Spring training started this week for the Red Sox, and games at JetBlue Stadium in Florida will soon follow.
No Boston month has ever been as snowy as this February. And very few months have ever been this cold. But hope is on the doorstep. It comes not in the five-day forecast, but rather in the three-word refrain: Pitchers and catchers. Yup, spring training is here, and all position players have arrived for the Red Sox. Here’s a positional preview of what to keep an eye on amid the glorious goings-on in Fort Myers, Florida.
Catcher (Christian Vazquez, Ryan Hanigan)
Entering last season, many Red Sox fans would’ve been happy to see Boston pick up Hanigan as the primary catcher. But the former Andover standout was brought to the Sox this season to backup Vazquez. The pitch-calling, pitch-framing and overall defensive impact of Vazquez, 24, is not in question at all. He is elite in those categories, and—knowing how important a good defensive catcher is—that will let him keep his starting spot. But questions remain about his bat. He has eventually hit at every minor-league level, and if he improves to even league average then he’ll be an All-Star. Keep an eye on how he’s progressing offensively, as well as if Hanigan can raise his anemic BABIP levels from the past two years. This position is not only strong at the major-league level, but top Sox prospect Blake Swihart will be waiting in the wings at Pawtucket. Where to play Swihart, a power-hitting catcher who’s good defensively when you already have Vazquez? Let’s just say that’s a problem of the One Percent.
First Base (Mike Napoli)
The only question with Napoli is how much a good night’s sleep will help his performance at the plate. An average fielder and above-average hitter, he had surgery to correct his sleep apnea this offseason. There are not many other question marks with Napoli. At age 33, he is what he is, so there’s not much to track with this position. One minor thing to keep an eye on is if Daniel Nava, Garin Cecchini, Allen Craig—or even Hanley Ramirez or Pablo Sandoval play any innings at first base. It’d be nice to know who might play there in a pinch—especially if Craig is ultimately traded.
Second Base (Dustin Pedroia)
A negative presence at the plate last year, the former MVP struggled to find any power after years of hand/finger injuries. He’s 31 years old, and second basemen have a history of aging poorly, so questions about a drop in productivity are normal. But if his power rebounds, he will rejoin his spot among the MLB elite. So keep an eye on if Pedroia hits any homers in Florida. Now, if he can just replicate the career-best defensive year he had in 2014.
Shortstop (Xander Bogaerts)
The would-be franchise player struggled in his first full season—or more specifically, for three full months in the middle of his first full season. He arrived to Florida this year, attributing last year’s slide to poor conditioning (and not his midseason move to third base), something he says he fixed in the offseason. He’s going to hit at the major-league level, something proven by his three months of above-average productivity. The long-term question is can he be an average defender. Listening to defensive guru Brian Butterfield, he can. But keep an eye on how Bogaerts moves toward grounders up the middle and to his right. If he’s snagging a bunch—even if he can’t get the runner out at first on his throw—then it shows improved lateral agility. And that will go a long way to helping him be the Sox shortstop for many years to come.
Third base (Pablo Sandoval)
Spring training hadn’t even started before Sandoval was in the crosshairs of fans and media for his supposed weight problem. The controversy soon died down, but after he signed a five-year deal at nearly $20 million a year, he will be target for some. He’s most likely going to hit and field well—he has every year during his career. But keep an eye on how Sandoval handles the media/fan spotlight. It’s weird to think that such a happy go-lucky guy could be anything but loved in Boston, but guys like Carl Crawford and John Lackey got off to a bad start in Boston and almost never recovered. The three-time World Series winner who’s only 28 should be a big hit in Boston. But he needs to set the tone in spring training.
Outfield (Hanley Ramirez, Rusney Castillo, Mookie Betts, Shane Victorino, Daniel Nava)
There’s a lot of talent in this group, which doesn’t even include defensive ace Jackie Bradley Jr., who certainly could be a factor if he relearns how to hit. (The fact that he struggled at Pawtucket late last season was encouraging since it meant he had developed a massive flaw in his swing rather than was overmatched by major-league pitching. He had a .374 OBP in Pawtucket in 2013. He previously could hit.) But this current crop also comes with a few questions. Ramirez has never played the outfield, and while he actually projects to be a passable leftfielder, taking on a new position could theoretically affect him at the plate. For all of the injury concerns, the only seasons in which he’s played fewer than 125 games were 2011 and 2013. Since breaking into the league in 2006, he actually has played more than 150 games five times. But staying healthy in spring training would help his adjustment to a new league and a new position. Castillo is penciled in to start in center after the Sox committed more than $70 million to bring him aboard last season. While he performed well during his short stint in Boston, as well as during winter leagues, he still only has 40 major-league plate appearances. His defense and speed were as advertised, but his power really popped during that short sample size. Can he keep it up this season? Moving to right field is where the real questions come into play. On paper, most forward-thinking people would rather start Betts and relegate Victorino to the bench. But is that really forward-thinking? What if Victorino can replicate his 6 WAR season from 2013? But if Betts had played a full season last year, he was projected to post a 6 WAR as well. The free-agent-to-be Victorino wouldn’t want to be buried behind Betts on the bench, so he’ll put up a stink if that’s the case. Farrell has already backed Victorino as his starting right fielder. But where do you play a dynamite young player like Betts? Perhaps everywhere. They could use him to give players an occasional day off in the infield or outfield and when there’s a long-term injury. Keep an eye on how many different positions Betts plays during spring training. Does he even get spot starts at third base and shortstop? That would be one way to know the Sox are serious about Victorino playing right field and not simply bluffing to drive up his trade value. Meanwhile, Daniel Nava, written off after a bad April last season, was actually the team’s second-best position player according to WAR in 2014. He’s currently this team’s fifth outfielder. And a perfect fit among a righthanded-heavy bunch. That’s an embarrassment of riches.
