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Fernando Abad, spring training battles, and the WBC

Is it really a big deal that Fernando Abad is leaving the Red Sox for the WBC?

MLB: Spring Training-New York Mets at Boston Red Sox Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Red Sox aren’t really well-represented at this year’s World Baseball Classic, which is probably a good thing. Hanley Ramirez was supposed to be among the headliners, but shoulder soreness led to him deciding to skip the event. As of now, the only big name from the team that’s playing is Xander Bogaerts. Eduardo Rodriguez could join him depending on how far Venezuela makes it and whether or not he’s healthy. Then, there’s Fernando Abad. The lefty departed from camp this week to join the Dominican team as it prepares to start game action this week.

His decision to pitch for his country has created a mini-controversy in camp. Although there was always some chance Abad could lose his roster spot with a poor spring, it seemed much more likely than not that he’d break camp with the Red Sox. However, it seems like Robby Scott has made a good impression on coaches this spring after making a similar impression at the end of last season. This has led to there being a full-blown battle to become the team’s second lefty in the bullpen after Robbie Ross. Via Jen McCaffrey of Masslive, we have this quote from John Farrell about Abad leaving the team despite the battle.

"You love the fact that his country looks upon him as a guy to contribute for the WBC," manager John Farrell said. "He's pitched four times; there's been early-camp mixed results, which are not uncommon. But in those positions of competing for a spot, you'd like to think that a guy's going to be here to make that mark here. He's aware of his status on the roster competing for a spot. When he returns, it's constant evaluating that's going on."

It’s this quote that has seemingly led to this being a major talking point over the last couple of days. The gist is that Farrell would prefer that a guy who is fighting for a roster spot make his case directly in front of the team instead of elsewhere. It’s understandable, I suppose, but at the end of the day I don’t really think this is as big of a deal as some are making it out to be.

MLB: Spring Training-New York Mets at Boston Red Sox Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest part of this, in my mind, is the quality of competition that Abad will be facing in the World Baseball Classic. Sure, there are teams like Israel and Australia that boast lineups of minor leaguers, retired players and Indy leaguers. There are plenty of talented teams, too. In Abad’s pool will be the USA team, which is arguably the best in the tournament, as well as an underrated Colombia squad. Assuming the Dominican team can advance — they should, as they are also loaded — the competition will only get better.

Playing meaningful baseball while Scott is stuck in camp pitching against lineups that are also mixes of major and minor-league talent can be a big boost for Abad. If he pitches well in this tournament, it’s hard to see that as anything besides a positive for the southpaw. The Red Sox certainly aren’t going to scoff at good results against strong competition just because it didn’t happen in a Red Sox uniform.

There is, of course, the other side of this coin. It’s just as possible — more possible, even — that the stronger competition will cause Abad to pitch poorly. In that case, obviously this is a bad development for his ultimate goal of making the Opening Day roster. It’s not only that he’d be pitching poorly, either. It’s that he wouldn’t be able to work with Boston’s pitching staff to figure out what is wrong. Furthermore, there’s no guarantee he’ll get as much game action as he would with the Red Sox. This, I think, is the biggest reason why this would be a questionable decision.

Having said that, I’m not at all convinced that whether or not Abad makes the roster has all that much to do with Abad himself. There are outside factors at play here. Part of it is the money, which has been discussed more frequently since Brett Lawrie was released by the White Sox. That move served as a reminder that arbitration players’ contracts aren’t fully guaranteed. If Abad were released, the Red Sox wouldn’t be on the hook for his entire deal. Of course, that entire deal is only $2 million, which is basically nothing for a team like the Red Sox, even with luxury tax concerns.

No, the bigger outside factor is the team’s lack of left-handed depth in the bullpen. While I would’ve liked to see them get a bigger name in the offseason, that was easier said than done. They aren’t just missing star power, though. Beyond Ross, Abad and Scott, there really isn’t a trustworthy arm in sight. That’s not a huge deal, but keeping as much depth as possible should always be the default strategy. It’s never fun looking for help outside the organization so early in the season. If someone like Luis Ysla or Edgar Olmos really impresses the staff this spring, that could make losing Abad easier, but that doesn’t have much to do with the latter leaving to play for the Dominican Republic.

At the end of the day, this just seems like an overblown story that wouldn’t make as many headlines were the roster not so set already. There’s not that much to talk about with this team right now. In an ideal world for the organization, Abad would stay with the team all spring. That would allow him to get maximum face time with the coaching staff, particularly when things are going poorly, and to get in as many games as possile. However, I don’t think decision will have a huge impact on whether or not he makes the roster. If he pitches well, then he’s proven he can do it in a mildly high-pressure situation against mildly competitive opponents. Even if he doesn’t, the Red Sox will need to have confidence in someone else besides Scott to cut Abad loose.