The Boston Red Sox are banking on numerous key players to return from injury for a chance to be competitive in the American League in 2023.
Together, Adalberto Mondesí and James Paxton represent what this Red Sox team can be: more than just competitive, but possibly special if everything breaks right.
Mondesí ramping up to return from knee surgery just in time
In a profile published on Feb. 28 in the Athletic, Chad Jennings looked at Mondesí’s return from ACL repair surgery last April. While the Red Sox have been cagey about a specific return date for Mondesí, he told Jennings he’s working to be ready Opening Day.
Jennings reported Mondesí still hasn’t participated in team defensive drills. That hasn’t stopped Sox manager Alex Cora from noticing where Mondesí already is athletically, per Chris Henrique of Beyond the Monster:
Mondesí is a speed demon and defensive whiz. He led MLB in stolen bases in the COVID-shortened 2020 season with 24. According to Baseball-Reference, his career per-162 game SB average is an astonishing 60. The last time someone stole that many bases in a season was Dee Strange-Gordon in 2017.
Mondesí’s defense at shortstop is also superlative. In 2020 he ranked in the 88th percentile in Outs Above Average among all MLB players per Baseball Savant.
Mondesí’s game is tailor-made for MLB’s new rules emphasizing speed on the bases and the elimination of the shift. The news he’s aiming to be ready for Opening Day should be music to the ears of Red Sox fans.
There are drawbacks to Mondesí’s game. Numerous injuries have plagued Mondesí throughout his career. He sports a career .280 OBP and an 82 OPS+, 18 points below league average. He also strikes out 30.2% of the time vs. walking just 4.4%.
There's no denying his talents, though. He could win the Red Sox games in 2023 with the right usage on the basepaths and in the field.
James Paxton is healthy and impressing Red Sox in spring camp
The other recipient of positive news in their return to injury this week is James Paxton. Big Maple missed all of 2022 rehabbing from 2021 Tommy John surgery, followed by numerous setbacks unrelated to his reconstructed elbow.
He picked up his $4 million player option to return to the Red Sox and set about winning a rotation spot. So far, according to Rob Bradford of WEEI, Paxton has impressed one very important Sox decision-maker: Cora.
Additionally, Alex Speier of the Boston Globe dropped an interesting nugget on March 1 in a bigger report on the pitching staff:
"Paxton is not only trying to come back from his injury, but is doing so with an altered delivery forged over the last 18 months with help from a biomechanist."
One can't help but recall Paxton's career peak as a swing-and-miss tale. From 2017 through 2021, Paxton amassed a sterling 11.1 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, 115 ERA+, 3.69 ERA and 3.30 FIP (all stats from Baseball-Reference).
Paxton didn't pitch much in 2020 or 2021, but according to Baseball Savant, his 33.1% chase rate in 2020 ranked in the 91st percentile among all MLB pitchers. At his best he still allowed hard contact (in 2018 he was in the bottom 10% of pitchers in HardHit%, Barrel% and Average Exit Velocity) but striking a ton of guys out helped make up for it.
Bottom line: when Paxton is right, he's nasty. The Red Sox will have a rotation difference-maker if Paxton taps into his best self.
The 2023 Red Sox are filled with question marks and what-ifs. But, with positive news on Mondesí and Paxton, fans would be forgiven for dreaming a little bigger on the team's ceiling.