Spring training might feel a little toned down this year, with the whole COVID-19 pandemic and everything.
But the next month and a half still could go a long way toward determining each team’s success, or lack thereof, for the 2021 Major League Baseball season.
Take the Boston Red Sox, for instance.
While it obviously doesn’t matter how many Grapefruit League victories the Red Sox pile up once exhibition games begin, the club undoubtedly would like to set a positive tempo down in Fort Myers, Fla., after a disappointing 2020 and an offseason littered with transactions.
Alex Cora is back in the manager’s seat, and there are a bunch of fresh faces joining the mix. Only time will tell whether chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom concocted a winning formula, but the Red Sox can’t waste any time now that players have begun descending upon JetBlue Park. Uncertainty abounds across the roster.
The Red Sox’s first workout for pitchers and catchers was held Thursday, with the first full-squad workout scheduled for Monday. Here are some questions facing Boston as spring training officially begins.
1. What is Chris Sale’s status?
Sale answered that question Thursday while speaking with reporters during a video conference. Kinda. Well, not really.
Of course, Sale explained he feels “great” in his recovery from Tommy John surgery. And the hope obviously is that he’ll contribute at some point in 2021. But Sale, who went under the knife on March 30, isn’t putting a timeline on his return. Which is understandable.
There’s no denying Sale’s importance to Boston’s pitching staff, and his progress this spring is a major storyline to monitor, even if we’re months away from seeing him in game action.
2. What can we expect from Eduardo Rodriguez?
Cora indicated Thursday that it’s all systems go for Rodriguez, who missed the condensed 2020 season with myocarditis, a heart condition stemming from the pitcher’s battle with the coronavirus. And that’s amazing news for E-Rod, both from a personal and a professional standpoint.
Rodriguez, 27, had an excellent 2019 season in which he went 19-6 with a 3.81 ERA, a 3.86 FIP, a 1.33 WHIP and 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings across a career-high 34 starts and 203 1/3 frames. He just might be Boston’s ace in 2021 if all goes well.
That said, it’s imperative that Rodriguez have a productive spring after such a lengthy layoff. And this is especially true given the other question marks in Boston’s rotation.
3. How will the rotation take shape?
Let’s take Sale out of the equation for now and assume Rodriguez, as suggested, will be fine for Opening Day. Here are the other candidates to round out Boston’s rotation to start the year: Nathan Eovaldi, Martin Perez, Garrett Richards, Matt Andriese, Nick Pivetta, Tanner Houck and Garrett Whitlock.
Eovaldi, Perez and Richards seem like locks, which leaves one open spot, provided the Red Sox deploy a traditional five-man rotation.
Andriese (signed as a free agent in December) is a newcomer, Pivetta (acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies in August) is out of minor league options, Houck is a prospect who thrived in three starts down the stretch last season and Whitlock is a wild card after being selected from the New York Yankees in the Rule 5 Draft.
4. Who will handle the ninth inning?
Matt Barnes is the most likely closer option, with Adam Ottavino and Hirokazu Sawamura, among others, representing possible fallback plans once the regular season rolls around.
Or Cora could throw out the traditional closer role and instead opt for a committee approach based on matchups, performance trends and other factors.
We should learn more about Boston’s bullpen construction this spring, and it’s no small matter given last season’s rotation struggles.
5. How will Kiké Hernandez and Marwin Gonzalez be used?
The Red Sox added game-changing defensive versatility this offseason by signing Hernandez and Gonzalez, two super utility players capable of bouncing all around the diamond. It’ll be fascinating to see how Cora works them into the big picture.
Hernandez could serve as Boston’s primary second baseman and occasionally head to the outfield. Gonzalez also could fill any number of roles, with perhaps the most notable being his contributions at first base in tandem with rookie Bobby Dalbec and/or Michael Chavis.
It’s fair to wonder where Christian Arroyo and Jonathan Arauz stand in wake of these moves, with the former perhaps more likely to crack Boston’s Opening Day roster.
That leaves Alex Verdugo, Hunter Renfroe, Franchy Cordero, Hernandez, Gonzalez and, to a lesser extent, designated hitter J.D. Martinez.
Verdugo definitely will hold an everyday role, whether it’s in center field (the spot vacated by Bradley) or in right field (where he performed admirably last season after replacing Mookie Betts). The rest is up for debate, so Cora might want to mix and match over the next several weeks to gain a better feel for what he’s working with on the grass.
7. Can J.D. Martinez bounce back?
2020 was a brutal year for Martinez, who went from being one of MLB’s most feared sluggers to one of its least productive players. Much of the blame could be pinned on the unique nature of the shortened season, which involved new restrictions on in-game video use, a huge aspect of Martinez’s usual workflow.
Fortunately for Martinez, MLB changed its video rules again, and the 33-year-old will have more access to footage in 2021. That could be huge in Martinez’s effort to bounce back, although he remains a question mark this spring as the Red Sox set expectations.
8. Which prospects are on the cusp?
Dalbec and Houck, in particular, made strong impressions last season upon debuting with Boston. The Red Sox might not lean on any prospects to begin 2021, but there inevitably will come a point where upper-level farmhands enter the conversation, and spring training is the perfect opportunity to garner a look at those potential contributors.
A few notable names to consider this spring: Jarren Duran, Jeter Downs, Triston Casas, Ronaldo Hernandez, Connor Wong, Bryan Mata, Connor Seabold.