We still have a little over a week until spring training games start up, but pitchers and catchers have begun their official workouts and any position players who haven’t yet reported will be in camp with them by the beginning of next week. Baseball is starting to get going, and it’s exciting. Of course, while it’s exciting spring training is also generally pretty boring after about a week or so. It’s better than nothing but....not by much. That’s why we have to pick some storylines to watch, because these aren’t normal games. They aren’t played that way and they certainly aren’t managed that way. So, here are six storylines I’ll be watching as camp continues over the next six weeks.
This is probably the most obvious and most important “position battle” in Red Sox camp. I put that in quotes because I’m not really sure it’s fair to call it a real position battle considering it’s not only about picking the best players for the roster. I think that’s what should be the focus, but the trade value of each player involved will matter too. Still, it will be interesting to not only see how each of Christian Vázquez, Sandy León and Blake Swihart perform but also when they play. Which pitchers get matched up with which catchers could provide a hint as to which catchers they are leaning towards. If they all get mixed somewhat equally and all get to catch the main pitchers in game action, then I’ll think they really are undecided right now. If one seems to get left out and only catchers the minor-league guys later in games, it’s probably safe to assume that catcher is on the outside looking in and the front office is simply working to get whatever they can for him rather than cutting him outright.
If the catching situation is the top group to watch throughout camp, the bullpen can’t be very far behind. Obviously, the relief corps has been the main topic of conversation around this roster all winter, and that’s not likely to change once they start pitching in front of reporters and eventually on television for all to see. The questions around the group are obvious and mostly fair. I still stubbornly believe Craig Kimbrel is a realistic addition, but if not there are multiple fronts to watch here. For one, Dave Dombrowski has said he’d like to have a closer named by Opening Day. With Steven Wright likely easing himself into the season, this battle seemingly comes down to Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier. I think Barnes is clearly the better pitcher, but if Brasier has a better camp I’d expect him to get the nod.
Beyond that, it’ll also be interesting to see which relievers stand out beyond the top guys. Along with Barnes and Brasier, Heath Hembree, Tyler Thornburg and Brandon Workman seem like shoe-ins to start the year on the roster if healthy. Things can change quickly, and injuries can and will happen, but that would leave one or two spots available on Opening Day. Seeing how the long list of guys — Colten Brewer, Bobby Poyner, Travis Lakins, Durbin Feltman, Darwinzon Hernandez, Zach Putnam, etc. — perform in the spotlight of camp will not only help decide who gets the last spot(s) on the roster, but also help determine the pecking order when injuries pop up through the season. Dombrowski and company have committed to quantity over quality with the bullpen this winter, and we’ll start to see how smart that idea is in March.
It’s hard to believe that, after an amazing 2018 season, there are positions at which the Red Sox could potentially see significant improvement. Second base is one of those spots, though, despite the huge questions surrounding the projected starter. Dustin Pedroia essentially missed all of 2018 after playing in only 105 games in 2017. The questions about his knee injury are entirely fair, and no one really knows how he’s going to hold up. It doesn’t hurt that Pedroia has a reputation for pushing himself 110 percent at all times. He’s not going to stop that — it’s how he got to this point in his career — but it will be interesting to see how he reacts to more frequent rest days than earlier seasons in his career. More importantly in spring, I’ll be interested to see if he struggles to get his timing back and also how he moves around in the infield. If he looks even close to his old self at second base, that sets a nice floor with which they can work.
The Rotation’s Workload
For all of the (justified) concern around the Red Sox bullpen right now, there probably hasn’t been enough talk about how great their rotation could potentially be. It’s not a group without questions, of course, but the talent is there for this to be among the best 1-5 rotations in the game. We’ll learn about things like Chris Sale’s shoulder, Nathan Eovaldi’s adjustments after a breakout year and Eduardo Rodriguez’ physique as the year goes on, but what I’m most interested in is how much Alex Cora will hold them back as a unit this spring. He started his rotation pretty late last year, and that wasn’t coming off a championship run that saw all of the team’s starters pitching whenever needed as both starters and relievers. It was obviously the right call, but it undoubtedly puts a new strain on pitchers. Cora has said he wants to ease these guys in, but there has to be a balance with that and getting them ready for the year. I’m fascinated to see how he walks that line.
Michael Chavis’ defense
Michael Chavis isn’t the consensus top prospect in the organization, but he’s the most popular pick for that spot and more importantly is closest to making an impact in the majors. After being added to the 40-man this winter, the infielder is going to be in big-league camp and likely play a decently-sized role. I’m looking forward to watching him hit because he’s a fun hitter to watch, but that’s not what I’m most interested in seeing. The biggest question for Chavis as a prospect is his defense and where exactly he’ll call home. We’ll start to see what the Red Sox think about that based on where he plays in spring. It won’t be a complete answer, of course, but it’ll give us a little insight into their thinking.
Sam Travis aka the Grapefruit League Mike Trout
Over the last three springs, the Red Sox first base prospect has put up OPS’s of .948, .991 and 1.147 in the Grapefruit League. It’s Sam Travis SZN.