Designated Hitter (David Ortiz)
Three-time World Series winner. The Improper’s 2014 Boston’s Best cover boy. In honor of the Royal Rooters: ’Nuf ced. Keep an eye on him, but only to savor the greatness.
Utility (Brock Holt)
If everyone’s healthy, somebody is going to get traded or sent to Pawtucket among Holt or Craig. Holt can play every position aside from catcher, and he was valuable last season filling in when needed, but he tailed off at the plate in the second half of the season. He’s a guy who will have a long career a utility player, but that’s hardly a stable career path. And at 26, he could learn that tough lesson this spring—especially if the Sox envision a super-utility role for Betts this season. However, Holt would have to get bumped by Craig. The former St. Louis player was the epitome of clutch (if such a thing exists) until last season. Not only was he not clutch last season—but he was not good at baseball. At all. Some rumors have floated about him taking reps at third base, which would allow him to fill a corner outfield/corner infield role with the Sox this season, while they hold onto him to see if he can take over full time at first base in 2016. If he rebounds to his previous levels of production, then he’s a bargain at an average salary of $8.5 million the next three seasons. Keep an eye on if Craig hits at all in spring. If he does hit well, the Sox will likely explore a possible trade—or perhaps find a way to squeeze him onto the major-league roster.
Starting Pitching (Rick Porcello, Clay Buchholz, Wade Miley, Joe Kelly, Justin Masterson)
Ace, ace, ace. All the chatter that surrounds the Sox goes back to the question of who they would start in Game 1 of the ALDS. It’s a bit presumptuous, no? If they get there, it will likely be because one of these five guys really stepped up. They all possess No. 1 starter upside. Porcello is 26 and has improved nearly every year. Miley has gotten worse every year since his great 2012 debut, but he did pile up 183 strikeouts last season, so he’s got some swing-and-miss stuff in addition to durability. (Plus this photo! Please let this be on the scoreboard for every start at Fenway.) When you think about Clay Buchholz, are the first three months of 2013 what do you think of? Because he was the Cy Young front-runner till he was injured. And speaking of Cy Young contenders, Kelly pronounced himself a candidate for the award this winter. He was quite effective in 2012 and 2013, although far from a No. 1 starter. He’s still only 26, however, and the amount of raves about his raw stuff could fill War and Peace. The fifth member of the rotation is Masterson, who was a top pitcher in 2011 and 2013, but struggled last season amid shoulder and arm injuries. So, to sum up the Red Sox starters, there are five solid guys, four of which (aside from Porcello) are coming off seasons in which they performed below their career averages. It’s safe to say the Sox bought low on a few of them. Keep an eye on how they all pitch—and their postgame comments on how they feel—this spring. Yes, it’s a lot to keep an eye on, but from this group could come a couple of No. 1 guys and three No. 2 performers. Or there could be three guys who are sporadically hurt all season, forcing the Sox to tap into their promising group of minor-league starters (Matt Barnes, Steven Wright, Henry Owens, Eduardo Rodriguez, Brian Johnson and Edwin Escobar).
Relief Pitching (Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, Alexi Ogando, Edward Mujica, Craig Breslow, Anthony Varvaro, Robbie Ross)
This could be an area of weakness for the Sox. Signing Uehara to a 2-year, $18 million deal was one of the more underrated moves of the offseason, considering his recent, historical dominance—and the fact his poor performance late last season was injury related. And Tazawa will be back in his setup role, likely contributing the same stability he has for two straight seasons. Aside from that, however, I wouldn’t be surprised to see anyone else who I slotted into the bullpen falter and not make the team. Ogando has the most potential and a proven track record, but he’s far from a sure thing after his injury-filled 2014. Supporters of Mujica always mention that he improved late last season, but that’s a bit of a false narrative considering his xFIP in the second half of the season was worse than in the first half. Varvaro was a solid reliever for Atlanta for the past two seasons, and he’s got the best chance of being the guy you see on the mound in May and ask, “Where’d they get this guy from? I trust him more than Mujica.” Breslow had a poor 2014, which he blamed on his long 2013, but he’s shown a pattern of decline for a few years now. Ross suffered from the Daniel Bard Illness last season, being yanked around from starter to reliever and never recovering. Just as likely to grab any of the final bullpen spots are: Tommy Layne, Zeke Spruill, Heath Hembree and Brandon Workman. Keep an eye on Ogando in camp. If he’s healthy and producing, the Sox could use him as a relief ace this season, a weapon that could come in handy with so many rotation questions.