Every year 30 baseball teams enter the season with a plan in place, and every year 30 plans fall to pieces by the time April is out. Whether it's because of injuries or underperformers, leadoff hitters end up dropped to ninth. Starters are replaced by bench players and minor leaguers. Relievers become starters, starters become relievers, and before you know it Carlos Rivero is starting at third base on a brisk September morning.
Some of the most successful teams are the ones that avoid most of these problems through luck alone. For others, though, it's about depth, and having the ability to push through those problems as they crop up. The Red Sox, at least for the moment, seem to be set up to be one of those teams, at least when it comes to position players. For all that fans have fretted over the club's various logjams, the result is a team with some remarkably high-quality backups. Add in a farm system with a few good options at the upper-levels, and the Red Sox are in good shape to survive a few crises.
Let's take a look at just what kind of depth we're dealing with here. Some positions seem inextricably tied to others given the players involved, so we'll break this up into the proper pairings. For the record, we're working under the assumption that these are the starting position players:
C: Christian Vazquez
1B: Mike Napoli
2B: Dustin Pedroia
3B: Pablo Sandoval
SS: Xander Bogaerts
LF: Hanley Ramirez
CF: Rusney Castillo/Mookie Betts
RF: Rusney Castillo/Mookie Betts
(You can switch Castillo and Betts between CF and RF as you please)
Left Field/First Base
Daniel Nava or Allen Craig: Chances are that only one of these two players makes it to opening day with the Red Sox, with a lot more smoke currently surrounding a trade of Craig. Whichever one does wind up making the bench, it's honestly not that much of a difference for Boston. Both are defensively-lacking players coming off rough seasons who have had success at the plate in years past.
Either way, we're looking at a bench player who, as recently as 2013, started for a World Series team. Not too shabby. And if the Red Sox seem likely to be shipping away the higher upside bat of the two, there's actually a lot more reason to believe that Nava will bounce back. After all...he kind of already has. After resetting in the minors, Nava hit .308/.379/.395 from June onward. It kind of got lost in with the team as bad as it was, but it's pretty clear he remembered how to hit again.
Travis Shaw: If Nava stays over Craig, Travis Shaw could put himself in the conversation to take over at first in the event of an injury to Mike Napoli. It would take a pretty hot start for Shaw in Pawtucket--strong enough to change the current perception of Shaw as a Quadruple-A or third-division first baseman. But with infield defense being emphasized, Shaw has a lot more experience at the position than Nava, making it at least possible to imagine a scenario where the Red Sox give him a look at first in case of emergency.
Bryce Brentz: All the situational advantage Craig has going for him is actually working against Brentz. The Red Sox would likely sooner go to an extremely defense-oriented outfield before calling Brentz up to play left field.
Shane Victorino: Victorino would seem like a good trade candidate with one year left on his contract and Mookie Betts/Rusney Castillo very likely to fill these two starting spots. But so far there's little indication that they have any interest in moving Victorino.
It's not hard to imagine Victorino being a fantastic fourth outfielder for the team. He might not still be able to cover center field day in and day out, and it's certainly awkward that both Betts and Castillo are righties, but given Victorino's up-and-down career, it would not be at all surprising to see him bounce back from his injury-riddled 2014 campaign with a big year in 2015. Between injuries and regular rest, there's usually enough at bats to go around to have four outfielders who are more or less everyday starters, and it wouldn't be at all surprising to see Victorino finishing the year with starter-level playing time.
Photo Credit: Rob Carr
Jackie Bradley Jr.: So long as Victorino is still around, Bradley is going to have difficulty finding the playing time he needs to prove he's the player the organization once hoped he would be. At the very least, Bradley is an incredibly talented defender who could get the call in late-game situations when the Red Sox just need to hold a close lead. But between that glove, and his age, contract, and upside, Bradley might just be the real trade candidate here, particularly with Victorino already insuring the team against a long-term injury. There's no reason the Sox can't keep both, mind. They just might find it's not the best use of their assets.
Third Base/Shortstop/Second Base
Brock Holt: The Superman-style hype may be dead, but after a solid 2013 performance, Brock Holt has at least earned himself a place in the majors. Certainly, on a day-to-day basis, Holt figures to be the go-to to fill in for Sandoval, Bogaerts, and Pedroia. His defense at short is questionable, and if he hits like he did in the second half of the season (.548 OPS) rather than the year on the whole, he could lose even that backup job. But for now, if nothing else, Holt deserves his shot to stick on a major league roster. In the event of a lengthy injury, however, don't be surprised if the Red Sox go looking for a better option than Holt.
Hanley Ramirez: And here's where things get interesting.
Hanley Ramirez has spent 9237 innings at shortstop over his 10-year career, and has even tossed in some 860 at third base. He is, in fact, the most experienced infielder on the team. The only problem? Practice does not, in fact, always make perfect, and Ramirez is quite bad at playing the infield. There's a reason why the Red Sox signed him with the intention of sticking him in front of the Monster, a position which endured the defense of a certain other Ramirez for the better part of a decade.
