With a winter storm barreling down on New England, it won’t feel much like spring, but the boys of summer return to work Tuesday to take their first step in an attempt to recreate their fall glory from a season ago.
The Boston Red Sox, for the first time since 2014, report to spring training Tuesday as defending World Series champions.
Championship luster aside, there isn’t quite as much intrigue coming out of Fort Myers this year as there was ahead of last season. Alex Cora is now on to his second season, and questions about the club’s core were answered in resounding ways with 108 wins and a fourth title since 2004.
But that doesn’t mean we’re looking at a spring completely devoid of storylines, either.
Here’s what you’ll need to monitor at spring training as the Red Sox get started on their 2019 title defense.
What happens in the bullpen?
This is the biggest, most important question facing the Red Sox this spring. Gone are Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly. The former is a future Hall of Famer who has been unhittable practically his entire career, while the latter enjoyed a wildly successful postseason in which he allowed one earned run in 11 1/3 innings while striking out 13. The two pitchers combined to log 150 innings total in the regular season and playoffs. They were arguably the two most important relievers the Red Sox had. Kelly landed with the Dodgers, and it is possible Kimbrel still returns. But the Red Sox are preparing for life without each, and they haven’t been exactly aggressive in replacing either. It looks like spring training will be an open tryout for the closer role, with relievers like Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier as obvious candidates. If Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg are healthy and stay that way, that would be huge. Colten Brewer, acquired from San Diego, is another interesting option. If all breaks right, the Red Sox will look shrewd. If there are any hiccups, Boston is going to be in an uncomfortable position.
How does the catching position play out?
The Red Sox aren’t expected to carry three catchers on their Opening Day roster. President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has said as much already. The glacial pace of the free-agent market apparently has had an impact on the trade market, too, so it appears Boston will have to wait until camp begins to make a deal. It’s so hard to predict what will happen, too. All three catchers — Sandy Leon, Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart — present value to Boston both on the field and in trade discussions. If Boston can find a team with a catching need and relievers to spare, that seems like the best match, but those are hard pieces to match.
How is Chris Sale handled?
The Red Sox will likely take it easy with the bulked-up Sale who was hampered for most of the second half and into the playoffs by a shoulder injury. The Red Sox have been inauspiciously vague about the details, but there’s reportedly no structural damage, which obviously is good news for Boston. That being said, the Red Sox might be best to bring Sale along slowly this spring. The 29-year-old allowed at least four runs in five starts after Aug. 1 two seasons ago before logging just 29 innings after the All-Star break in 2018. Through two seasons, Boston still hasn’t found the magic elixir to make Sale the same pitcher in August as he is in May.
It’s hard to believe that the Red Sox were able to enjoy as much success as they did last season while getting only 53 2/3 innings out of Steven Wright and just 11 at-bats out of Dustin Pedroia. Both are dealing with stubborn knee injuries, but if either can produce at a level anywhere resembling their past performances, that would be a welcomed addition for an already stacked club.
Keeping an eye on the youngsters.
You may have heard, but the Red Sox farm system isn’t among the best in baseball, which is something that is much more difficult to complain about when the top prospects have been traded away or graduated to the big leagues and helped you win a World Series. But that’s not to say the Red Sox are completely devoid of prospects. Last year’s third-round pick, Durbin Feltman, already has big-league stuff and had a whopping 36 strikeouts in 23 1/3 professional innings after being drafted. If he shows out in spring training, he certainly should be considered for a spot in the bullpen. Bobby Dalbec is another one to watch. The third baseman is considered the Red Sox’s top prospect but struggled to make contact at times in the Arizona Fall League a few months ago. Still, the power is legit (32 home runs last season), and the 23-year-old is already “old” for a prospect. A strong spring could have a big impact on his future, whether it’s with the Red Sox or elsewhere.
Thumbnail photo via Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports Images