BOSTON (CBS) — It’s been a bit of a whirlwind in the Boston sports scene for the past few months, with a World Series run, another long Patriots season and postseason, and an intense full schedule for the Bruins. (The Celtics are also a sports team.) But with the Patriots now long finished and with the Bruins on a long Olympic break (and with the Celtics being … the Celtics), things are finally slowing down in Boston sports.
Fortunately, Red Sox spring training is starting up at just the right time. And with a growing number of players arriving in the Fort each and every day, it’s starting even earlier than usual.
While it’s true that spring training is hardly a substitute for the thrilling, heart-pumping action that comes in the playoffs or even the regular season, there’s still something special about spring training. It might be the promise of a clean slate, or the welcome return of the daily routine of baseball, or just the simple, pleasant sight of seeing warm, sunny days that help us see the finish line to a brutally cold, mercilessly snow-filled winter.
Whatever it is, we appreciate spring training. And this year is no different.
The Red Sox enter camp as the defending champs, and as Jonny Gomes boasted this winter, they still have the belt. They’ll enter the regular season with bull’s-eyes on their backs, with every team looking to knock them down a peg.
But before they get that far, a lot needs to be worked out in Fort Myers. Here’s a run-through of five of the biggest story lines for spring training. Their resolutions will go a long way in determining the fate of the 2014 club.
1. Who Bats Leadoff?
We’ll lead off the list with the top of the order. Namely, who will bat first?
While most analysts and fans would agree that the Red Sox were right in their decision to not dedicate seven years and $153 million to Jacoby Ellsbury, his departure nevertheless leaves the Red Sox without a leadoff man. Ellsbury exclusively batted leadoff last season, starting 134 games at the top of the lineup, posting a .355 on-base percentage and helping to set the table for MLB’s top offense (the Sox ranked first with 853 runs scored, 57 more runs than second-ranked Detroit and 70 more runs than third-ranked St. Louis).
It’s a loss that will need to be figured out by John Farrell, and the solution isn’t as simple as it may seem.
Shane Victorino batted leadoff for eight games last year, batting .194 with a .256 OBP (thanks to a pair of HBPs). Dustin Pedroia saw some success in the spot (as he tends to in any spot), batting .327 with a .365 OBP in 11 games at the leadoff spot.
Yet the leadoff spot isn’t the best place for Pedroia, and his team-leading 42 doubles help to explain why. Though his power numbers dropped, Pedroia is still best-suited for the No. 2 or No. 3 spot, almost as a backup leadoff man to ensure that no pitcher can make it through an easy first inning if the leadoff man does make an out on three or so pitches. He’s spent 60 percent of his career batting second and he spent 92 percent of last season batting third, and one of those spots is where he belongs.
So who takes over in the leadoff spot? It’s a question without an answer right now. There’s Victorino, and then there are some wild cards, like perhaps Xander Bogaerts or Daniel Nava, and there’s a real long shot in Jackie Bradley Jr.
The significance of the leadoff batter may be overstated at times, but it’s still an important position. Figuring out who this year’s leadoff man will be is a top priority for John Farrell this spring.
Speaking of Jackie Bradley Jr. ….
The kid had an off-the-charts spring training last season, a performance so strong that the Red Sox had no choice but to give him a spot on the major league roster for the start of the regular season. Yet that .419 spring training batting average turned into an .097 average in his first dozen MLB games, and he was sent down to Triple-A for some fine-tuning.
He ended up playing 25 more MLB games, starting 16 of them, and batting a more respectable .234 with a .727 OPS and three homers.
This year, the pressure’s on for Bradley to raise his game and make himself an every-day center fielder in the bigs. The Sox have Grady Sizemore should Bradley prove unfit for the job, but that’s not the most reliable insurance policy. There’s always the possibility of moving Victorino to center field, but considering he just won a Gold Glove in right, a shift doesn’t necessarily help the team.
And so the stage is set for Bradley. He’ll likely generate less debate this February and March as opposed to last year, but the stakes are a lot higher for the 23-year-old.
3. The Stephen Saga
It’s kind of insane that we’re approaching mid-February and there is still no end in sight to The Offseason of Stephen Drew.
The shortstop, despite his horrific slump in the postseason, was a good player for Boston last year, ranking second among AL shortstops with a .777 OPS and playing above-average defense at shortstop. Drew would make sense for a number of teams around baseball, but the fact that signing Drew would cost a team a high draft pick has kept them away for the past couple of months.
Now, as camps begin to open this week, Drew remains without a job. And because the Red Sox are the one team that wouldn’t have to give up a pick in order to sign him, it stands to reason that they’re still one of those interested teams.
Drew, who turns 31 in March, rejected the Red Sox’ one-year, $14 million qualifying offer back in November, a decision that in retrospect might haunt him. There’s not a chance the Red Sox would shell out anywhere near that for Drew this season (he made a career-high $9.5 million in 2013), but there remains a possibility that there’s a Red Sox reunion in Drew’s future. And if there is …
4. The Shortstop Fallout
Last spring, Xander Bogaerts was asked to take some grounders at third base for the first time in his professional career. It was a good thing he did, because he ended up starting in that spot in the World Series.
With Drew out of the picture, Bogaerts would likely slide back over to shortstop, giving the third base job back to Will Middlebrooks. However, there’s a lot that must be worked out on the left side of the infield, between the continued unknown of Drew’s status and the constant presence of Middlebrooks’ name in trade rumors. Perhaps the Red Sox aren’t really interested in shipping away the 25-year-old corner infielder who’s shown an impressive power stroke despite his inconsistencies at the plate, or perhaps an early-spring trade of Middlebrooks and signing of Drew is the plan.
Whatever is the plan will play out in the coming weeks. For now, the only thing we know about the left side of the infield is that we don’t really know much.
5. The Health Of Clay
Clay Buchholz said this week that he feels great and that he is healed from the shoulder/neck problems he suffered from last year, issues that prevented him from putting together a Cy Young-winning season and limiting his ability to pitch deep into games in October.
Despite feeling healed, Buchholz said he’s a little farther behind than he usually is when he enters camp. He said that he expects to use the time at spring training to get ready for the regular season, but still, we already have one “Buchholz behind schedule” story on the year. There were seemingly 500 of those last year, so keeping those to a minimum would probably be best for all involved.
6. Six-Man Rotation
This one was saved for No. 6, because that’s the number of starting pitchers the Red Sox have with Buchholz, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jake Peavy, Felix Doubront and Ryan Dempster.
Given that Lester’s coming off a career-high in innings pitched, that Buchholz is coming off the injury-plagued year, that Lackey’s coming off a heavy workload following surgery and that the Peavy-Doubront-Dempter trio has three men for two spots, the idea of a modified six-man rotation might make sense for the Red Sox out of the gate.
The old saying goes, “You can never have enough pitching,” and the second-most overused phrase every February is that “these things tend to work themselves out.” Well, it typically takes a decision or two to solve such issues, and it’ll be interesting to see how Farrell and his staff handle this one early on in spring training.
7. Will Bobby Valentine Show Up On His Bicycle?
This won’t happen. Or will it?!