Complete Boston Red Sox 2014 Spring Training Preview
As far as seasons go, the Boston Red Sox's 2013 campaign was alright. It's hard to do better than a World Series championship, after all.
Now comes the hard part, though. It's a new year, and in this new year, the Red Sox will be trying to do something that's not so easy to do: repeat as World Series champions.
But first things first. When Red Sox pitchers and catchers report this Saturday, their spring training will officially be under way. They'll spend the next few weeks adjusting to changes, making key decisions and generally doing what they have to do to get ready for 2014.
If you'll follow me this way, we'll get up to speed on everything worth knowing about the Red Sox as they head into spring training.
Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.
Retained: 1B Mike Napoli
Key Additions: C A.J. Pierzynski, RHP Edward Mujica, CF Grady Sizemore, INF Jonathan Herrera, RHP Burke Badenhop, LHP Jose Mijares
Key Departures: CF Jacoby Ellsbury, C Jarrod Saltalamacchia, LHP Franklin Morales, LHP Matt Thornton, SS Stephen Drew, RHP Joel Hanrahan, RHP Andrew Bailey
*Still free agents.
Losing Ellsbury, however, was a clear case of the Red Sox sticking to their guns.
“We still value the draft picks enormously and our behavior has shown that we still prefer shorter- to longer-term contracts and a presumption against really long-term contracts," Boston CEO Larry Lucchino told the Boston Globe. "A lot of things we did last year proved to be successful at least in the short term, and I think we’ll behave accordingly going forward.”
To the extent of avoiding long-term commitments, it was mission accomplished. Mike Napoli and Edward Mujica were both given two-year deals, but nobody else was signed for more than a year. And though they stuck to short-term commitments, the Red Sox were still able to fill key holes.
A.J. Pierzynski should be a solid replacement for Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who likely overachieved in 2013 with a .372 BABIP. After posting a 2.78 ERA and a 9.2 K/BB in 2013, Mujica more than makes up for the losses of Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey. Jonathan Herrera, Burke Badenhop, Jose Mijares and, if healthy, Grady Sizemore all have a shot to bolster Boston's depth.
Replacing Ellsbury and Stephen Drew, who combined for 9.2 fWAR in 2013, will be less simple. But as we'll discuss later, Boston has some intriguing in-house candidates who might be up to the task.
Regarding the key health concerns the Red Sox are facing heading into spring training, the news is good.
Dustin Pedroia and Shane Victorino
Pedroia and Victorino underwent thumb surgeries this winter, Pedroia on his left thumb and Victorino on his right thumb. Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal reported in late January that Pedroia was taking dry swings and that Victorino was close to throwing. So barring any setbacks, both should be fine.
Buchholz missed a chunk of 2013 with a sore shoulder and was less than 100 percent healthy when he labored through Game 4 of the World Series. However, Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reported in January that the right-hander has had a "normal" offseason and should be ready for the spring.
The hard-throwing left-hander's 2013 season came to an early end in July thanks to a left foot injury, but he told Ian Browne of MLB.com in December that his recovery was "going really well" and that he didn't think he'd have to play catch-up in spring training.
The right-hander had thumb surgery in late October, but the Globe's Peter Abraham reports that he was cleared to start throwing in January. He should also be good for spring training.
Boston's new right-hander seemed to have a dead shoulder by the time October rolled around, but he told Jason Mastrodonato of MassLive.com in December that his shoulder is "100 percent fine."
Sizemore's injury history is beyond scary, as he's had seven surgeries since 2009 and has been too hurt to play in either of the last two seasons. His last surgery took place in September of 2012, however, and he was healthy and working out as far back as November, according to Rob Bradford of WEEI.com. There are no guarantees Sizemore can stay healthy, but the Red Sox are taking a worthwhile chance.
Coaching Staff Analysis
John Farrell is still Boston's manager, and he still has his hand-picked coaching staff. Notably:
- Pitching coach: Juan Nieves
- Hitting coach: Greg Colbrunn
- Bench coach: Torey Luvullo
- First base coach: Arnie Beyeler
- Third base coach: Brian Butterfield
All the hype last winter about Farrell being just the man to fix Boston's toxic clubhouse proved to be well-founded, as the vibes were good for the Red Sox from the get-go and stayed good right through the end of the season. With little roster turnover this winter, more of the same should be in order.
But don't overlook the value of Juan Nieves as Boston's pitching coach. The team's ERA went from 4.98 in 2012 to 4.05 in 2013 under his watch, and Farrell would have everyone know it was no accident. Here's what he told the Providence Journal last August:
His message is credible. He’s developed a lot of trust with every pitcher here. He’s extremely consistent with each guy as the individual relationship requires. He epitomizes what a coach is. He’s there countless hours for every guy that is need. They feel his genuineness. I think that’s one of the reasons why they trust him.
