It’s been 125 days since the Red Sox won their third World Series this century, 91 days since Jacoby Ellsbury left for the Yankees, and 17 days since Red Sox pitchers and catchers reported to spring training. On the flip side, it’s 27 days till the Red Sox open their season in Baltimore, 29 days until The Improper‘s Red Sox Issue is released, and 232 days until the World Series is tentatively scheduled to start. Yup, it’s spring training, a time when writers will come up with more numbers than the Sloan Sports Conference as a gimmick to write a column. And so here’s another. It’s time for the Top 20 Sox storylines to keep an eye on during the dog days of the Grapefruit League.
1. Fenway Fun – The 102-year-old ballpark has had a big offseason, even without any of the major renovations that fans had gotten used to under the current ownership. Red Sox owner John Henry mused that a new ballpark would be needed because of structural issues in a few decades. The Sox also secured a long-term deal to continue to close down Yawkey Way on gamedays, and put forth an idea to serve Fenway Franks and other overpriced concessions from a takeout window year-round. While Mayor Marty Walsh said during the campaign that he’d be in favor of selling beer in the aisles, there’s been no push for that. Perhaps in response to outgoing Mayor Menino’s BRA agreement on Yawkey Way (considered by some to be a “sweetheart deal”), Walsh has pushed back on the agreement for the Sox to close off part of Van Ness Street on gamedays. Right now it looks like the mayor and Sox owners are not quite on the same page, and it’ll be interesting to see how the relationship develops.
2. Pay the Man, Part 1 – David Ortiz has been squawking about his contract for about a month, which follows his career mantra: He has never been comfortable going into a season without a contract for the next year. It’s a status that Pedro Martinez sometimes complained about as well. Ortiz, however, is stuck in a bit of a corner; the Sox have no motivation to extend him, and if he has a good year and is tendered a qualifying offer after the season, he’ll cost any team interested (has to be an AL team because of the DH) a draft pick. While the Sox would be smart to ride it out, they’ve also gotten a lot of value from him over the years, and if all he wants is a $14 million deal tacked on every spring, that won’t kill the rich Red Sox who have an albatross-free payroll right now. It’s likely worth giving into Ortiz.
3. Pay the Man, Part 2 – Speaking of contracts, it’s Jon Lester. The homegrown Red Sox ace has been nothing short of spectacular in the postseason, and he’s been durable during his major-league career. The 30-year-old has had solid peripherals throughout his career, but he’s never quite had that standout year. His best seasons were 2009 and 2010, and his mediocre season last year was overshadowed by his overpowering postseason. Lester’s on the record as saying he will give a hometown discount, but what’s his baseline? Does he want a discount off of Cole Hamels’ contract (age 30, 6 years, $144 million before the 2013 season)? Among all pitchers the past 3 years with a minimum of 500 innings, he’s 27th in xFIP (the most accurate representation of a pitcher’s performance), right ahead of Edwin Jackson (age 31, 4 years, $52 million before the 2013 season) and behind Ricky Nolasco (age 31, 4 years, $49 million this offseason). The overwhelming feeling seems to be to resign Lester at a discount…but 5 years, $100 million wouldn’t be too much of a discount.
4. Fragile as Clay – Forget what Morgan Spurlock says. Clay Buchholz’s fast-food ways did not supersize him. The Sox best—and most fragile—pitcher admits to often stopping by McDonalds since he’s too busy sometimes to cook for himself. The Sox brass haven’t come out and said that his lean frame has led to more injuries (he missed half of last season), but they’ve put Buchholz in touch with a nutritionist with the hopes that he could build up his body to better sustain the stress of pitching. It’s worth monitoring for signs this spring on whether this ploy might pay off during the season.
5. Koji Uehara’s Encore – The 2013 world championship season will be remembered by a lot of things that happened in the postseason, but the daily dominance of Uehara was the most impressive part of the year, and his season ranks on the short list of the best years by a reliever. The Sox’ fourth choice for closer last season went one month without allowing a base runner and about 10 weeks without allowing a run. What will the soon-to-be-39-year-old do to follow that up? He’s always had great peripherals in his short major-league career, so it’s a fair bet he will still be great, but just not quite so masterful. For a guy who had durability questions heading into last season, it’s also worth wondering if his 87.2 innings last season will have any lingering effects this spring.