In another season, the Red Sox might be comfortable shifting Ramirez back to the infield to take over at either short or third in the event a long-term fill-in is necessary, particularly when you consider the quality of their options in the outfield. But in 2015 they've got a bunch of ground ball pitchers, and just can't take that defensive hit behind them. Add in a predisposition to finalize the outfield transition for Hanley, and it's just difficult to imagine that he's really the go-to here.
Garin Cecchini: Once the heir-apparent at third, the Pablo Sandoval signing and a mediocre 2014 have left Garin Cecchini in limbo. It's not hard to imagine, though, that he would be the first line of defense against a long-term injury situation for Pablo Sandoval. He finished the year on a hot streak, got some positive playing time in the majors, and if his defensive chops aren't ideal, they're also not nearly so questionable as Hanley Ramirez'.
If it's a shortstop the Red Sox need, those days are long over for Cecchini. But at third base, it's something of a toss-up between him and Holt right now. And with Cecchini the more highly regarded of the two players as a prospect, a good start to the 2015 season in Pawtucket could well put him over the top.
Deven Marrero: It would've been hard to imagine considering Deven Marrero for a major league role one year ago today, but after a breakout campaign in 2014, he's certainly put himself in the conversation. At the moment, Marrero seems more likely to make the jump in either September, when the Red Sox just need a late-inning defensive replacement and/or can afford to give him at bats in blowouts or meaningless (for better or worse) games.
But the one thing Marrero has that nobody else does is a glove. While Jose Iglesias largely overshadowed him during his first years in the system, Marrero is one of Boston's best minor league defenders, and has the quick reactions and arm needed to play third, should the situation arise.
For now, it's hard to imagine the Red Sox calling on the man who hit .210/.260/.285 after a mid-season promotion to Pawtucket (remember: slumping after a promotion is not the least bit unexpected or damning), but with a good start to the season, it's honestly hard to imagine them turning anywhere else for a long-term replacement. Marrero is just too perfect a fit for their ground ball strategy if there's any life to be found in the bat.
Mookie Betts: It was pointed out in the comments that Betts, having played second base up until last year, could be a solution at second if Pedroia were to miss significant time, or even just need a day off. Well, we all know that the latter will never happen voluntarily unless John Farrell manages to get some really good dirt on his second baseman, but in the event of a long-term absence (the sort Pedroia has been known to force his way through in the past, perhaps even to the detriment of the team), shifting Betts into second and letting Victorino shift into a truly full-time role out there would make some sense.
While Betts is not the defender that Pedroia is, he's more than capable at the position. The Red Sox are likely loathe to mess too much with his position since second base is not a long-term home for Betts so long as Pedroia is on the team. But since second base is actually his original position, this would be entirely unlike switching Xander Bogaerts to third base in 2014. If I had to guess, they won't be pulling Betts back and forth for a game here-or-there. But if it comes down to weeks worth of games, he's certainly an option.
Ryan Hanigan/Christian Vazquez: Alright, let's be honest here, Christian Vazquez is the starter. The Red Sox intend to have him be their guy basically until Blake Swihart proves he deserves more playing time than Vazquez, or Vazquez proves that not even his glove can carry his bat.
Still, the situation is close enough to being a pairing of two starters that it's worth pointing out just how close these two are, and how even with Blake Swihart waiting in the wings, Ryan Hanigan is entirely capable of holding down the fort and starting the lion's share of the games if called upon to do so. He has a career.353 OBP, and is a capable defender, which is more than you can say about most starting catchers, much less backups. He's basically the perfect pairing for a young backstop who should be the starter, but can't be completely trusted to earn that level of playing time through the end of the season.
Dan Butler: So if one of Vazquez or Hanigan goes down, it's Swihart time, right?
Don't be so sure. The Red Sox are not ones to rush prospects to the minor leagues, particularly when they view them as potential franchise cornerstones like Swihart. Given that Swihart is just 22, playing a position that typically requires more minor league seasoning than any other, and has seen all of 69 at bats in Pawtucket, don't be surprised if the Red Sox do whatever they can to keep him in the minors until they're absolutely sure he's ready.
If that ends up being the strategy, then journeyman Dan Butler is the obvious stop-gap. He's nothing special, but with both Hanigan and Vazquez deserving of a starting role, he doesn't need to be.
Blake Swihart: On the other hand, if Swihart gets off to a quick start and the Red Sox feel he's ready, well, this would certainly prove the more exciting route. Once Swihart has made the jump, he'll be playing in at least half of the games, since the Red Sox won't be promoting him to ride the bench. The Sox seem unlikely to run headlong into that logjam so long as Vazquez is performing, but if he's not, or if he ends up hurt, Swihart could be called upon to take over that starting role. Just don't bet on it.