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Five players for whom this spring training is most important

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It may not result in a major-league assignment, but it can still be important.

Boston Red Sox Spring Training Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Saturday is the final day on the calendar without baseball for a long time, assuming we don’t have another global pandemic. Which, please. Oftentimes spring training is overblown, and I think that’s still going to be the case this year in that fans will take too much away from it. But at the same time, it’s been a long time since we’ve had baseball to really care about here in Boston so we can enjoy spring for what it is — organized baseball.

With that said, the start of the spring training schedule takes on battles in camp start to bubble up. We’ll throw a little cold water on that one because that talk is always overblown. Teams generally don’t make decisions based on the small sample performances in spring training against opponents who are focused more on getting ready for the long season than winning individual games. Other factors like track record and minor-league options play much bigger roles. Even with that being the case, players can still make an impression in camp that can pay off through the year, though. A strong performance from some players may not result in a major-league roster spot out of camp, but it could give them earlier consideration. Or, on the flip side, a slow start in Triple-A would be taken with more alarm if it was paired with a bad spring.

Below we’ll discuss five players (actually six, because I’m a cheater) who fit into this category. They have hopes for a major-league spot, but not all will get there even with a good spring performance. There are other factors at play. But even if they aren’t necessarily fighting for a roster spot, this is a chance to make the all-important good first impression for this season.

Michael Chavis

It wasn’t all that long ago that Chavis was the number one prospect in the organization. Now, some of that was because the farm system was one of the worst in the game, but there was real excitement here. But since his hot start upon his big-league debut, the swing and miss in his game — particularly on high fastballs — have become overwhelming. Now, we are at the point where he is likely on the outside looking in for a bench spot to start the year.

Granted, some of that is because he has a minor-league option and Christian Arroyo does not, which is alluded to above, but it’s not all that. Chavis needs to prove that he can make the necessary adjustments against fastballs. Getting everyday at bats at Triple-A will help, but so will building up some confidence in spring. Speaking for myself, I’m not ready to give up on Chavis yet, but I certainly agree we need to see it and I believe the organization feels that way as well.

Tanner Houck

Unlike Chavis, Hock has shown it recently as the rookie starting pitcher was electric in three starts last season. Similarly to Chavis, though, Houck is on the outside looking in for the rotation because of options, with Nick Pivetta playing the Arroyo role in this case. I will say I’m getting the impression I may be underselling the possibility of him making the roster out of camp, but I still think it’s more likely than not that he does.

The real question for me is whether or not he’d be the first one to get the call in case of an injury in the rotation, or whether they’d go with someone like Matt Andriese. Here is where I think Houck’s spring becomes so important. The flaw in his game right now is not a mystery to most of us. He has not shown the confidence needed in his third pitch to this point, even in that electric run to end last season. If he shows that he is comfortable with the splitter in camp, I think he’ll be first in line in case of injury. If not, I think he’ll start in Triple-A almost no matter what.

Matt Barnes/Adam Ottavino

Here is the aforementioned cheating section. Not only am I cheating here, but I’m also going to contradict my point earlier about camp battles not really existing. I think there is a legitimate battle for the closer spot here between these two. Granted, both will obviously make the roster if healthy, but Alex Cora has said he wants a defined closer and these two are the obvious candidates.

It is hard for me to pick one or the other as being an obvious choice. They both struggled relatively speaking in 2020. They both have tremendous strikeout stuff to go with iffy control. The both have some, but limited, closer experience. My guess is that they’ll go with a hot hand-adjacent methodology through the season, but that means the first shot will go to whoever has the hot hand coming out of camp. Gun to my head, I’d give Barnes the edge starting out, but I think it’s about as close to a dead heat as it gets.

Boston Red Sox Spring Training Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Garrett Whitlock

It seems like since the Red Sox took Whitlock in the Rule 5 Draft this past winter it’s been assumed they will for sure keep him all year. I think I’ve fallen into that trap myself at times. But we should remember how hard it is for Rule 5 draftees to stick on a roster all year. The vast majority do not, with most not even making it to the Opening Day roster. I know the Red Sox successfully kept Jonathan Araúz last year, but we should not discount the effect of the expanded rosters and shortened season. Keeping a player on 30- and 28-man rosters for two months is far different than keeping someone on a 26-man roster for six months.

With that said, I think the Red Sox clearly do like Whitlock and would like to keep him. He just needs to prove he has the goods for it to be worth it. The former Yankees prospect should make the roster as long as he’s not terrible in spring, but that’s a possibility. And if he does have a bad spring, then I think it’ll be a real decision as to whether the Red Sox really want to use one of their bullpen spots on him. Again, I’d still bet on him making it, but it’s not 100 percent.

Jarren Duran

Duran is not going to make the team out of camp. I don’t think. If you asked me even a couple months ago I would have said July at the absolute earliest. But it seems like every day the timeline is potentially getting pushed up. A lot of that is because of him, of course. He thrived at the Alternate Site last summer and then again in Winter Ball. So, no, I don’t think he’ll make the team for Opening Day. But if he kills it in camp and the outfield is as big of an issue as many of us worry it could be, he may not be all that far away. Then again, maybe I’m just getting caught up in the hype machine. It’s been hard not to.