6. The 12th Man – As with most teams, the Sox will likely carry 12 pitchers to start the season. Barring injuries (a huge if), you can expect to see on the opening roster: Lester, Buchholz, John lackey, Feliz Doubront, Jake Peavy, Chris Capuano, Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow, Edward Mujica and Burke Badenhop. That leaves one spot up for grabs among veterans Andrew Miller, Jose Mijares, Francisco Cordero and youngsters Drake Britton and Brandon Workman. Miller is the favorite, but he’s returning from a major injury last season and any setback could hurt his chances.
7. West Springfield’s Own – Capuano was signed in the wake of Ryan Dempster’s surprising retirement announcement. He will make up to $5 million, and his signing looks to be a bit of a steal, since if he’s healthy, Capuano is a good bet to pitch as well as Dempster, who was signed for $13 million. He’s the team’s sixth starter—and since rotations go five deep that leaves him as the odd man out for now. Will Capuano earn his keep as a lefty reliever or will an injury give him an opportunity to start? The Sox will likely keep him with a starting pitcher’s workload all spring.
8. X Finds His Spot – The hitting was never a question for phenom Xander Bogaerts, and his poised World Series performance simply reinforced that opinion. But Bogaerts was playing out of position in the field, manning third base instead of his natural shortstop. Ironically, third base was the position most scouts figured he’d play in the big leagues, simply because his large frame was more of a fit at the hot corner. But Bogaerts’ bat offers much more value if he can play a competent shortstop. So, can he play a good shortstop? The jury is still out, but the only thing that could seemingly derail him at this point would be if any struggles in the field carry over to the plate.
9. Will He Have Patience? – Some Sox fans might rather the organization have traded the oft-impatient Will Middlebrooks if it meant keeping Jenny Dell around? But the Sox instead kept the 25-year-old, who slugged 17 homers in 374 plate appearances (making Bill James’ prediction of 32 homers in a full season seem far less outlandish when you think about it). The problem with Middlebrooks comes from his lack of patience at the plate. He struck out in more than a quarter of his plate appearances, and walked just 5 percent of the time. In a lineup that grinded out at bats and led the majors in on-base percentage, Middlebrooks stuck out in a bad way. Can the youngster alter his plate approach to be more patient?
10. Backstop Backlog – The Red Sox catching corps’ is lacking much of a middle age this season. A.J. Pierzynski, 37, and David Ross, 36, are the presumed major leaguers—and both have minor injuries this spring. Ryan Lavarnway, 26, and Dan Butler, 27, are the next oldest players in the system. The two split most of the catching duties in Pawtucket last season. Top prospects Blake Swihart, 21, Christian Vazquez, 23, are advancing through the system quickly, and the team drafted Jon Denney, 19, in third round last season. With so much catching depth in the system, it will be tough for the Sox to find enough playing time for all these guys. Might there be a deal that unloads Butler or the once highly regarded Lavarnway?
11. H&H – Although Drew is still lurking in the shadows, the Sox will need a backup second baseman and shortstop. The battle for the role will be between Brock Holt and Jonathan Herrera. Both players still have options, leaving open the possibility they could end up in the minors. Holt has the better bat, but Herrera possesses the better glove. With few ongoing position battles for the Sox, the scrum for utility infielder is one to watch. The Sox could even go outside the organization to fill the need, while shuttling Holt and Herrera back to Pawtucket.
12. AJ & Friends – Oh, the uproar! The Sox signed Pierzynski, the guy once voted as baseball’s “Most Hated Player.” How would he fit in with the Bearded Band of Brothers? Would he ruin the team’s vaunted chemistry, which some observers believed was key to winning the World Series? Well, so far nobody has punched him in the face, and nobody has told the media they’d like to punch him in the face. So maybe he’s not a bad guy after all. Still, we’ll be looking to see if anybody punches him in the face at some point in the spring.
13. Sizing up Sizemore – The 31-year-old was once one of baseball’s hottest young stars. But he missed the past two seasons with injuries and hasn’t played a full season since 2008, which capped off a four-year run in which Sizemore was really, really, really good. He was worth 26.8 WAR according to Fangraphs during that span, with Carlos Beltran’s 22.2 WAR second among all outfielders. But Sizemore has never come close to that level since, and he likely won’t approach those numbers this year. But if he can stay healthy, his bat will be welcome in an outfield that has no sure offensive standout.
