We’re less than a week away from the Boston Red Sox’s 2019 season opener, and the defending World Series champions only have a few questions to answer before then.
The decisions the Red Sox make now could have ramifications down the road, though, so let’s take one final crack at predicting Boston’s Opening Day roster.
Keep in mind: the Red Sox begin their title defense with four games against the Mariners in Seattle, beginning next Thursday, March 28. They’ll then travel to Oakland for four games against the Athletics and to Arizona for three games against the Diamondbacks before returning to Fenway Park for their home opener on Tuesday, April 9.
Now, let’s get to the projections.
Starters (5): Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, Nathan Eovaldi, Eduardo Rodriguez
Pretty straightforward. The Red Sox will use a sixth starter — likely either Brian Johnson or Hector Velazquez (more on them in a minute) — for the final game of their 11-game, season-opening road trip, but Boston’s usual starting rotation will consist of the aforementioned group, with Sale leading the way, barring a last-minute turn of events.
Relievers (8): Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, Heath Hembree, Brandon Workman, Tyler Thornburg, Brian Johnson, Marcus Walden, Colten Brewer
Barnes is a lock. So is Brasier, assuming everything’s peachy with the toe infection he battled early in spring training. They could compete to replace Craig Kimbrel as Boston’s closer.
Hembree, Workman and Johnson, meanwhile, are out of minor league options, suggesting they’ll probably break camp with the Red Sox, who would be wise to keep as many viable bullpen candidates as possible in the organization to begin the season. After all, even the best bullpens can change throughout a 162-game schedule. Boston shouldn’t be in a rush to cut bait with any of those guys.
The Red Sox can release Thornburg by Monday and save $1.75 million. But that seems unlikely given his upside, the confidence manager Alex Cora and president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski have expressed in him and the price Boston paid to acquire the right-hander from the Milwaukee Brewers in December 2016. We’ll give him a nod here.
That leaves us with two open spots, assuming the Red Sox follow through with carrying 13 pitchers (five starters plus eight relievers). There are cases to be made for Darwinzon Hernandez, Bobby Poyner, Jenrry Mejia and Velazquez, but we’re rounding out Boston’s ‘pen with Walden and Brewer.
There’s some debate as to whether Hernandez’s long-term future resides in the rotation or the bullpen. Keeping him as a big league reliever now rather than grooming him as a starter in the minors to begin the season seems short-sighted, especially since the Red Sox always could reverse course and call upon the 22-year-old later in the season. Hernandez only has pitched in five games above Single-A.
Velazquez was a very valuable piece last season and, as mentioned, is a candidate to start Boston’s 11th game of this season. But we just can’t overlook his spring struggles in putting together the Red Sox’s 25-man squad for Opening Day. Just like we can’t overlook Mejia’s overall track record — signed with Boston in January after his lifetime ban for three positive PED tests was lifted and reported to minor league camp — in assembling the initial bullpen puzzle.
Poyner would give Boston another left-hander — Johnson is the only southpaw in the above group — so it wouldn’t be shocking to see him sneak in if the Red Sox feel strongly about Walden or Brewer but not both. Those righties seem to be on equal footing, though. Why not keep both and let the first few weeks dictate who sticks in The Show?
Outfielders (4): Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr., J.D. Martinez
This outfield group is real. And it’s amazing.
Infielders (6): Mitch Moreland, Steve Pearce, Eduardo Nunez, Brock Holt, Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers
Dustin Pedroia, who’s coming off a knee injury, will join the Red Sox at some point — maybe as early as Boston’s home opener on April 9 — but the 35-year-old won’t be available to start the season.
Pearce is battling a left calf injury. That could throw a wrench into the plans — perhaps paving the way for Boston to carry all three catchers to begin the season? — but we’ll assume full health for now.
Catchers (2): Christian Vazquez, Blake Swihart
Speaking of the backstops…
The Red Sox are well aware of their roster crunch, which could require them to trade a catcher before Opening Day. Vazquez probably isn’t going anywhere, especially given the contract extension he signed last March, so the decision likely comes down to Swihart or Leon.
Swihart, a former top prospect, has a higher ceiling and stuck with Boston through all of last season despite being out of minor league options. He’s also under team control through 2022, whereas Leon can become a free agent after the 2020 season. Swihart turns 27 in April. Leon is 30.
It’s clear the Red Sox have several pitchers, including Sale and Porcello, who love throwing to Leon, so maybe Boston will stay the course with last season’s primary catching tandem. Leon has been the subject of trade rumors in recent days, though, and Swihart’s continued development behind the dish should be enough to warrant serious consideration as Vazquez’s partner in crime moving forward.