Nieves will be working with many of the same pitchers he had in 2013, most of whom are well established as major leaguers. With no getting-to-know-you phase to tackle, his job should be easier in 2014.
To this end, he might have Greg Colbrunn's envy. With the Red Sox poised to start Will Middlebrooks, Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr., Colbrunn has his work cut out for him with three unproven hitters. And considering how Bradley never got on track and Middlebrooks struggled enough to need a minor league devotion last summer, the pressure will be on.
- Daniel Nava, LF (S)
- Shane Victorino, RF (S)
- Dustin Pedroia, 2B (R)
- David Ortiz, DH (L)
- Mike Napoli, 1B (R)
- A.J. Pierzynski, C (L)
- Xander Bogaerts, SS (R)
- Will Middlebrooks, 3B (R)
- Jackie Bradley Jr./Grady Sizemore CF (L)
For the most part, Boston's lineup should look like this:
With the bench looking like this:
- Jonny Gomes, OF (R)
- Mike Carp, 1B/OF (L)
- David Ross, C (R)
- Jonathan Herrera, INF (S)
It's the leadoff spot that's the biggest question mark. With Ellsbury gone, there's no clear answer for who should take his spot.
The reason I have Nava as the primary leadoff man, however, is because it will be a surprise if the job isn't his for the most part. Most pitchers are right-handed, after all, and Nava had an impressive .411 OBP against righties in 2013.
Against lefties, you can expect Victorino to bat leadoff with Pedroia, David Ortiz and Napoli all moving up a spot. Jonny Gomes will spell Nava in left field, most likely in the No. 5 spot, and David Ross will spell Pierzynski, most likely in the No. 8 spot.
The Red Sox will also take advantage of Mike Carp's ability to handle righty pitching (.905 OPS in 2013) by having him spell Napoli at first base on occasion, and he'll also get playing time in left and right field.
Elsewhere, the big names speak for themselves. Pedroia is good for a .300 average. Victorino is coming off an .801 OPS. David Ortiz had a .959 OPS and 30 homers. Napoli was second on the team with 23 homers. Pierzynski's had at least a .720 OPS in three straight seasons.
As for Middlebrooks, Bogaerts and the center field situation...Well, we'll discuss all that in greater depth soon enough.
- Jon Lester (L)
- John Lackey (R)
- Clay Buchholz (R)
- Jake Peavy (R)
- Ryan Dempster (R)/Felix Doubront (L)
Assuming the Red Sox don't add a big-name starter, their 2014 rotation lines up like this:
The top two spots are about as solid as can be. Jon Lester pitched like an ace again down the stretch in 2013, posting a 2.29 ERA in his last 18 starts (including October). John Lackey enjoyed a remarkable return to form, posting a 3.52 ERA and a 4.03 K/BB ratio in 29 starts.
The question marks begin after the two of them. Buchholz once again flashed ace potential with a 1.74 ERA last season, but he was limited to 16 starts in his second injury-shortened season in the last three.
Jake Peavy has had plenty of injury problems of his own and was merely average with a 4.04 ERA in 10 starts in Boston. He looks like a lock for the No. 4 slot for now, but that could change.
Unless Peavy does falter this spring, however, it looks like it will be up to Ryan Dempster and Felix Doubront to battle for the final rotation spot.
Dempster has the big salary ($13.25 million), but he's coming off a modest 4.57 ERA in 2013. Since Doubront is far younger, left-handed and is coming off a 4.32 ERA, the inside track to Boston's No. 5 spot could be his if he shows up to camp in shape—which, granted, is no sure thing given his track record.
Though there are questions to be answered, what the Red Sox have to like is that they have depth. Too much starting pitching never hurt anyone.
Boston's bullpen has a different look than it did last spring, but it's still a really good look:
- Closer: Koji Uehara (R)
- Craig Breslow (L)
- Junichi Tazawa (R)
- Edward Mujica (R)
- Andrew Miller (L)
- Burke Badenhop (R)
- Brandon Workman (R)
- Alex Wilson (R)
- Jose Mijares (L)
All Koji Uehara did in 2013 was this: 1.09 ERA, 11.22 K/BB ratio and 0.56 WHIP in 73 appearances. He turned into one of baseball's elite closers and is poised to return to that role in 2014.
