5 Things Spring Training Will Tell Us About the Boston Red Sox
Spring training won't assure fans that the Red Sox will win. It can't prove that the starting rotation will recover, that John Farrell has all the answers or that everyone will stay healthy.
But it does serve as a window into the 2013 season and what might be.
What happens in spring training won't stay in Fort Myers. The team will head back up to Boston and continue to build on the foundation created in Florida. Then the real work begins.
But first, here are five things we'll learn about the Red Sox in spring training. Depending on the results, fans can then decide whether or not they'll allow themselves to entertain thoughts of October.
The State of the Starting Rotation
At the close of the 2012 season, the state of the Red Sox starting rotation was completely broken. With the state of the 2013 season quite dependent on the performance of the Sox pitching staff, fans are anxious to see the pieces glued back together—with superglue.
John Lackey miraculously exceeded expectations and showed up to spring training looking like a Slim Jim, but Clay Buchholz suffered a freak hamstring injury on the very first day. Felix Doubront came to Florida out of shape—again—and Jon Lester keeps questioning his potential.
All the while newbie veteran Ryan Dempster remains a case of wait and see.
Luckily, after a strong outing in the Sox' opener against Northeastern on Thursday, Buchholz is feeling better and his stumble is likely just that. But everything else about the Red Sox rotation remains up in the air.
Like, does a fit Lackey equal a good Lackey? Is Lester's confidence beyond repair after last season or will he bounce back to ace status in the way everyone is hoping and praying?
Will Doubront's poor conditioning set him back and lead to more injuries? Will someone else beat him out this spring for the starting role, just as he did last year?
Can Dempster cut it in the American League? How is Bard's control?
Games are starting and soon we'll see these guys throwing. By the end of spring training, fans should have clarity on two things: Who exactly the starting five will be and whether or not they can be counted on.
How John Farrell Handles His Players
These weeks in spring training are crucial for new Red Sox manager John Farrell. This is when he'll set the tone for the season.
Nobody really thinks Farrell could be a worse manager than Bobby Valentine. But not everyone is convinced he'll be all that better either.
It's during spring training that players and fans will get a feeling for Farrell's managerial style and expectations, and decide whether or not it complements or clashes with the Boston (Francona) way of doing things.
As the former Red Sox pitching coach, Farrell enjoys a head start since many of the players are already familiar with him.
But last year, Valentine's debut got off on a bad foot in spring training with the Mike Aviles incident, in which Valentine publicly laid into Aviles during a drill. This left a bad taste in the mouths of several players and things only got worse from there.
The way in which Farrell handles his players has already been put on display thanks to Alfredo Aceves. During live batting practice last week, Aceves oddly decided to lob softballs to the plate, instead of throw at game pace.
It's worth remembering that the troublemaker Aceves was suspended for three games last season following an outburst at Valentine.
Farrell addressed the incident and the outcome looks favorable. He also didn't expand on it in the way Valentine (with a reputation for throwing his players under the bus), might have.
Aceves looked sharp in his Wednesday session and offered up a positive statement about his new manager. "He's the kind of guy who is tough and you receive that toughness. I think it's good for us," he said.
But smooth waters between players and manager don't guarantee success. Sure, it'll help, but the actual impact that Farrell brings to the team won't be fully determined until the regular season arrives.
If the Red Sox Have Chemistry
There was no visible chemistry within the 2012 Red Sox roster and their abysmal record shows it. Not that 2011 was much better.
The Red Sox of 2004 looked like family; like they knew and loved each other. And "idiots" or not, together, they won.
The Red Sox of 2012 had attitudes, egos and a last place finish in their division.
How will this year's cast of old and new blend? Spring training—a time for team bonding—will serves as a strong indicator.
At least you'd hope that seven weeks would be enough.
The return of the beloved Pedro Martinez and Jason Varitek will help build chemistry. David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia can't do it alone, but they're always good for it.
The Red Sox dropped toxins like Valentine and Josh Beckett—plus a giant chunk of payroll. Good guys like Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli and Jonny Gomes (a proven winner) were brought in to help out with the "C" word. Some might argue that character was a bigger factor than stats.
High expectations of leadership are falling on the shoulders of Gomes, who Farrell praised.
He's gonna add a hell of a lot of personality to the clubhouse, I know that, which is consistent with the reputation he has as a player. He's a hard-working guy, loves to play the game, loves to compete and when you talk to players that have been teammates of his, there's nothing but rave reviews about the personality, the teammate that he is and the liveliness he creates in the clubhouse all in a good way. He's a breath of fresh air.
So far, it's been "Camp Tranquility" down in Fort Myers.
But chemistry is just one part of winning. If the pitching is weak, the bats cold and the injuries common, the Red Sox might not be any higher up in their finish than last year.
Though one can argue, at least they'll be likable again.
If Health Is a Concern, Again
Spring training can't guarantee that the Red Sox won't once again be bitten by the injury bug. But it will set a precedent.
In 2012, 26 Red Sox players had 34 disabled list stints, likely the largest factor to blame for last year's disappointment.
The two biggest concerns currently are with Ortiz and Napoli, who are both starting off spring training limited. Ortiz still isn't 100 percent after an Achilles injury he suffered last July, while Napoli was recently diagnosed with a hip condition called avascular necrosis.
Neither are currently running the bases at training.
Both are said to be on track for Opening Day and will appear in games at some point in the coming weeks. But since the two sluggers are expected to contribute to much of the Red Sox' offense this season (not to mention Napoli's slated start at first base), their health is crucial to Red Sox success.
Their progression during the Spring will give fans confidence that they're ready to produce and hopefully stay off the DL.
But the fate of all players is a concern, a hard lesson that Sox fans learned last year. For example, Jacoby Ellsbury, Pedroia and Will Middlebrooks spent time on the DL in 2012.
Buchholz injured himself on day one this spring (again, he's OK now) and Doubront's poor conditioning could lead to injuries as it has in the past. Stephen Drew is coming into Boston off a bad ankle injury that affected him for a full year.
All are projected starters.
At least one move in the right direction is that the Red Sox have reorganized their controversial medical staff.
If the Red Sox roster—starters especially—can hold up until Opening Day, the Red Sox will at the very least be off to a better start than last year.
The one thing fans hope to really grasp from spring training is what the starting lineup will be on Opening Day.
Sure, spring training is for mixing things up, trying different things out, getting the young guys time. But all of that is for the purpose of finding a groove and once it's found, the lineup needs to stick.
Under Valentine's rule, it seemed like the Red Sox lineup and batting order changed daily and without sound reason. And as a result, the Red Sox never found their groove.
This year, consistency will be key to winning—and sanity.
It's pretty clear who the starters will be, though nothing is set in stone. That's why there's spring training.
But the batting order is still up for some debate.
The top three spots will go to Ellsbury, Pedroia and Victorino.
But Farrell has already noted where things could move around, saying Pedroia and Victorino could flip-flop between second and third, and that if Ellsbury starts to produce like he did in 2011, we could see him at No. 3.
With Ortiz and Napoli both easing into games and with their health questionable, the middle of the lineup could experience some serious shaking up.
For the most part, everything is falling into place. As it gets closer to April, fans will hopefully see a consistent nine emerge.
Let's just hope it then stays that way.