seasons, the Red Sox have had at least one player on their Opening Day roster with a top-two finish in either MVP or Cy Young voting already on his résumé. From Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Lonborg — who began the streak in 1968, thanks to their MVP and Cy Young performances one year earlier while fueling the Impossible Dream — to Chris Sale and Corey Kluber in 2023, the Sox have always featured some of baseball’s most accomplished players.
But in the absence of a last-minute addition, the Sox won’t have any players on this year’s Opening Day roster with a single season at the upper echelon of the sport. No one on the roster has finished above eighth in MVP voting (Trevor Story in 2018 and Tyler O’Neill in 2021), while no pitcher has finished better than fifth in Cy Young balloting (Kenley Jansen in 2017).
In fact, the team will likely open the year with just four players who have been named to All-Star teams: Rafael Devers, Story, Jansen, and newcomer Lucas Giolito. Aside from 2021 — when the Sox opened with three All-Stars (Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez, and Sale) — it’s the fewest players who have been selected for the Midsummer Classic the team has featured on Opening Day this century, and a far cry from the 16(!) players with All-Star credentials on the Opening Day roster in 2011.
That doesn’t necessarily matter. That pedigree-loaded 2011 team had one of the most notorious meltdowns in franchise history and missed the playoffs. Sale and Kluber arguably did more to push the Red Sox toward last place in 2023 than they did to help the team contend. The 1967 team, meanwhile, reached the World Series as young players established themselves as stars.
More recently, the 2023 Orioles didn’t have anyone who’d ranked above ninth in MVP or Cy Young voting, and they had just five former All-Stars on their roster (none with multiple appearances). But thanks to a young group that came of age, they won 101 games.
Still, the absence of players who have achieved transcendent seasons comes with unavoidable questions about the potential of the 2024 Red Sox.
Stars alone cannot guarantee success, as evidenced by the Angels from 2018-23, who failed to field a single team with a winning record — let alone one good enough to make the playoffs — despite the presence of Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani.
All the same, it’s almost impossible for teams to achieve greatness without great players. In the last seven full seasons, the World Series winner has featured at least four players who were worth at least 4.0 Wins Above Replacement (as calculated by Fangraphs). Since 2000, 22 of the 23 World Series winners have had at least two players worth 4.0 WAR or more.
Last year’s Red Sox, however, featured none — one of only two times since 1967 that’s happened. The other occurred in 2014, when Jon Lester was dealt to Oakland at the trade deadline, after accumulating 3.8 WAR for the Sox.
Rafael Devers led the 2023 Red Sox with 3.1 WAR. That ranked 97th in the big leagues; 26 of the other 29 big league teams (everyone except the A’s, Tigers, and Nationals) had at least one player clear that mark. Atlanta had eight.
In an unforgiving American League East, the Sox lacked the star power to fuel sustained contention. Given the modest moves of the offseason, it’s fair to wonder if 2024 will represent more of the same.
There are, of course, pathways for the Sox to have players who can propel them out of the cellar. Devers represents the most obvious example, given the 27-year-old has already posted three seasons of at least 4.0 WAR. The Sox signed Story in 2022 with the belief that he was capable of elite impact based on a run from 2018-20 when he ranked 10th in the big leagues in WAR. In his return from elbow surgery in 2023, he showed the defensive skill to reassume such a place, though it remains to be seen if his offense ever returns to the levels of his Rockies peak.
Of more significance, the Sox are looking for the next players in their organization who can achieve star-level performance — the ones who, like the members of the 1967 Red Sox (not only Yastrzemski and Lonborg, but also George Scott, Rico Petrocelli, and Reggie Smith) formed a core that positioned the team to contend perennially.
Maybe Triston Casas or Brayan Bello or Jarren Duran can build on their promising performances of 2023. Maybe Vaughn Grissom emerges as a standout offensive second baseman. Maybe all of them take steps forward, and Marcelo Mayer and Roman Anthony and Kyle Teel continue their ascent towards the big leagues.
Maybe, maybe, maybe. As much as has been the case at any time in recent memory — and arguably in more than a half-century — the Sox’ fortunes depend not on a group of established stars maintaining or returning to form, but instead on players achieving levels that they have yet to reach.