It's finally here! The first Red Sox game that counts in 2016. Well, assuming the snow is able to hold off in Cleveland, anyway. If it does, then hey: baseball that matters! David Price's first real game in a Red Sox uniform! Travis Shaw's first game of many (?) as the starter at third? Brock Holt in... left? The uh... um... okay so the season is here but maybe we still have some questions to answer about the Red Sox.
That's pretty normal, though. It's not like even the greatest teams enter the season without any questions whatsoever. The Mets are looking like a powerhouse, but at the same time, there are concerns about the health of their young rotation and if the older players in the lineup can still do their part. The Royals might be defending World Series champions (and undefeated in 2016 so far!) but their rotation could be a disaster as easily as it could be a strength. So, don't think Opening Day questions are Sox-centric. These particular questions just happen to be.
Who is the Red Sox third baseman?
All naming Travis Shaw the Opening Day starter at third base did is tell us who the Opening Day starter at third basewas going to be. He hasn't proven he can hold down the gig for a month, half-a-season, the whole season, the rest of his contract, whatever. Similarly, Pablo Sandoval hasn't shown us that he's done for on the Red Sox or as a starter in general. If his defense gets back to where it was when the Sox signed him, and he's able to regain some of his ability at the plate, then maybe he ends up bumping Shaw across the diamond in-season or in time for 2017.
We won't have to wait all year to find out if Sandoval is going to get another chance, at least. The kinds of problems Shaw could have against major-league competition on a full-time basis are ones that will show up in a hurry. If they exploit his weaknesses and he can't adjust in the way he did last summer, then his time as the third baseman could be short. If he does adjust, though, then it's going to be very difficult for Sandoval to wrest the hot corner back from him.
Who will stick in the Red Sox outfield?
For now, the only answer we know to that question -- as much as you can know anything in baseball -- is that Mookie Betts has a spot in the Red Sox outfield. After that, it's a bit more complicated. Jackie Bradley Jr. showed real promise at the plate in 2015, and while he's not expected to ever be a real force in the lineup, if he can continue to adjust to avoid letting pitchers control his plate appearances as he did his first couple of years in the majors, he'll be able to start in center for a long time. If he can't continue to adjust, then Betts might end up shifting back to center field before the season is out.
Concern over Bradley is minimal compared to what's happening in left field, though. Rusney Castillo was supposed to get his chance to be the guy there, but a lackluster spring that featured many of the issues that have hampered his production in the majors to this point has him potentially splitting time at the position now. Brock Holt -- who is supposed to be in a utility role and is likely better there than anywhere -- will end up playing against many right-handed starters in left, while Chris Young was always looking like he'd get as many plate appearances as possible against lefties. Where that leaves Castillo's playing time is very much up in the air.
Could it come in Pawtucket? Will he be another bench outfielder whose defense will allow him to slot in when necessary even if his bat never emerges? Or will the Sox make a trade to add another part-time outfielder to the mix so Holt can go back to being the backup at shortstop and second base, or wherever it is he's needed on a given day?
Can the Red Sox rely on Rick Porcello?
The short answer is "probably." Porcello has had bad springs before, and they have come from focusing on the wrong things during them. He's followed those performances up with quality seasons in the past, so we're probably better off focusing on his return from the disabled list in 2015 than we are what he failed to do against exhibition competition.
However, if Porcello can't be relied upon, if this spring is the indication of something more sinister than an easily remedied strategy issue, the rotation is going to have a problem. Steven Wright is filling in for Eduardo Rodriguez at the moment, but he's normally at the top of the starting depth pile -- it's not a bad thing to use Wright as a starter, especially since he could be a solid one, but if he's replacing your mid-rotation arm there could be a problem. There is Henry Owens and Brian Johnson, neither of whom are proven at the big-league level yet. Roenis Elias is proven, but as the kind of guy you stash in Triple-A or your bullpen until you need him to start, not as any kind of answer you look forward to. These are answers to a lesser Joe Kelly question, not the Porcello one.
He'll get his chances to prove he belongs in the middle of the rotation, but the Sox have to hope he does just that. Having one player with potentially dead money on the bench is something Boston can fit into their budget. If they have to go out and find a mid-rotation arm to replace Porcello at the same time Sandoval is getting paid $17 million on the bench, there isn't going to be a lot of financial wiggle room to do so.
Is Hanley Ramirez the answer at first base?
If not for the left field disaster of 2015, this probably wouldn't even merit serious consideration. However, until we're a few weeks or months into the Hanley Ramirez First Base Defense Experience, it'll be hard to feel too comfortable about it. It's worth mentioning, though, that Hanley at first looks exponentially better than Hanley in left ever did, and he's just about a month into that transition whereas he got a year in the outfield.
The real concern should be about his bat, which is really just concern for his health. Will Ramirez avoid a collision that ruins his shoulder like happened a year ago? While he doesn't have an enormous fence looming behind him, he will have baserunners coming at him at full speed that accidentally turn baseball into a contact sport on more than one occasion. On a team using Shaw at third base because Sandoval wasn't cutting it, the Sox can't afford a Ramirez injury that also hampers his production.
Is there any help left on the farm?
In 2013, the Red Sox were able to call up Xander Bogaerts. In 2014, Mookie Betts and Christian Vazquez made their way onto the big-league roster. The 2015 season featured Blake Swihart, Eduardo Rodriguez, Henry Owens, and Jackie Bradley Jr. coming up and performing in a way that secured jobs for them in the future. Is there anything left for 2016?
Well, Owens has a job, in the sense he's shown he can be depth for the big-league rotation right now. As he's currently in Triple-A awaiting an opportunity in the majors once more, though, he can be counted among potential help left on the farm. Whether he's going to be able to slot into his potential mid-rotation future now or is still more of a back-end arm is the real question -- what's the level of help he's capable of providing were he needed today? In June? By September?
There's still history for David Ortiz to make
David Ortiz has cemented his place in Red Sox history. But that doesn't mean he can't take his legacy a step or two further.
There is also Brian Johnson, who only got one start in the majors in 2015 because of an elbow injury that did not end up requiring Tommy John surgery. So, he's still around, waiting for his next chance, and unlike Owens, even still has his prospect and rookie status attached. If he's not given a chance to start in the Red Sox rotation, he could find his way to the bullpen, where his control and three-pitch mix would likely help him thrive against both lefties and righties.
Christian Vazquez had won himself a job on the big-league roster for 2015 before Tommy John surgery ended his season. Now he's back in Triple-A, and if Ryan Hanigan or Blake Swihart goes down, he'll be back in the majors. Marco Hernandez could very well jump into a utility role for the Sox should Brock Holt become a more permanent fixture in left field. Deven Marrero might also come up in a similar capacity, or if the Sox need someone sure-handed at shortstop for any reason. Edwin Escobar settles into a relief role now that his elbow isn't barking, and can contribute on the big-league roster before the year is out. That might be about it, unless Pat Light gets a handle on his control issues: if he does, then he could be a fixture in the Red Sox bullpen in a hurry with his splitter.
After Light, you're talking about some more dreamy stuff that could happen, but is more unlikely than not. Sam Travis hits so much he forces his way from Triple-A into the majors. Yoan Moncada or Andrew Benintendi jump from the low minors to the majors at a speed that would impress even Bogaerts and Betts.
The high-end talent that was there the last few seasons isn't available for an in-season promotion, but the Sox do still have plenty of potential depth and help options on the farm for jobs both big and small. Given some of the questions on the roster, questions we've covered today, that's probably going to end up being a good thing.