10 things to watch in spring training
FORT MYERS — There won’t be a Pablo Sandoval vs. Travis Shaw showdown to hold our attention through six weeks of Red Sox spring training this year.
There are no high-profile competitions in camp this year. The back end of the bullpen will need to be sorted out, as will the catching situation, but the majority of the starting positions are all bet set.
And that’s what makes this version of Red Sox’ spring training so interesting.
Without internal competition to drive individual players, and without outside speculation that the Red Sox aren’t very good — the Sox love to talk about media members who picked the Yankees in the Division Series last year — this group of players and coaches will have to find new ways to stay motivated.
As the Herald kicks off its spring training coverage in Fort Myers today, here are 10 storylines to keep an eye on:
1. What does Dustin Pedroia have left?
This is one player that nobody can count out, no matter all the evidence that suggests we should. Intricate knee surgery kept him sidelined last year, but the 35-year-old had his knee cleaned up again last fall and is hoping to have new life in his legs this spring. He only began running two weeks ago and may not be able to participate fully till the end of camp as attempts to save his career and earn the $40 million left on his contract over the next three years. Brock Holt, Eduardo Nunez, Tzu-Wei Lin and perhaps Marco Hernandez, Michael Chavis or Blake Swihart will have to prove reliable with uncertainty at second base.
2. Will the Red Sox find another Ryan Brasier?
Tyler Thornburg said he’s hoping to become the next Brasier, an out-of-nowhere surprise who can provide dominance in the late innings. Thornburg, still trying to come back from thoracic outlet syndrome, has been throwing voraciously this offseason and will have to earn a spot on the roster to claim his $1.75 million salary.
Jenrry Mejia hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2015 after he was suspended three times, once for life, for violating the performance enhancing drugs policy, but the Red Sox liked the way he was throwing in the Dominican winter league and hope to see his nasty cutter reemerge as a weapon.
Colten Brewer, Carson Smith, Darwinzon Hernandez, Durbin Feltman and Travis Lakins are a few other names to watch as dark horse bullpen candidates.
3. Who will they choose at catcher?
The Sox made a long-term commitment to Christian Vazquez last spring, signing him to an extension that’ll pay him $4.2 million in 2019 and $6.25 million in 2020 with a $7 million option for 2021. But Vazquez responded with his worst career year, hitting just .207 with a .540 OPS. Sandy Leon, of a career .626 OPS, is a favorite among the pitching staff. That leaves Blake Swihart as the likely oddman out, but Alex Cora put a lot of faith in him last year when he recommended the Sox release Hanley Ramirez rather than let go of Swihart, who is out of options. One of the three is likely to be traded, perhaps for some extra bullpen help, and it should be Vazquez’s starting job to lose heading into camp.
4. Can Eduardo Rodriguez finally step up?
Once touted as a premier pitching prospect, Rodriguez has just a 4.12 ERA over four years in the big leagues. It’s up to Cora and the coaches to finally get the most out of a southpaw who can throw in the high-90s with one of the game’s best changeups. And with the Red Sox starting staff being kept on training wheels for the first month or so of the season, Rodriguez will need to carry the load.
5. Who will be the closer?
This could be an interesting competition to watch if not for the projected strategy that Cora might take of naming a “closer by committee.” It’s the least exciting term in baseball, though it does keep the door open for someone to emerge as the most logical ninth inning option. Then again, Cora could finally get his wish of eliminating the closer and using his best reliever in the highest-leverage situation, regardless of inning, a plan that didn’t pan out for Craig Kimbrel. Brasier and Matt Barnes figure to compete for the throne unless the Sox made one last surprise move before Opening Day.
6. Where will Craig Kimbrel, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and other free agents land?
With so many free agents looking for work, the Sox could yet add to their roster despite having only a thin margin of wiggle room if they truly want to remain under the highest tier of the luxury tax threshold.
7. Can the Red Sox come to longterm agreements with any of their stars?
Chris Sale, Xander Bogaerts, Rick Porcello and J.D. Martinez (opt-out) can all become free agents after this season, and the Red Sox’ chances of competing beyond 2019 look slim without Sale atop their rotation. Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. can follow suit in 2020 if they don’t come to agreement.
8. Which rule changes will go into place for 2019?
Among the rules being discussed are a universal designated hitter, threebatter minimum for pitchers, 20-second pitch clock, the expansion to 26-man rosters and a lower pitcher’s mound.
9. Do the Red Sox have any prospects they can count on?
Chavis, another infielder, looks like the next position player of use, while Bobby Dalbec might have the power and glove to provide some production at third base. Hernandez and Feltman aren’t far away as reliever options, while Jay Groome and Tanner Houck must continue their development as the Sox look to find their first homegrown starter since Clay Buchholz.
10. Can Alex Cora keep this team motivated?
The Sox looked complacent and sloppy in their title defense of 2013, prompting a monster sell-off at the 2014 trade deadline that changed the direction of the franchise. Cora must do better with this group, almost the same crew that won 108 games a year ago.
TYLER THORNBURGCHRISTIAN VAZQUEZDUSTIN PEDROIA