Spring training will not be a mere formality this year for the Boston Red Sox. While we hopefully will not have to endure the drama that last year's reality show search for a starting pitcher entailed, it's clear that there are at least a couple spots open for the taking.
One of those spots, presumably, comes at the back end of a very crowded bullpen. It's the one that's somehow less comfortable to talk about by the virtue of the team having better answers for it--nobody wants to talk about the possibility of giving a worthwhile player away because of roster constraints. That, however, can wait for another day, because with the acquisition of Mike Carp today seems like a good day to talk about the bench.
In all likelihood, the Red Sox will have four roster spots reserved for their bench players, including one catcher, and a combination of three total infielders and outfielders. This is, mind you, with Jonny Gomes being labeled as a starter more for convenience's sake than anything else.
The catching spot is all sewed up by David Ross. Ryan Lavarnway will have zero shot to break camp with the team barring injury to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Ross himself, or perhaps David Ortiz given a good enough spring training performance. Of course, Ross will probably get a few more plate appearances than a traditional backup catcher, but he's the backup all the same.
The infield and outfield situation is where things get cloudy at best.
In an ideal world, a team would have a backup outfielder who could play all three positions, a backup infielder who could cover everything left of first, and then a pinch-hitter type capable of covering first base and a corner outfield spot (left field for Fenway, obviously). Said players would also ideally come with some nice splits against the pitchers that the starters at their roles are weakest against.
The Red Sox, however, are not in an ideal world. In left field, they're "starting" a pretty one-note player in Jonny Gomes. With no defense and little ability to hit righties. Their first baseman has a hip that could give out. Their shortstop is known for injuries.
Unfortunately, only one of these problems can really be sorted out simply by picking up the "right" bench player. While problems two and three are begging for a player you wouldn't mind starting, that sort of player simply isn't available in a bench role. Instead, the Sox will simply have to make do with what they have, and at shortstop that means Pedro Ciriaco. There's a lot not to like about Ciriaco, specifically all that stuff he does between stepping up to the plate and leaving it either at a gallop or a defeated walk, but he's all they've got. Jose Iglesias showed last year that he's got no business swinging a bat in the bigs just yet, while newly-acquired Brock Holt has barely played above Double-A. For now, it's going to have to be Ciriaco.
That leaves two spots left, between which the Red Sox would ideally be able to find someone to play first base and all three outfield positions, along with providing a suitable bat to platoon with Jonny Gomes.
The pool for these two spots likely, in the end, comes down to four men: Mike Carp, Daniel Nava, Lyle Overbay, and Ryan Sweeney. While the likes of Mark Hamilton and Mitch Maier will get a shot in spring training, it's hard to imagine they'll actually find their way into the conversation. Given that pool, then, I think this much becomes clear:
The Red Sox will not be able to meet all those criteria with two players unless you consider Ryan Sweeney a viable platoon partner for Jonny Gomes.
The reasoning there is simple enough. Ryan Sweeney is the only one of the three who can play all three outfield positions. He's pretty much the only one good enough defensively to really play right field in Fenway if you want to get down to brass tacks. Now, if you consider him a platoon partner for Gomes, than all that's needed is a first baseman, and hey, Lyle Overbay and Mike Carp are both first basemen by trade. Done deal.
For my money, however, I want something better out of that platoon spot, at least for my first choice. Ryan Sweeney in his career is a .293/.347/.402 hitter against righties, which is decent enough, but he showed little enough last year hitting 90% of the time against righties to make me comfortable giving him that role as a 60% starter, especially in left field where his best attribute (his glove) would be wasted.
That leaves Carp, Overbay, and Nava. And of the three, Nava is the easy choice. For one thing, he's the only actual outfielder of the bunch. Carp plays outfield in the same way Adrian Gonzalez did for the Red Sox, the same way Overbay is trying to right now, and the same way Daniel Nava is preparing to play first base. He'll stand out there--he's even done it some before in the minors and the majors--and if a ball is hit to him he'll probably catch it--but whoever matches up with Gomes is going to have to play 700+ innings out there, and if you're going to be as bad a fielder as Gomes is you've got to hit your group of pitchers the way Gomes hits lefties. Daniel Nava may not be Willie Mays out there, but he actually looked entirely comfortable out there last year, which is something.
Of course, that's all for nothing if he's not better against righties than Sweeney. But even though it's true his career numbers are only marginally superior to Sweeney, after watching the two of them play last year I don't think there should be much doubt that Nava is the better choice against right-handed pitchers. From both sides of the plate last year, Nava showed off an impressive eye, drawing walk after walk. Against righties, however, he could actually threaten to hit the ball, too, earning him a line of .269/.383/.414. It's possible that's a fluke, but it didn't look like one, and frankly it's more than Sweeney has going for him right now at the plate.
Given that, we'd be left with Sweeney, Overbay, and Carp for the last spot. And while it might seem like the obvious thing to do, having added one outfielder, would be to go for one of the first basemen, I'm not sure that's the right move here.
You see, for all that the Sox could really use a backup first baseman, that need pales in comparison to the need for a backup right or center fielder. Because, frankly, two of those positions ask a lot of a player, and the other one doesn't. First base has for decades been the place to stash away the no-glove, big-bat players. Just look at Mike Napoli. While a bad first baseman might fail to scoop a throw in the dirt, allowing a player to reach on what would have been an out, their misplays are less likely to result in an out becoming two bases. They're involved in a ton of plays, but a vast majority of them are entirely routine, and the most important part of their defensive duty--standing on first and catching the ball--doesn't take a lot of skill.
With that in mind, then, it seems to me that the best approach here is simply to take the risk at first while securing right and center field by breaking camp with Ryan Sweeney on the roster. He might even end up making sense as a pinch hitter for Shane Victorino late in games should the Flyin' Hawaiian fail to bounce back against right-handed pitching.
As of right now, though, nothing is decided. We've got a full schedule of spring training games ahead of us during which competition will presumably sort this out. Unfortunately, though, performance in spring training rarely seems to have any bearing on performance in the regular season. While some would say that any competition is good competition, for my money it's just so many opportunities to be swayed into a wrong decision.