10 things to watch in spring train­ing

Boston Herald - - SPORTS - By JA­SON MASTRODONATO

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

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