We’re a week into spring training games, but that’s still early enough where players are still sort of dipping their toes into the pool that is the baseball season and things haven’t really gotten underway. There is still a lot of camp left and there will be plenty more that happens. So, with that in mind, we are going to predict how we’ll be feeling when spring training is over and Opening Day gets here. This week’s staff roundtable question: “Who will be the story of camp?” The restriction given was that people couldn’t pick the regulars or the guys we knew were going to play a role on this team. So, none of the top ten or so position players, none of the four (now three) starters who will make rotation out of camp, and none of the five bullpen guys assumed to make the roster. Everyone else is fair game.
One of my personal favorite players in the Red Sox farm system, lefty first-basemen Josh Ockimey, is my pick for the non-star story of Spring Training. Ockimey has been stellar since Low-A ball in 2015, particularly thriving off his power. This past year he mashed 25 HR’s in AAA, and finished with an ISO of .255. However, Ockimey’s weakness has always been his splits. He’s struggled significantly against lefties, with just a .535 OPS against them in 2019. But against righties, he’s been a superstar, with an OPS of .898. While this limits him, Ockimey has the potential to take on a Mitch Moreland-like platoon role. With Rafael Devers blocking Bobby Dalbec at 3rd base, I would love to see Ockimey and Dalbec utilized as a righty-lefty duo at 1st base at some point in 2020 or 2021.
I wanted to repeat my pick from last week and say Jose Peraza, but he’s going to have such a huge impact he can’t be considered a non-star. (I mean, I hope) That said, the non-star I’m watching in camp is someone who could be his competition: Marco Hernandez.
Hernandez started his MLB career way back in 2016 at the age of 23, got a cup of coffee in 2017, missed all of 2018 with injuries, and when he returned in 2019 showed just enough to keep himself in the conversation for a utility-plus role. Finally over a series of shoulder injuries, Hernandez can handles second and third without trouble and plays a decent shortstop too, in something larger than a pinch but smaller than a full-time replacement. Can you say Brock Holt 2.0?
For Hernandez, the ceiling is claiming a significant chunk of the playing time at second base and the floor is being the 26th man sneaking in at bats where they come. But now that he’s back from the injuries, he’s already conquered the hardest part.
I think there are two different answers for this question dependent on what we call a star.
My first answer is Jeter Downs. He’s the guy everyone is watching as the most tangible asset received for Mookie Betts with Verdugo on the shelf, even though Connor Wong has had success early in camp.
My second answer would be Bryan Mata. I’m still convinced he’s a reliever at this point but the Red Sox lack a fifth starter, and Mata is in theory an SP. He needs more seasoning, but eyes will be on him to see if he can force the issue and make his case for the slot or for a midseason call up.
As a bonus aside, I would name Jarren Duran as an honorable mention. I feel he’s often forgotten when talking about the best guys in the system, but I’ve been impressed with everything early, and think he’s a lot closer than I initially thought. You could consider him in this slot too, even if he’s not as high profile as Downs or as likely to see significant time this season as Mata.
Given the current state of the Red Sox rotation coming into camp, and made worse by the fact that Chris Sale will now miss about the first two weeks of the regular season, Tanner Houck has a chance as a non-roster invitee to make a splash. The first question you might ask yourself is, “Is he a starter or is he a reliever?” then you might ask yourself, “does it matter?”. If the Red Sox deploy the opener tactic for the 5th, or to start the season even the 4th starter, he could be that guy to set the table. He could also be the guy that follows the opener and tosses a few innings to as the bridge to the bullpen. Or, if you’re feeling squirrely, he could be the spot starter.
Last season, Houck split time between Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket totaling 107.2 innings across 17 starts and 16 relief appearances. Most of his starts (15) came at the Double-A level, while he had been mostly converted to a reliever at Pawtucket. He had more success as a reliever and versus more difficult competition so that might be more telling about his future role at the big league level. However, over the winter at the Premier 12 tournament in Japan, Houck appeared in two games as a starter covering 9.1 innings and tallying 11 strikeouts while only issuing 2 walks.
While what his particular role might be is still up in the air, there are many holes that need filling in the Red Sox bullpen and rotation so with some strong performances in camp he could easily force his way into one of them. Currently, there is a jumble of names that could vie for those roles but none of them stand out, so even though Houck isn’t currently on the 40-man, it is not difficult to imagine room being made for him. Given the state of the roster, there is probably no better chance than now to make a mark, so I’m looking for us to be talking about Houck more as the season draws nearer.
Yoan Aybar isn’t going to break camp and head to Boston, but I think he could turn some heads this spring. He is a pitcher now but was formerly an outfield prospect until 2018. His raw numbers are nothing spectacular (4.45 ERA in 85 minor league innings), but he can certainly strike batters out. He had 70 across 56 ⅔ innings last year and SoxProspects.com says that he “shows premium velocity.” If he starts lighting up radar guns, he’ll get more than a few conversations started. The early returns have fallen in line with his previous work, as he has four strikeouts and two earned runs allowed in two innings entering Thursday.
I’m not going to surprise anyone with my pick. It’s Jarren Duran SZN, as you all know. This feels a little bit like cheating because he’s been one of the big standouts in this first week of camp, but I would’ve picked him even if no games had been played to this point. Duran just checks all of the boxes for Story of Spring. He’s a top prospect relative to the rest of the system. He’s close enough to the majors that he’s entering the consciousness but far enough away that there isn’t pressure for him to make the roster right now. He makes contact. And, most importantly, he flies. Whether you think the skillset plays long-term or not, he is extremely fun to watch, and after a long winter most of us just want to watch fun baseball players do cool stuff.
It has to be none other than former All-Star Jonathan Lucroy. At the start of the spring it seemed fairly obvious that the backup catcher would be Kevin Plawecki. Plawecki was brought in months earlier as a cheaper alternative, albeit with great receiving skills, to Sandy Leon. As spring arrived and Ron Roenicke was named the manager of this team he convinced free agent Jonathan Lucroy to come and essentially try out with the club. This tryout as a non-roster invite comes on the heels of Lucroy getting a surgical procedure to fix a herniated disk in his neck. This is a HUGE deal. Hitting a major league baseball and catching semi-regularly is hard enough to do when your neck isn’t constantly in pain when you move it in certain directions. Now reporting to be feeling very healthy I believe Lucroy is nearly a lock to make the team over Plawecki. Simply put, he has more upside than Plawecki along with more experience handling a pitching staff. Lucroy also has the benefit of being a former star who has played under Roenicke before and can be a steadying voice in the clubhouse and someone the skipper can trust to get his message across to the team. I’m rooting for him. It’s a great comeback story.
My favorite teacher in elementary school was from New York, and in between discussing the chemical properties of various solids he’d tell stories about growing up in the city and how he became a teacher. He swore that on the day he was set to take his teaching exam, decades ago, he hadn’t studied a lick and was prepared to find another profession when he flipped over his test to reveal he had been erroneously given the answer key. I don’t know the mechanics of what happened next except he obviously passed the test and became a great teacher, so who even cares if the story is true? Not me! Except for that it reminds me greatly of this assignment. On Monday I wouldn’t have been able to tell you for certain that Jarren Duran was the non-star player I was watching in camp, but over the course of a few days you can see Boston’s post-Jackie Bradley Jr. centerfielder begin rounding into form. The speed we know about, but the power — an opposite field no-doubter! — is potentially game-changing for an outfield that’s, uh, suddenly short on it. Duran’s speed more or less ensures he’ll be around the team perhaps even before the bat can play every day on its own, and even a week’s worth of flair at the plate make him my player to watch this spring.