The beginning of the baseball season is marvelous for a variety of reasons. It marks the start of spring, which hopefully means the end of snow. It means a blank slate for every team, the chance for any of the 30, even the ones that were terrible the year before, to dream about hoisting the Commisioner's Trophy at the end of the year. It means that, well, baseball is starting again, which is far and away my favorite part about it all.
But with a new season comes a new set of concerns. Concerns that haven't yet been realized. Last year, Red Sox fans were concerned that Hanley Ramirez wouldn't be able to smoothly transition into the outfield. But in spring training, that issue was only a hypothetical, something that many push off into the corners of their mind. And then the year comes and while sometimes those fears become realized, other times they fade into the distance, overstated and untrue.
Even with Red Sox president Dave Dombrowski making several high profile moves this past offseason in an attempt to fix the weaknesses of a 2015 Red Sox team that had more than its fair share, every team is going to have issues. And the Red Sox are certainly no exception to this rule.
For the Red Sox, it's another season, another year to be concerned with the defense of Hanley Ramirez, just at first base this time. We all know how bad Hanley Ramirez was in the outfield last season, and it's perfectly reasonable to fear another blooper reel of defensive miscues at an entirely new position from the 32-year-old in 2016. While it's easy to write off a position like first base as something that can be easily learned, the fact of the matter is that really great defenders at the position can make the entire infield look exponentially better. It's the small things at the position--picking balls in the dirt, footwork, the extra stretch to catch a ball thrown on a bang-bang play--that separates the average from the great, and the bad from the average. And between guys like Kevin Youkilis, Adrian Gonzalez and Mike Napoli, Boston has seen its fair share of great defensive players at first base.
The defensive concerns at the position are magnified when you consider that Pablo Sandoval had his worst year with the glove at the opposite corner of the infield last year. History suggests that Sandoval's struggles at the third base were an anomaly compared to the track record he's accumulated at the position over the course of his entire career, and it's always important to remember that one season is an incredibly small sample size to make long-term judgments on someone's defensive viability (just remember the screams to move Xander Bogaerts off of shortstop in the first half of his rookie season), but it is something to note.
In fact, while we're on the subject, I don't really have too many concerns with Dustin Pedroia and Xander Bogaerts up the middle, but it's important to remember that we've only seen the latter be above-average defensively for a year and that Pedroia is not getting any younger.
The outfield defense should be of no concern, for now. That lack of concern, however, depends almost entirely on the performance at the plate from Jackie Bradley and Rusney Castillo. Their viability as major league players at the plate will dictate whether or not the team's defense in the outfield is allowed to remain a strength. The outfield depth is something we've previously covered in this space, but there's not a whole lot of options behind Mookie Betts, Bradley and Castillo. A lot of the team's depth is dependent on David Murphy's opt-out clause on March 27th. If Murphy decides to opt-out, there really isn't much behind Chris Young in case one of (or both?) Bradley and Castillo flounders at the plate and forces a change.
Dombrowski shored up one of the team's biggest weaknesses, the hey-we-don't-need-an-ace-if-we-trot-out-a-bunch-of-pretty-solid-to-ok-pitchers-and-everyone-is-the-ace experiment (its acronym game is as weak as its results), by signing David Price to a mammoth contract this offseason. But just fixing the top of the rotation does not mean the starting pitching is fixed by any stretch of the imagination. Clay Buchholz could break down at a moment's notice and Rick Porcello needs to have a major comeback season (although his uptick in performance at the end of last year was certainly encouraging). Eduardo Rodriguez could become a concern should his knee injury prove more serious than initially anticipated, and we have no idea what to expect out of Joe Kelly. While it's not an enormous concern, that back end of the rotation could prove problematic given the injury (and post-injury) track record of Buchholz and the performance track record of Kelly.
The encouraging sign about the team's weaknesses this season is that they fundamentally seem less concerning that those that the team carried into spring training last season. While Hanley's defense certainly hurt the team last year, they were a very visible side problem among the team's many roster and structural issues. Pablo Sandoval and Rick Porcello seemingly can't be any worse than they were last season. The rotation actually has an ace this year, and one of the best pitchers in baseball at that. It's easy to point at the issues and nitpick any team down to its core to create some sort of disaster situation, but that's true for almost every team in baseball. Perfection is not only impossible to achieve, but usually even to approach. Given the roster construction, and barring some apocalyptic disaster, the Red Sox appear to be in pretty decent shape heading into the season.
But then again, an asteroid could hit Fenway Park, or the aliens could kidnap everyone on the Red Sox, or Bobby Valentine could return to haunt the halls of Fenway Park as a vengeful-but-somehow-still-living spirit. And at that point we'd all be screwed.