One of the Red Sox' greatest unknowns? Their clubhouse.

Rob Bradford
February 18, 2020 - 6:04 pm

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Leadership in a Major League Baseball clubhouse is a tricky thing. (Considering the suddenly uncertain state of these Red Sox this might worth paying attention to.)

It is rare that one voice is the be-all, end-all with this dynamic. David Ortiz at the end of his career was the exception thanks in large part to the core group of regulars being at the beginning of their careers and Ortiz living his final years as an elder statesman. As Mookie Betts once explained on the Bradfo Sho podcast, in 2016 EVERYTHING was passed through Ortiz. The next year it was a clubhouse left scrambling for leadership definition.

What usually happens is that different corners of the clubhouse are represented by leaders. This is in large part because of the diversity of the players’ background, along with the separation of each part of the roster. Starting pitchers. The bullpen. Starting position players. Bench guys. Spanish. English. Japanese. This isn’t a puzzle that can be easily put together.

Take the 2007 team, for instance. Jason Varitek was the captain because he led by example and people hung their hats on that. But the presence of bilingual participants such as Alex Cora and Mike Lowell were of the utmost importance, as was lead-by-example starting pitchers such as Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett. Factor in the gregarious personalities of guys like Jonathan Papelbon and Dustin Pedroia and it all just fit. The same could be said for 2013 and 2018.

But this isn’t a paint-by-numbers kind of thing.

That’s why trying to decipher what this current Red Sox team is going to look like in that clubhouse will be one of the greatest early-season mysteries.

That reminder was sent our way with the news that one of the key elements of this winning clubhouse concoction the last few years, Brock Holt, wouldn’t be making his return.

"Yeah, great guy. Everybody liked him. He was vocal, which I think it’s important on teams to have guys that are vocal," said Red Sox interim manager Ron Roenicke. "I thought he was fantastic here. I think this guy can really hit. He’s coming in there facing the best relievers in the game, the nastiest stuff, and he’s coming in there in the eighth, ninth inning trying to do some nasty things against him, which is without a doubt the hardest job in baseball. There are very few who are good at it. Brock was good at it."

It is important to have guys who are vocal. That was clear when Holt was around and has always been an important part of what Pedroia brings to the table.

There is also the absence of Rick Porcello, who was vocal in a different way, pointing his teammates in the right direction when it came to preparation and expectations.

So, what now?

"It develops," Roenicke said. "Every team is so different. Sometimes you don’t have any of it. Other times you have four, five guys that are vocal and stir it up and are funny. From year to year you never know where it’s going to be unless you get the same characters back from year to year."

Here's one of the biggest challenges facing this team when it comes to developing that voice Roenicke is referencing: Too new, too young.

Kevin Pillar immediately jumps to the forefront when it comes to establishing some sort of decibel level. The problem is that he has been here just a few days and there will be an element of having to establish his role on the field before an off-the-field identity can be cemented. In 2013 there were those sort of new guys. Jonny Gomes. David Ross. Shane Victorino. Ryan Dempster. Mike Napoli. But there was a bunch of them. In this respect, Pillar would seem to be somewhat on an island compared to seven years ago.

There are other energetic sorts at the ready, but this is probably not quite the right place or right time to be more than background singers.

"I think Pillar, because of who he is and the personality he has and the experience he’s had, I see him being a big part of that," Roenicke said. "(Alex) Verdugo not necessarily. I know he has a big personality and likes to talk but it’s hard when you’re that young and coming into a new organization. That makes it tough. (Michael) Chavis is probably still too young to really be as vocal as he probably will end up being."

There is also the loss of Alex Cora.

When it came to the tone of the clubhouse Cora was, as one member of the Red Sox put it earlier this week, "The straw that stirred the drink." This isn't always the case when it comes to the manager, but it was absolutely the dynamic with this team.

Roenicke is well-liked but he is also low-key. The 63-year-old was the right fit early-on for the Brewers, just like John Farrell was the right fit for the 2013 Red Sox. But Cora's approach was the one that morphed the best with this collection of Boston baseball players. He seemingly the life of another veteran player who went into the clubhouse, reading the room and then adjusting accordingly with a personality that the younger set could relate to.

It can work with Roenicke's personality, but only if the unknown part of this equation starts to surface.

Xander Bogaerts. J.D. Martinez. Chris Sale. Nathan Eovaldi. Mitch Moreland. These are some of the key guys. It's certainly a better start than when Farrell had to pretend Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval were part of the leadership group in that 2015 meeting in Texas. But they have to perform (because it is always awkward when trying to tell others what to do when you are struggling) and they have to accept that times have changed.

"It can happen with one or two," Roenicke noted. "Most of the time it happens with the group. Most of the time it happens with six to 10 guys. When you talk about leadership, there's not a ton of guys who are vocally true leaders. Whether it's the era we're in or whether it's just so hard to do. Your focus is on what you do as an individual to get your game to this high level, that it's hard to really focus on the whole group and see the whole group. They work differently now. They work way harder. Their days are so regimented in what they do that there's no time for this leadership to come out."

Different team. Different times. Same importance.