14. Center Stage, Again – Last spring was the Jackie Bradley Jr. Show. Would the Sox call him up to start the year? Had he earned it with his spring in which he hit .950 with 53 HRs in 51 at-bats? (Well, not quite.) Bradley certainly earned his spot on the Opening Day roster, but once he got there he struggled. The rookie ended up with three more separate stints with Boston last season, and the King of Applebee’s improved in each of his trips. The on-base skills that Bradley has shown at every step of the minors should translate into him being a valued starter in the majors. It’s hard to believe that the replacement for Jacoby Ellsbury is under the radar this spring, but so far that’s the case.
15. The Long Goodbye – He’s lurking in the shadows this spring. In every grounder Bogaerts fields, every pitch Middlebrooks sees, every overthrow Holt makes. He’s the Tom Joad of the Red Sox. And he might not go away soon. Represented by power agent Scott Boras, Drew declined a $14 million offer from the Sox at the start of the offseason. Boston stands in line to get a Top 50 draft pick as compensation for losing Drew … if they actually lose him. There’s two long-term plays by Boras: Have Drew wait until April 1, so he can sign without the threat of having draft-pick penalty attached to him next offseason; have Drew wait until after the early June draft, so that the team that signs Drew won’t have to forfeit a draft pick (screwing the Sox). Boras has a long history of exploiting loopholes for his clients, so either of those scenarios is not far-fetched. Or he could simply sign with a team looking for help after a spring injury, but for now Drew is waiting on the sidelines.
16. AAA Rating – Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, Brandon Workman, Anthony Ranaudo, Matt Barnes. That’s one heck of a minor-league rotation, with Workman the only player who has not been a constant on Top 100 prospect lists during his development. There should be plenty of jockeying among these five to be a spot starter or injury replacement if the big club needs it during the season.
17. Safe at Home – A lot of the early focus this spring has been on the new rules of the home-plate collision. When can a catcher block the plate? When can a runner barrel into the catcher? How will all of the people who romanticize the Pete Rose-Ray Fosse collision in the All-Star Game react? Most teams are now teaching their catchers to apply a swipe tag, and third-base coaches will need to factor the new rules into their decisions when to send or stop runners. It’s worth keeping an eye on how third-base coach Brian Butterfield and the Sox veteran catchers play under the new rule. Aside from that, the biggest reward from the rule will be the ability to watch Buster Posey play a full season in his prime.
18. Medic Madness – Rule number one for the Red Sox should be never let a blind man use a fishing knife. Unfortunately, Jake Peavy did, and now he’s hurt. It is the most prominent of what will likely be many injuries for the Sox this spring. The major questions with every injury is: How severe, and who is hurt? If Middlebrooks goes down for four months, you likely have your answer to the Stephen Drew problem. If it’s Peavy for a week, well, there’s plenty of cavalry behind him, even if they all don’t have their own Duck Boat.
19. Instant Controversy – Instant replay in baseball has arrived—39 years too late for Carlton Fisk and the 1975 Red Sox, who were jobbed by Ed Armbister’s interference in Game 3 of the World Series. Hockey, football and basketball have all had some form of it for many years, so it was just plain stupid that baseball was the last to implement it. While there’s been replay on home runs the past few years, the sport has now almost completely embraced replay. Managers are allowed one challenge a game, and get a second challenge if they win the first. If the manager is out of challenges, an umpire can initiate a challenge after the sixth inning. The system will not cover balls and strikes, trap plays and a few other instances. So, in addition to double-guessing the 100 things a manager does each game, fans now have one more thing to debate. Let the challenges begin.
20. Jenny’s Job – Don’t call it the Curse of The Improper! Jenny Dell, who graced the cover of The Improper’s Dec. 4 issue, was ushered from the Red Sox dugout to the NESN sidelines this offseason after disclosing her relationship with Middlebrooks. After reportedly flirting with Fox Sports 1, she was last seen covering the Celtics for NESN, which—considering the C’s poor season and that NESN broadcasts none of their games—means she’d contribute about 30 seconds of material each day. But the real question is who will replace her for the Red Sox? Elle Duncan and Sarah Davis both contributed to NESN’s first telecast, and I think we know who Mike Carp favors for the job.