We are a handful of games into spring training, which means we are right in that sweep spot on the calendar in which the novelty of baseball being back has almost worn off but nothing that has happened matters in terms of analysis. Before March 26, Boston has to parse this roster down to 26 players, although most of those spots are basically a foregone conclusion. Barring injury, there are only a few spots truly up for grabs.
Among those fighting for spots, as is the case in every camp every year, as the non-roster invitees. Those are, of course, the players who are in big league camp but not on the 40-man roster. Some of those guys have no real chance at making the roster and are just up there for experience or to provide innings/at bats or other reasons. Those are your Jarren Durans, Bryan Matas, Rusney Castillos, etc. Then, there are the players legitimately fighting for a job. In the latter category, I picked the ten players who I think could maybe feasibly have a chance at making it on Opening Day and ranked them. Who doesn’t like a goodol’ fashioned ranking, right? They’re listed in reverse chronological order.
Also ,note that this is not a ranking of players who will make the biggest impact on the season. There are players who could come up later in the year and make a legitimate impact. That doesn’t matter here. I’m strictly talking about making the team out of camp.
10. Josh Ockimey, 1B
Look, the bottom of this list are going to be longshots. That’s why they’re on the bottom of the list. Still, consider if Mitch Moreland suffers an injury (knock on wood). Suddenly, they are left with Michael Chavis as their likely everyday first baseman with Bobby Dalbec potentially being up for some time, too. That not only rushes the latter probably more quickly than they’d like, but also forces someone like José Peraza into more playing time than one would like. Maybe they’d call up Ockimey if he has a big spring to give him some of the time at first against righties. Certainly not a strict platoon, but some of the time. It’s very unlikely, but it’s not impossible.
9. Mike Kickham, RHP
Kickham is a bit of an unknown here, and again we’re talking about a super longshot here. He is a professional veteran, though, and had some highs last year in Triple-A for the Marlins. He would need to have a big spring, and he got off to a rough start on Tuesday, but there’s always a pitcher or two who put themselves on the map out of nowhere in camp a la Marcus Walden a couple years ago.
8. R.J. Alvarez, RHP
This is essentially the same argument as Kickham’s, but his stuff is a little better.
7. César Puello, OF
Okay, now we’re getting to the guys who I think have a little more of a legitimate chance. Puello’s have been hurt by the fact that he’s late to camp due to visa issues, but it’s still early enough where it shouldn’t hurt too much. With Alex Verdugo out to start the year, the Red Sox are without a real bench outfield option beyond J.D. Martinez and Tzu-Wei Lin, both of whom are better in other spots. If the infield options fighting for the end of the bench all struggle in camp and Puello plays well, perhaps his ability to really play the outfield and keep the others in their preferred positions would be the play from the Red Sox.
6. Tanner Houck, RHP
Houck fits neatly in the category I was discussing above of players who could come up later in the year and make an impact, but I his chances of making the Opening Day roster are slimmer. He is certainly helped by the fact that the Red Sox literally don’t have a fifth starter and that he is the option with the most upside. His lack of experience at Triple-A — he’s mostly pitched out of the bullpen at that level over his 25 innings — as well as the questions of if he’s even a starter are more likely to hold him back. My guess is that he will start the year in Pawtucket, largely to answer that starter or reliever question, and come up later to stay. That said, the fifth starter spot is open enough that this could end up being interesting.
5. Bobby Poyner, LHP
Poyner is not as good as Houck, but he has major-league experience, is a lefty and is a reliever. All of that makes him an easier Opening Day call-up. He probably needs some injuries, but like the fifth starter spot, the race for the last couple bullpen slots is wide open in its own right. Poyner could get hot in March and get his way back into the mix.
4. Marco Hernández, INF
Okay, now we’re cooking with gas. The top four, I think, all have very legitimate chances here, maybe even approaching 50 percent. Hernández had a weird offseason in which he was non-tendered, then re-signed, then designated for assignment, then went unclaimed on waivers, then was outrighted to Pawtucket. The battle for the end of the bench likely includes Hernández, Lin, Dalbec and Jonathan Arauz fighting for two spots. Last season certainly brought up some fair doubts about Hernández at this point, but would anyone really be surprised if Hernández beat out two of and of those three competitors? I know I wouldn’t be.
3. Trevor Hildenberger, RHP
Hildenberger was a potential closer not too long ago and a key cog in the Twins bullpen. He’s suffered injuries and has underperformed since then, but he’s trying to make a comeback here. There are situations like this every spring, and unfortunately for the most part they don’t work out. For guys like Hildenberger, relievers with a short track record and injury issues, it’s hard to get back after you fall off. A not insignificant number do make it back, though. I mentioned the bullpen openings before, and Hildenberger has just as much of a chance to win one of those spots with a good spring as anyone else fighting for those spots. For whatever it’s worth, my favorites heading into spring were Austin Brice and Ryan Brasier.
2. Jonathan Lucroy, C
Lucroy is one of the newest members of Red Sox camp and he has yet to play a game, but he seems to be gaining some momentum among beat writers, which is never something that should be ignored. They are plugged in. It is also worth noting that he has been catching Chris Sale in side sessions, though that could also be simply because neither of them are playing in actual games right now. If he catches Sale’s first game, that would be eye-opening. I still think Kevin Plawecki, who signed a major-league deal this winter, is the favorite here, but Lucroy has the track record (though obviously not recent), name value and he knows Ron Roenicke well.
1. Brian Johnson, LHP
Ryan Weber seems to be the pretty clear favorite right now for the fifth starter spot, though that is far, far from a sure thing. A couple bad spring outings will likely change that standing. I don’t know that it would take all that long to convince me Johnson is second, even despite being taken off the 40-man this past winter. Johnson has the best track record in the majors of these competitors (not a high bar, of course), the Red Sox have seen him be solid in that role before and he is off to a good start very early in camp. I’ve spent the last 12 hours since I started thinking of these rankings that Johnson is only an injury to one of the top four starters and/or a couple bad Weber outings from being back on the roster.