It's been a while since the Red Sox have had a truly interesting spring training. Aside from the occasional discussion over whether or not Jed Lowrie should start, by-and-large the only real questions have been a matter of who will fill a relatively unimportant final roster spot.
This year, however, things are different. After last year's collapse, the Sox will enter March with a new manager, a shaken up roster, and some unfortunate question marks which will have to be answered through what little relevant information spring training games can begin. For once, spring training at least seems important.
So with that in mind, let's go down the list of what's going on down in Fort Myers: what positions are at stake, who's involved, and whether the players will rally behind or revolt against Bobby Valentine.
1. The Back Two Rotation Spots
Let's start off with an obvious one: filling out the back of the rotation. After a disappointing offseason saw the Sox miss out on starters like Hiroki Kuroda, Paul Maholm, and the infuriating Roy Oswalt, they're entering the season with only three proven starters in Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and Clay Buchholz.
Of course, it's become apparent over the past month that Daniel Bard has a strong hold on the fourth spot, at least to start the year. But the fifth spot is well-and-truly wide open with more candidates then you can shake a stick at.
There's Carlos Silva, whose ability to avoid the walk was once enough to overcome a remarkably low strikeout rate, but aside from a short renaissance in 2010 has been completely unable to keep runs off the board.
Aaron Cook is a sinkerballer who could see improvement in front of Boston's staunch defensive infield, but like Silva comes with undesirable K/BB rates and poor results in recent years.
Vicente Padilla, has seen by far the most recent success of any of the contenders, but hasn't been able to stay healthy since 2008.
John Maine was once a solid #3 for the Mets, but has fought injury for as long as Vicente Padilla
Brandon Duckworth is effectively a Quadruple-A spot starter.
Clayton Mortensen dodged bullets in Colorado last year, but wasn't able to get outs in Triple-A.
Ross Ohlendorf has been outperforming his peripherals for even longer before falling dramatically to Earth last year, and was released by the Pirates. The PIrates!
And Alfredo Aceves was, of course, a godsend making extended bullpen appearances last year, but was very wild in his spot starts. Just ask Marlon Byrd.
The favorite is likely Padilla at the moment, but a healthy John Maine could prove a surprise, and the likes of Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez could make Aaron Cook a winner.
2. The Shortstop Battle
...isn't really a battle at all--or at least shouldn't be. Mike Aviles is a questionable glove, but has shown a strong bat from time to time. Nick Punto is a good glove with no bat to speak of until last year. Aviles is likely the only one who could prove to be a full-fledged starter for the Sox, and will likely take the lion's share of starts with the hopes that regular playing time will help. Still, Punto will get a good few chances, likely depending on who starts the game for the Red Sox (say, Aaron Cook or Clay Buchholz).
3. The Right Field Situation
In all likelihood, Cody Ross and Ryan Sweeney will form a straight platoon in right, but it's a situation that's open to...modification. Ryan Sweeney, for instance, can show that he deserves the majority of at bats by banging balls off JetBlue Park's left field wall--spray charts show that the Monster could mean big things for him. Meanwhile, the likes of Darnell McDonald and the recuperating Ryan Kalish loom if Cody Ross can't produce at the plate.
4. The Bobby Valentine Situation
He's already outlawed alcohol in the clubhouse, asked the whole team to travel by bus to away games, and instituted a workout regimen that has apparently rubbed some players the wrong way. The question is whether this is exactly what the team needs, or if Bobby Valentine will wear thin early in his Red Sox tenure.
So far, though, it seems like Valentine at least has support from some key players. David Ortiz (who is looking to take a leading role in the clubhouse) has backed Valentine on at least the alcohol issue, Carl Crawford has been getting along with him so far, and he's saying a lot of the right things to the media so far. Hopefully nobody flinches at the prospect of a few bus rides.
Of course, when it comes down to it, there's not a lot of substance in spring training. Results in March don't correlate to results in April much better than one coin flip does to another, and the decisions on the team's biggest question marks will likely depend very little on box scores. Still, with a new manager coming to a new team relying on a bunch of new players to fill some empty roles, the fact of the matter is that March is all he'll have to work with.
For better or worse, these 33 games could decide quite a bit.