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Roche: Seven Storylines To Follow During Red Sox Spring Training

FORT MYERS, FLORIDA (CBS) — First off, I’d like to thank the Patriots for an incredible Super Bowl run that garnered Robert Kraft his fifth title. Super Bowl LI was the greatest single game I’ve ever seen.

The Patriots also helped get us through winter and now it’s “On to Spring Training” for the 2017 Red Sox. Pitchers and Catchers report on Monday, with their first official workout scheduled for Tuesday. The first full squad workout of spring is scheduled for Friday.

Let’s give you seven subjects to keep an eye on that will begin to play out as the Boys of Summer get ready for their regular season:

1. No More David Ortiz

David Ortiz (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

David Ortiz (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Who replaces Big Papi? The answer is nobody. That’s the simple answer because you won’t find anyone that will give you an automatic 30-100, clutch hitting, plus all the intangibles. There will never be another David Ortiz.

Dave Dombrowski chose not to add a big name free agent slugger such as Edwin Encarnacion, Mark Trumbo or Jose Bautista. The job appears to be in the hands of Hanley Ramirez, who excelled when put there in the past. Meanwhile, left-handed hitting Mitch Moreland was added to the first base mix. You also can expect John Farrell to use the DH spot differently than he did with Ortiz; guys may rotate through as a way to get additional rest. I also could see Blake Swihart eventually getting some of those at-bats if he forces the Sox to keep him as they head north.

One factor that will be worth watching once the season begins is how the opposing pitchers will pitch the superstars in the lineup now that Ortiz is gone. Let’s face it, as soon as he popped his head out of the dugout and began walking to the on-deck circle opposing pitchers would notice. Will Betts, Ramirez, Bogaerts and the rest be pitched around? It’s something to think about.

2. Panda and the Hot Corner

Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval at the team's spring training facilities during the 2016 offseason. (Photo courtesy of Alvaro Hernandez)

Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval at the team’s spring training facilities during the 2016 offseason. (Photo courtesy of Alvaro Hernandez)

Sandoval has been as big of a disappointment as any free agent signing in the history of the Red Sox. The former World Series MVP is in much better shape as camp begins, but can he stay healthy and grab the everyday third base job? Those are two big questions.

If he can’t, Dombrowski may regret the day he traded Travis Shaw. Brock Holt, Josh Rutledge and Marco Hernandez (a player John Farrell loves) are in the mix if Sandoval falters.

3. Behind the Big Three

Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez watches Eduardo Rodriguez of the Boston Red Sox throw in the bullpen before a game on April 30, 2016. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez watches Eduardo Rodriguez of the Boston Red Sox throw in the bullpen before a game on April 30, 2016. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Regardless of your feelings towards Yoan Moncada, you have to tip your cap to Dombrowski for going out and getting a true ace/stud in Chris Sale. He should be fun to watch leading the staff and it will take pressure off of David Price and Rick Porcello.

But the question remains as to who will be the fourth and fifth starters as the Sox head north?

Steven Wright is a lead candidate after the outstanding work he did prior to injuring his right shoulder diving back to second base as a pinch-runner. When the knuckleballer — an All-Star in 2016 — is healthy he can dominate.

Eduardo Rodriguez has a chance to grab a spot too. The lefty has shown signs of brilliance. However, consistency and health are the biggest concerns. A knee injury cut his winter ball short so it’s something to keep an eye on.

There’s also Drew Pomeranz. The lefty was an All-Star last season for the Padres, but did struggle at times after being acquired in July. He looked good out of the bullpen in the playoffs and that might be his best place if Wright and Rodriguez emerge healthy as the Sox break camp.

I’d love to see Dombrowski and his Baseball Ops staff find a couple of low-risk veteran starters to also bring into camp who could begin the year in Pawtucket or rehabbing in Fort Myers. As we know, you can never have enough depth in the rotation.

4. Bullpen

Red Sox pitcher Joe Kelly. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Red Sox pitcher Joe Kelly. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Closer Craig Kimbrel should be even better in his second season in Boston. I thought he looked like his old dominating self once he got comfortable.

But who is coming out of the pen in front of him? Koji Uehara is gone, so it will be up to newly acquired Tyler Thornburg along with Joe Kelly, Matt Barnes, Heath Hembree and Brandon Workman from the right side, along with Robbie Ross Jr., Robby Scott and possibly Pomeranz from the left side to each figure out their roles. The Sox will get a huge lift if/when Carson Smith returns from Tommy John surgery and is close to the filthy reliever he was with Seattle.

5. “Benny Baseball”

Andrew Benintendi rounds the bases after hitting a home run against the Cleveland Indians during game one of the ALDS on October 6, 2016. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Andrew Benintendi rounds the bases after hitting a home run against the Cleveland Indians during the ALDS. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Andrew Benintendi was even better than what we had heard prior to him getting the call-up to the bigs. It’s hard not to slot him into the number two spot in the order and left field for years to come. He’s a pure hitter with more pop than we thought he may have. An outfield of Benintendi-Bradley Jr.-Betts is a dream outfield trio.

By the way, I think people were way too hard on JBJ last season. If he puts up the numbers he did last season while continuing to play his Gold Glove defense in center field, that’s more than fine.

6. Behind The Dish

Christian Vazquez (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Christian Vazquez (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Sandy Leon was great for the Sox last season, as he hit a ton and was outstanding behind the plate. However, it’s hard to envision him coming anywhere close to the offensive numbers he put up in 2016 (.310/.369/.476). I know John Farrell says Leon is the No. 1 catcher, but I would think if Christian Vazquez does what he’s capable of, then he should be the top catcher. You just wonder why he was basically brushed aside for 2016.

Blake Swihart is back to catching, but if his ankle is OK, it would be nice to see him emerge as a third catcher/first base/left field/DH type of player. Worse case scenario, he begins the year as Pawtucket’s every day catcher.

7. John Farrell

John Farrell (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

John Farrell (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

For many well-documented reasons, John Farrell went into Spring Training last season with a sense of urgency and managed that way all season. It began with Farrell awarding the third base spot to Travis Shaw and continued from there. It will be interesting to see if that trend continues if there are some positions where a player clearly outplays everyone else (catcher, third base, bullpen, starting rotation).

There’s a load of talent here and the Red Sox should begin considered a World Series threat. However, each season and each team is different. Chemistry needs to develop while teams go through all the good and bad streaks.

It all starts in Spring Training and we can’t wait to watch.

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