So much has changed, yet so much has stayed the same.
The Boston Red Sox enter 2017 with a few very noticeable differences: left-handed ace Chris Sale, hard-throwing reliever Tyler Thornburg and Gold Glove first baseman Mitch Moreland all have joined the club, while one of the greatest players in franchise history has departed it.
But apart from those headline-grabbers, the essential core of this team remains intact. Dustin Pedroia is back for his 12th season with Boston, Xander Bogaerts still is holding it down at shortstop while Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi make up a talented young outfield.
Of course, there still are plenty of questions to be answered before Opening Day. With the Red Sox holding their first team spring training workout Friday, let’s fast forward a bit and predict what Boston’s 25-man roster will look like when it faces the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 3.
Mitch Moreland, Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts, Pablo Sandoval, Brock Holt, Marco Hernandez
The Red Sox are solid up the middle, but the corners are a different story. While Sandoval has the inside track on the starting third base job by virtue Travis Shaw’s departure, he enters 2017 with a ton to prove after two dismal seasons in Boston. Holt, the team’s super utility man, could steal reps from Sandoval if he scuffles, and the club likely will Hernandez around to apply more pressure on the slimmed-down veteran.
Moreland, a left-handed bat, is expected to start at first base against right-handed pitching, allowing Hanley Ramirez to become an everyday designated hitter. Red Sox manager John Farrell has said Ramirez will play first with a lefty on the mound, though.
Bogaerts and Pedroia once again have their respective positions of shortstop and second base locked down. Pedroia will turn 34 in August, though, so Farrell could try to talk him into sitting a few games here and there. Hernandez has experience at second base, while Josh Rutledge likely will begin the season in Triple-A Pawtucket as another depth option.
Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Andrew Benintendi, Chris Young
It’s been a while since the Red Sox’s outfield was this set in stone. Blame Benintendi, who shot up from Double-A last August and staked his claim as the team’s starting left fielder. The 22-year-old rookie will carry that job into 2017, with Bradley manning center field and Betts playing right field.
The right-handed Young will be first off the bench should anyone need a blow, especially against left-handed pitching. Farrell revealed his plans to get Benintendi reps in center field when Bradley needs a rest, with Young taking over in left. Holt also could enter the fray as a backup option, perhaps to spell Betts in right.
Sandy Leon, Christian Vazquez
It’s unlikely the Red Sox take three catchers into Opening Day, which means there will be an odd man out behind the dish. We’re going with Blake Swihart, since he still has minor league options remaining on his contract and wouldn’t be exposed to waivers if he began the season in Triple-A, unlike Leon and Vazquez.
Leon is the incumbent starter thanks to his strong 2016 at the plate, but Vazquez could make a serious push for that job in spring training.
DESIGNATED HITTER (1)
David Ortiz Hanley Ramirez
This looks weird, huh? For the first time since 2003, there’s uncertainty at the DH spot. Ramirez is the favorite to take the torch from his fellow countryman, but Moreland could slide in here, as could Sandoval if his third base defense suffers or the Red Sox want to ease him into action.
None of these players are Big Papi, but Boston might as well start getting used to that.
STARTING ROTATION (5)
Chris Sale, Rick Porcello, David Price, Steven Wright, Eduardo Rodriguez
That Sale is the expected Opening Day starter ahead of last year’s American League Cy Young winner and a five-time All-Star is a testament to the strength of the Red Sox’s new pitching trio. The right-handed Porcello likely will be the No. 2 starter to break up lefties Sale and Price.
After that, it’s anyone’s guess. Wright, Rodriguez and Drew Pomeranz will battle it out for the final two spots, but with all three nursing injuries, it could come down to whoever’s healthiest on Opening Day.
Health issues aside, Pomeranz might find himself in the bullpen if the 23-year-old Rodriguez and the All-Star knuckleballer Wright can get their acts together. But the back end of this rotation could be quite fluid.
Craig Kimbrel, Tyler Thornburg, Joe Kelly, Matt Barnes, Robbie Ross Jr., Fernando Abad, Heath Hembree
Kimbrel will be expected to set the tone after an up-and-down season as Boston’s closer in 2016. The newly acquired Thornburg gives the Red Sox a solid new eighth-inning option, but Kelly’s strong finish to 2016 suggests he could earn a late-inning role this season, too.
The bridge innings figure to be occupied by two right-handers (Barnes and Hembree) and two southpaws (Ross and Abad), whom Farrell can mix and match depending on the situation. Abad is on thin ice after his rough 2016 stint with the Sox, though, and lefty Robby Scott could jump up from Triple-A to take his job before long.
The bullpen shuffle will get more interesting in June when setup man Carson Smith is expected to return from Tommy John surgery. Right-hander Brandon Workman also could come back from the dead to work his way into this unit.
Thumbnail photo via Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports Images