BOSTON (CBS) — Boston’s World Series defense is officially underway. Red Sox pitchers and catchers will hold their first workout of the “spring” on Wednesday, with positional players joining them next week.
Alex Cora’s crew set the bar pretty darn high last season, winning 108 games during the regular season before cruising to a championship with an 11-3 postseason record. With much of the same gang back for 2019, the Red Sox will look to accomplish something that hasn’t been done since the turn of the century: Repeating as World Series champs.
But just like the other 29 clubs in baseball, the Red Sox head into the new season with a handful of questions. Granted, their questions aren’t as glaring as the ones other teams are facing, but they are something we’ll all be monitoring throughout the season, not just Spring Training. Here they are, rounded up in a convenient list fashion:
Who Will Close Games?
This is the big elephant in the room for the defending champs. Craig Kimbrel is still a free agent, one of the many, many, many (many, many, many) star players who remain unsigned this offseason. The Red Sox brass has remained steadfast with their refusal to give Kimbrel (or any closer) a truckload of cash and the lengthy commitment that would go with it. It’s admirable, but it’s also left them without a true closer heading into camp.
“Closer by committee” is not something Red Sox fans would ever want to revisit, but that is how it is for now. Don’t expect Cora to name a closer over the next few days, and with that, don’t expect him to name a seventh or eighth inning guy. Just about every role is TBD in the Boston bullpen, with Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier early favorites to claim the ninth inning.
Barnes had a great season as Boston’s setup man in 2018, going 6-4 with a 3.65 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP while striking out 96 over 61.2 innings. He allowed just three hits in his 8.2 postseason innings. But he has never been a closer during his MLB career and is just 2-for-8 overall in his save opportunities. Cora may decide to keep Barnes in the set-up role, a role he’s enjoyed success in over the years.
Brasier was one of the biggest surprises of the 2018 season, with the career minor leaguer posting a 1.60 ERA over 33.2 innings of relief for Boston. He racked up five holds in the postseason, allowing just one run in his 8.2 innings. He did blow a pair of save situations during the regular season, but he proved during the playoffs that he can handle the pressure in high-leverage situations. A strong spring may clinch the closer’s job, at least to start the season.
Chris Sale’s Health
The last time we saw Chris Sale on the mound (a real mound) he was making Manny Macahdo look silly in the ninth inning of Game 5, clinching the World Series for Boston. But the lefty ace was sidelined with shoulder tendinitis for much of the second half of last season, and that was after the Red Sox took just about every step possible to lighten his workload — dating all the way back to last year’s Spring Training.
Sale was 11-4 with a 2.04 ERA when late July hit, with 207 strikeouts over 141 innings. Then his shoulder started acting up and he pitched just 38 innings after July 27, including the playoffs He was nowhere near his usual dominant self, minus that final appearance when he emptied the tank and struck out the side.
This is a big year for Sale. The soon-to-be-30-year-old is in a contract year, and looking to prove to the baseball world that he can remain healthy for a full season (and then some). He has consistently faded in the second half throughout his career, a trend he’d like to buck with free agency just around the corner.
Cora said Sale actually gained some weight over the winter and the Sox skipper is happy with his pitcher’s aggressive offseason approach. Hopefully both of those will lead to a healthier Sale on the mound in 2019.
Remember Dustin Pedroia? He is looking to bounce back in a big way this season after playing in just three games last year as he fought his way back from left knee surgery.
Cora said that Pedroia is “ready to roll” and it seems like the Red Sox are penciling their little leader in for 100-115 games. But we’ll see how much the 35-year-old has left (aside from the three years remaining on his contract).
If he has anything, you better believe that Pedroia is going to leave it all out on the field. If not, well that’s what the Red Sox have Brock Holt and Eduardo Nunez for.
Breakout Year For Devers?
Rafael Devers was due for a breakout year last year, but stumbled a bit in his first full season. After a promising stint in 2017, Devers slashed just .240/.298/.433 with 21 homers over 450 at-bats in 2018. He made two different trips to the DL with a hamstring injury in the second half of the season.
Devers reportedly shed a few pounds over the winter, which should help in the health department. While he’s never had any popped-belt incidents, Devers still looked a little chunky in the cheeks last season. Maybe this slimmed-down physique means no more lingering injuries for Devers.
The other knock on Devers is his consistency. He made some big swings throughout the regular season, and again in the postseason with a key three-run homer off Justin Verlander in Game 3 of the ALCS, but he severely lacked any consistency from game to game, at-bat to at-bat. Those clutch hits were great, but Devers also hit just .209 with runners in scoring position in 2018.
If Devers can stay healthy and find some more consistency at the dish, he’ll enjoy the breakout season many forecast in 2018. If not, we could be talking about hot corner prospect Michael Chavis sooner rather than later.
Backup At Backstop
The Red Sox have three catchers battling for two spots in Christian Vazquez, Sandy Leon and Blake Swihart. Chances are one of them will not make it to the Opening Day roster.
Leon can catch but can’t hit. Vazquez can catch (not as well as Leon) but also isn’t very good at the plate (only slightly better than Leon). Swihart can hit but can’t catch. If only there was some machine that Dave Dombrowski and Cora could put all three into and yield a pair of all-around catchers, then the Sox would be in business. But something like that would only exist in the Black Mirror universe, so chances are one of those three gets traded before the season gets underway.
Vazquez has a contract and Swihart has the better offensive upside, so there’s a good chance Leon has already caught his last game for the Red Sox. We’ll see how it all plays out this spring.
Which Price Will We Hear?
Not see. Hear.
Price was solid on the mound, and he was much less annoying off it last season. For the most part, at least.
The 2018 season wasn’t without its off-field drama, and much of it centered around Price’s love for Fortnite. It didn’t help that the pitcher suffered from mild carpal tunnel during the season, but he made it clear that it had nothing to do with all those late night video game sessions.
Winning cures just about everything, and Price was a gigantic piece of Boston winning it all last season. That’s why he opted in to staying with the Red Sox (that and, you know, the $96 million he’ll be collecting from John Henry). Maybe this season we’ll get a happier, less snarky Price, and in return, the media will be happier and less snarky when it comes to Price (haha, good one).
There aren’t many questions surrounding Nate Eovaldi, though most of us are curious if he could go the distance in both ends of a double header.
The Red Sox didn’t waste time re-signing their postseason folk hero, the “rover” who was a beast in the rotation and out of the bullpen. Whatever Cora asked Eovaldi to do in October, the righty went out and did it. He won two games as a starter, and tossed 9.1 innings of one-run ball as a reliever. He was awesome.
Now he’ll take his rightful spot in the Boston rotation alongside Sale, Price, Rick Porcello and Eduardo Rodriguez — at least until Cora needs him to be Mr. Everything again.
Cora Year 2
Just about everything Cora touched turned to gold last season. Mookie Betts was a monster out of the leadoff spot, no one complained about the outfield juggling act, and just about every move he made out of the bullpen came up roses for the Sox.
You may not remember this, but the Red Sox lost their first game of the year as the bullpen stumbled in St. Pete. But starting the year 0-1 did not discourage the rookie manager, who never seemed to be fazed by the spotlight. Aside from Price’s gaming, no storyline was blown completely out of proportion — not even when Cora took issue with President Donald Trump.
Nothing is perfect, but Cora’s first season was as close as you can get. Now we get to see what he has for a follow-up.