After taking last week off, we are back with another staff roundtable just in time for the start of the spring training schedule. The Red Sox take on Northeastern today, and starting this afternoon there will be baseball to follow basically every day for the foreseeable future. What a wonderful thing. Anyway, for this week we have a pretty simple question: Which player or position battle are you most interested in following in camp this year?
The player that I want to see take major strides in camp this year is outfielder Andrew Benintendi. He came into the league in 2016 with meteoric expectations, and proved to be worth the hype. However, despite a stellar campaign in 2018, he regressed a bit last year, and finished as just a league-average hitter. With Mookie Betts now on the west coast, I would love to see Benintendi take a leadership role in the outfield and replace some of Mookie’s production. A major area of improvement for Andrew in 2020 is strikeouts, with a rate last year of 22.8 percent, easily a career-high. Part of this seems to be attributed to being too aggressive. He swung at a rate of six percentage points higher in 2020 than in 2019, but made significantly less contact. Perhaps a more patient approach at the plate can help Benny bounce back this year.
The fifth Rotation Spot is about the only position battle I find to be all that intriguing this spring. The lineup is more or less settled outside of what we do at second base (and honestly, I’m not too interested in whether it’s Chavis or Peraza, since both players figure to play a lot regardless) and in the bullpen (but we have so many fringe average pieces that it’s hard to get hyped there).
The fifth rotation spot is interesting to me because after you get by Sale, Eovaldi, E-Rod, and Martin Perez, we have a ton of nothing. Kyle Hart, Daniel McGrath, and Matt Kent are what remains of our AAA rotation. You have Darwinzon Hernandez in the ‘pen who could conceivably start. Do we just do a bullpen game every fifth day? Then there’s the looming shadow of prospects on the farm that aren’t in AAA. We’ve seen guys jump to the majors from AA before. Not that I expect Bryan Mata or Denyi Reyes will pitch so well we have to put them on the roster, but they are a looming presence early in camp as well.
It also figures to be the most important battle this spring for us. The rotation is going to be what determines whether we’re a fringe playoff team or an 86 win also-ran. Even if everybody bounces back, we’re looking at a big nothing in the fifth rotation spot. But where there’s nothing, you can only go up. And in an offseason where we haven’t had much to hope for, this is our silver lining.
One player to watch is a guy acquired so many storyline ago this winter that you may have forgotten about him: José Peraza. The potential heir to either Dustin Pedroia (until Jeter Downs is ready) or Brock Holt, Peraza is something of a departure for the Red Sox. The middle/utility infielder hardly ever walks and doesn’t hit for power. He can run, although he didn’t last year. And he can hit singles with some reasonable doubles power.
He’s going to wear number 3 in the recent tradition of David Wells, Edgar Renteria, and Sandy Leon. And he’s still just 26, put up some solid numbers in the minors, and in two of the past three seasons posted BABIPs of .293 and .307, better than the .268 mark of his disappointing 2019. If a few more hits drop in he could be a nice surprise for a lineup that might need a guy who can hit a single and take an extra base to support Martinez, Bogaerts, and Devers. Baseball Prospectus lists one of his top comparables as José Altuve, which should add a bit of buzz to his spring.
The offense seems largely set, so the clear answer here for me is the back of the rotation. The recent vacancy created by the David Price trade and the nagging injury histories of Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodgriguez suggest that whoever squeezes their way in will have a chance to pitch big innings if they can make said innings half-decent. Add to that the fact I literally have no idea who is fighting for the spots, and the names I’ve seen bandied about largely leave me with more questions than answers — “Who?” foremost among them — and the 4 and 5 spots in the rotation are easily the spot I have the most to learn about this spring, and I like learning, so, voila.
As a side note, the “4” and “5” starter designation could cease to matter if Chaim Bloom optimizes the roster to include openers and heretofore as yet undiscovered strategies for extracting the maximum value out of baseball, so it’s possible all of this is anachronistic, too. It sure feels like a possibility, and in that case none of this will matter except it will be the same people doing the opening/new strategy, so it’ll be worth it to know them either way. You might as well know who you’re going to be cursing out in June. Workshop those puns now!
I’m probably repeating a lot of other people, but figuring out the back end of the rotation intrigues me the most. Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodriguez should be a solid top two, but I’ve got questions about everybody behind them. Nathan Eovaldi wasn’t great even when he was healthy last season and he can’t lean on 2018 forever. Martín Pérez can eat up innings, but he’s been a below-average pitcher in each of the last two seasons. Then there’s the laundry list of guys fighting for the fifth spot. I wonder if anyone will become a frontrunner or if the Sox will just be holding auditions all season.
I am going to buck the trend a little bit and actually go with the top of the rotation, and specifically Chris Sale. I don’t disagree that the back end of the rotation is the biggest question to figure out this spring, but it’s also not a particularly fun battle. Plus, I think Ryan Weber is pretty clearly the favorite considering A) he’s been mentioned by name the most and B) he’s out of options. With Sale, though, I am interested in simply seeing what he looks like and how they push him this spring. Obviously he did not do what most of us expected in 2019, and that was in large part blamed on an abnormal spring. I’m curious to see if they get him back on a regular schedule, and then if said regular schedule has him performing up to snuff once the real baseball starts. Plus, I’m looking forward to seeing some whiffs on his slider.
Baseball fans have been spoiled by an overflow of talented youth that has invaded the game over the decade. Expectations have risen to match those expectations, but it’s important to remember that Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Carlos Correa aren’t the norm. Andrew Benintendi is. This will only be his age-25 season and around when we should expect him to start lighting it up. He’s shown an good feel for hitting at times, but hasn’t fully tapped into the potential he showed at Arkansas or in the minors. I know there’s more power in there, too. So it’ll be fun to watch for any swing changes with him this spring and any results that follow.
With most major positions on the roster set I’ve set my gaze to first base. The Red Sox brought back Mitch Moreland, but most people now view him as a part-time player. The pluses of bringing back Moreland lie in the fact that he is a stable defensive presence, he has pop in his bat, and he has proven himself a leader who is willing to work with the young talent on the roster. The young talent is where this position gets interesting. Michael Chavis should get some time this season both at second base, splitting time with José Peraza, and at first base splitting time with Moreland.
This all seems pretty straightforward until we throw Bobby Dalbec into the mix, who could make the team out of camp due to Alex Verdugo’s back injury. If that is the case it will be fascinating to see if Moreland looks too old, if Chavis can finally catch up to the fastball, and if Dalbec can make enough contact. All three players have massive questions, all three could be instrumental to the success of the team this year. On talent alone it is my hope that Dalbec breaks camp with the team and plays so well that position becomes his sooner rather than later. Then next winter we can start wondering when young Tristan Casas will dethrone Dalbec.