Major League Baseball spring training officially is underway, which means Opening Day is right around the corner, and the Boston Red Sox surely have a bad taste in their mouths after how 2022 unfolded.
The good news? A new season presents an opportunity to cleanse the palate, and the work put in over the next several weeks could go a long way toward dictating whether the Red Sox bounce back in 2023.
This year’s spring training is a bit jumbled thanks to the World Baseball Classic. The Red Sox have a bunch of players competing in the international tournament, which begins March 7, and therefore won’t have a full squad in camp for a chunk of their annual stay at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla. But other teams across MLB face the same predicament. It’s simply the tradeoff that comes with the two-week event.
So, who (and what) should Red Sox fans watch for in spring training now that manager Alex Cora and company have arrived at Fenway South to begin preparing for the 2023 season? Let’s take a look.
Most intriguing storyline: The new guys
Cora was quick to point out Sunday that while the Red Sox aren’t happy with their performance from 2022, which culminated with a 78-84 record and a last-place finish in the American League East, there’s been a ton of roster turnover. And that could work in the Red Sox’s favor as they look to turn the page on last season.
“There’s a few things, it starts with we’ve got to be better,” Cora told reporters, when asked about his message to the team before its first full-squad workout. “We finished last (in 2022). We know it. But at the same time, it’s a different group. So, one thing about the group, they really don’t care what happened here last year or the year before or 2018. They can care less about those guys, right? It’s a new season. There’s a lot of good things that are happening right now. We’re trying to connect, of course, in the clubhouse, off the field, all that stuff. It’s going to take time, but so far, so good.”
The Red Sox lost several key contributors this offseason, including Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez, Nathan Eovaldi, Michael Wacha, Rich Hill and Matt Barnes. But they also added an abundance of fresh faces, including Masataka Yoshida, Justin Turner, Adam Duvall, Adalberto Mondesi, Corey Kluber, Kenley Jansen, Chris Martin, Joely Rodríguez and Richard Bleier.
Will the reshuffle lead to improved results? Tough to tell, obviously. But it’ll be fascinating to see how the pieces come together. Boston simply couldn’t afford to remain stagnant after last season.
“It’s a new chapter in the Red Sox,” Cora told reporters Monday. “There are a lot of people that are gone. A lot of new people that are here. We talk about rings and Cy Young Awards and quality individuals and Roberto Clemente awards — we do feel like as an organization we’re in a good spot.”
Player to watch: Masataka Yoshida, OF
Speaking of new guys, Yoshida is the most captivating. Because not only is he a total wild card, given the inherent unpredictability that comes with signing international free agents with zero MLB experience. He’s also extremely important for what the Red Sox are trying to accomplish.
Boston received very little production from the leadoff spot last season, and Yoshida, renowned for his approach and bat-to-ball skills in Japan, could solve that problem. Clearly, there’s an emphasis on stringing together quality at-bats, and that’s seemingly a hallmark of Yoshida’s game.
He’s not a huge power threat. Nor is he a speedster or an elite defender in the outfield. But the Red Sox evidently were confident enough in the 29-year-old’s hit tool to take a nine-figure gamble (a reported five-year, $90 million contract plus a posting fee to the Orix Buffaloes). Yoshida figures to be Boston’s starting left fielder, now and for the next half-decade.
Pitcher to watch: Brayan Bello, RHP
Could go in a number of directions here. There’s uncertainty scattered about Boston’s pitching staff, especially in the rotation. But a breakout from Bello and/or Garrett Whitlock would completely change the equation. And neither scenario should be ruled out.
Whitlock is the more proven commodity, albeit with most of his success thus far coming in relief. But Bello was the Red Sox’s top pitching prospect before debuting in the majors last season. The 23-year-old has electric stuff, and despite some early hiccups, the underlying metrics suggest he was rather unlucky and therefore could be primed for a breakout in 2023.
Prospect to watch: Ceddanne Rafaela, CF/SS
Again, a lot of options here, especially if we’re still considering Triston Casas — Boston’s likely starting first baseman to begin the season — a prospect. Bryan Mata, Brandon Walter and Chris Murphy, for instance, all are starting pitchers who could factor into the Red Sox’s rotation plans at some point in 2023. But Rafaela, 22, is a polarizing prospect — was his 2022 emergence for real? — with an undeniably dynamic skill set. And he’s on the cusp of reaching the majors with a little more seasoning at Triple-A Worcester.
Most importantly, Rafaela is capable of playing plus defense in center field and at shortstop, two up-the-middle positions in flux with Bogaerts leaving in free agency and Trevor Story suffering an elbow injury that’ll likely cost him most of 2023. For now, the Red Sox will lean on Kiké Hernández at shortstop, with Duvall presumably receiving most of the playing time in center field. But that formula could change down the road, for one reason or another, and the new recipe might include the diminutive Rafaela.
Non-roster invitee to watch: Jorge Alfaro, C
The Red Sox didn’t add a catcher to their major league roster this offseason, a risky decision in wake of trading Christian Vázquez to the Houston Astros last August. But they signed Alfaro to a minor league contract, with an invitation to major league spring training, and he’ll likely compete with Connor Wong for the second (right-handed-hitting) backstop role alongside Reese McGuire.
Wong might have the edge, thanks to already being on Boston’s 40-man roster. But Alfaro, with 478 major league games on his résumé, is far more experienced. And Wong has a minor league option remaining. This feels like an open competition.
Dark-horse candidate to make Opening Day roster: Enmanuel Valdez, IF
The Red Sox acquired Valdez, along with Wilyer Abreu, in the aforementioned Vázquez trade. He’s yet to appear in a major league game, and Boston’s recent one-year deal with infielder Yu Chang likely lessens the likelihood of Valdez cracking the Opening Day roster. But Mondesi, acquired from the Kansas City Royals for reliever Josh Taylor, probably won’t be ready to start the season, leaving an opening Valdez theoretically could push for with an eye-opening camp.
Valdez isn’t the greatest defender, which definitely hurts his case, but the 24-year-old has shown an ability to mash at every level thus far. He slashed .296/.376/.542 with 28 home runs and 107 RBIs in 126 games (573 plate appearances) split between Double-A and Triple-A last season.