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Boston Red Sox: 4 Critical Spring Training Items

Ben ShapiroAnalyst IIIFebruary 12, 2012

Boston Red Sox: 4 Critical Spring Training Items

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    It's not unusual for teams to enter Spring Training with questions. 

    Positions, batting order, starters, closers, relievers. Baseball teams feature so many players who play key roles. Some are everyday starters, but many are guys that a casual fan won't notice. That is until that player is needed in a critical situation. It's at that point that the players' success or failure is in the spotlight. 

    The Red Sox of the past few seasons have entered Spring Training with a few questions but this seasons' spring training will be the first one in a while with some real open spots in real critical starting positions. 

    There are going to be players arriving at Fort Myers who are not just looking to get in shape or reconnect with teammates of past while enjoying the warm weather.

    No, this year there will be actual competition, and it won't be against other teams.

    Most teams could care less who wins or looses Spring Training games, but when there's a starting spot in the lineup on the line or a spot in the starting rotation—well that ups the level of competition within the confines of the clubhouse.

    What should Red Sox fans be paying close attention to when pitchers and catchers report in just over six days?  

The Starting Right Field Position

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    When J.D. Drew's contract expired at the conclusion of last season most Red Sox fans probably muttered "good riddance" to themselves. 

    Drew was looked upon as a free agent "bust" over the course of his five years in Boston. That label could be debated, but what can't be debated is that the Red Sox have yet to really acquire a replacement. 

    There are plenty of candidates to replace Drew but no one who has a resume that requires a starting position be just handed to them. 

    Cody Ross, Ryan Sweeney and Darnell McDonald will all vie for the starting role. A platoon rather than a settled day-to-day starter is a distinct possibility. 

    Of course, if one of the aforementioned players has an out-of-this world spring, then perhaps the job will be given to just one guy. 

    It's a fluid situation that's become slightly more intriguing since Carl Crawford has had to undergo wrist surgery and may miss the beginning of the season. If that happens, then there could, for a brief period of time, be two open starting outfield spots and three guys to fill them. 

    Ross, Sweeney and McDonald will all enter this season with limited expectations, but if one of them wins the right field spot outright then the expectations will instantly be boosted. 

    It's one of the most intriguing circumstances for Sox fans in quite sometime. 

Shortstop

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    Exit Marco Scutaro and Jed Lowrie. 

    Enter Nick Punto, Mike Aviles and Jose Iglesias. 

    It's nearly impossible to predict who will be the team's starting shortstop on opening day. 

    Punto has plenty of veteran and postseason experience. Yet throughout his career he's been at his best when coming off the bench in a utility role. He's got a nice glove and is a smart baserunner but his bat is relatively tame and might not pack enough punch to be in the lineup everyday. 

    Mike Aviles has had some good and some not-so-good seasons in the majors. Like Punto, he possess a fair amount of value in utility role. Aviles can play every infield position, and can even play the outfield. His bat has a little more pop than Punto's, but  that's not always the most important part of the shortstop position. 

    There are managers and organizations that will accept less offense in the name of more dependable fielding at the shortstop position. It's hard to know what the Red Sox have in mind when they assess these players and their potential as starters. 

    New manager Bobby Valentine hasn't managed in the major leagues in almost ten years so his personal priorities and philosophy on what makes a player "qualified" to start at shortstop are a bit unknown. 

    With the New York Mets, Valentine was willing to start Rey Ordonez at shortstop. Ordonez was a three-time Gold Glove winner, though. Neither Punto or Aviles have gloves of that caliber. 

    Jose Iglesias might though. Iglesias might just have a better chance of starting than either Punto or Aviles. That's especially true when one considers that both Punto and Aviles still have value to Valentine if they don't start. 

    Iglesias would, in all likelihood, either start or be sent down to the minors. He's only 22 years old, so having him languish on the bench would only stunt his development. Punto and Aviles are known quantities. 

    Iglesias might not be ready for the majors. His offense is highly suspect, yet his glove is probably ready. 

    Valentine is stuck with Rey Ordonez in spite of his lack of offense, and that was on a team with fewer offensive stars than the Red Sox of 2012 will have. 

    Keep an eye on the rookie, especially if he gets some starts right off the bat. 

The Starting Rotation: Spots Four and Five

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    You do hear plenty of rumblings from Red Sox fans and their doubts about the team's prospects fort the upcoming season. 

    Generally though, it's not because the team will be without John Lackey all season and without Daisuke Matzusaka until the summer. 

    In fact, there are probably fans that feel like that may in fact be an advantage for the Red Sox. 

    Is it? Well, that remains to be seen. 

    That's because there are two open spots in the starting rotation, and barring a Roy Oswalt signing this week, the Sox will get to Fort Myers without any real concrete knowledge of who their four or five starters will be. 

    Alfredo Aceves, Daniel Bard, Andrew Miller, Clayton Mortensen, Felix Doubront, Vicente Padilla and maybe even Tim Wakefield could all be in the running for those two spots. 

    Of course, even if those spots are claimed by the time Opening Day rolls around, there's no assurance that the two pitchers that do take the spots coming out of Spring Training will retain them throughout the season. 

    Daniel Bard has the most at stake here. If he's successful as a starter, his value will skyrocket and with his arsenal of pitches, he's the guy the Sox are likely to be the most patient with. 

    With Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon both brought in to anchor the bullpen the Sox have already set up a circumstance in which Bard will be  a starter. He's going to have to earn it though. 

    Bard does seem to be the safest bet to claim a rotation spot as the preseason approaches but what if Melancon or Bailey got hurt or were consistently ineffective? Bard could start or he could set-up or he could even audition for the closer position if needed. 

    The other rotation spot is an even bigger crapshoot. Matsuzaka will return before season's end and unless the starting five is in an outrageously good groove at that point one would expect the Sox to try and get him worked back into the rotation. 

    The bulk of the other pitchers on that list can all conceivably be valuable pitchers coming out of the bullpen in middle or long relief roles. 

    Once again, the presence of a new manager and a new pitching coach both throw an added bit of mystery into how the team will go about handling this situation. Look for Bard to take one of the rotation spots, and either Aceves or Doubront to take the other. 

Catcher

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    It's highly likely that on Opening Day 2012 Jarrod Saltalamacchia will return for another season as the Red Sox starting catcher. 

    Ryan Lavarnway isn't just coming to Spring Training to go through the motions, though.

    The two positions where a team is most likely to accept offensive futility in the name of defensive prowess are catcher and shortstop. That dynamic may give rookie Jose Iglesias an advantage, but it may also put Lavarnway at a disadvantage.

    That's because Lavarnway is known for a pretty good bat, but he's not known as a defensive standout.

    Saltalamacchia isn't a gold glove catcher though. He's also coming off a season in which his offense was pretty inconsistent. A .235 batting average and an on base percentage under .300 aren't things that the Red Sox like to see from any player in their lineup.

    Lavarnway could have a shot at the job if he can show improved defensive ability and some of the offense he flashed in triple A last season where, in just 61 games, he hit 18 home runs and had an ops of over 1.000.  

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