Breslow was Boston's top setup man in 2013 with a 1.81 ERA, and he's a lefty reliever who can get righties out, too (.581 OPS in 2013). Miller is also a righty slayer (.526 OPS in 2013), and he also posted an impressive 14.1 K/9 in 37 appearances last year before his injury.
While Breslow and Miller make for a fine pair of lefty setup men, Mujica and Junichi Tazawa are a fine pair of righty setup men. Tazawa wasn't unhittable in 2013, but the Red Sox would gladly take another 3.16 ERA and 6.00 K/BB. Mujica, meanwhile, is basically a clone of Uehara with a similar fastball-splitter combination and excellent control (0.7 BB/9 in 2013).
It's after the top five arms in Boston's 'pen where things get tricky. Unless the Red Sox decide they're better off having him work as a starter in the minors, Brandon Workman could steal a middle relief role from Badenhop. That's if Alex Wilson doesn't steal it first, and maybe Jose Mijares will make a strong bid to be a true lefty specialist for Farrell to have at his disposal.
Elsewhere, whoever loses the Dempster vs. Doubront bout for the No. 5 spot in the rotation should find himself in the 'pen if a trade doesn't happen.
Prospects to Watch
There's not a whole lot of mystery here, as two Red Sox prospects are set to hog the spotlight this spring: Xander Bogaerts at shortstop in place of Drew and Jackie Bradley Jr. in center field in place of Ellsbury.
Bogaerts has, by far, the higher ceiling of the two. MLB.com has him as the No. 2 overall prospect in baseball heading into 2014, and he certainly looked the part last October with an .893 OPS in 12 games. At 21 years old, Bogaerts could emerge as MLB's next great young player in 2014, more than making up for the loss of the veteran Drew in the process.
Bradley's much more of a question mark as Ellsbury's replacement, as he only managed a .617 OPS across 107 major league plate appearances last season. That's not a definitive sample size, but it's just big enough to make it fair to wonder if he's ready for everyday action yet.
One thing that can be said in Bradley's defense, however, is that his glove is absolutely ready for the majors. ESPN's Keith Law (subscription required) slapped the "plus-plus" label on Bradley's defense, and that kind of defense would certainly replace one thing the Red Sox have lost with Ellsbury joining their biggest rival.
Of course, it's not just Bogaerts and Bradley fans should have their eyes on. Boston's farm system is one of the best there is, and players that could make an impact in 2014 include right-handers Rubby de la Rosa, Allen Webster, Anthony Ranaudo and Matt Barnes, left-hander Henry Owens and potentially third baseman Garin Cecchini as well.
Bogaerts and Bradley are two obvious picks for breakouts as the former has the potential to be a slugging shortstop (a rare breed indeed) and the latter could be a slick-fielding, solid-hitting center fielder.
But don't overlook two other young guys on Boston's roster: Middlebrooks and Doubront.
Middlebrooks struggled with a bad sophomore slump in 2013, but he did look like a different hitter after returning from the minors in August. He posted an .805 OPS and hit eight home runs in 41 games, and he also lowered his strikeout rate to a more reasonable 24.1 percent. It had been 27.8 before his demotion.
Doubront, meanwhile, was quietly one of Boston's better pitchers down the stretch in 2013. In 22 starts between mid-May and late September, he had a 3.50 ERA over 128.2 innings. There was some good luck at work (Doubront's K/BB was under 2.0), but his stuff did look better than it had earlier in the season.
The 2014 season will be the third time around the block for both Middlebrooks and Doubront. After showing well down the stretch in 2013, maybe they'll take the next step in 2014.
Position Battle Predictions
With the Red Sox poised to go with a number of platoons and their rotation and bullpen largely set, they head into camp with really only a couple position battles to figure out.
Center Field: Jackie Bradley Jr. vs. Grady Sizemore
The Sizemore signing was not a depth maneuver. A nonsensical platoon of two lefty swingers is not happening, and Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal warned not to count Sizemore out:
If Sizemore has his old bat speed and his old foot speed and looks anything like the player he was from 2005-08, he'll be the center fielder. That player was one of the best in the game.
MacPherson had a point...But it's also hard to see Sizemore panning out. He hasn't played in two years, and asking him to play center field on a daily basis is asking a lot of a guy with his injury history.
Besides which, let's remember that Bradley slashed .419/.507/.613 last spring. He's shown he can handle spring pitching. If he can do it again, the job will be his.
No. 5 Spot: Ryan Dempster vs. Felix Doubront
Would the Red Sox deny a guy set to make $13.25 million a chance to pitch out of their rotation?
I think it will depend on what sort of shape Doubront shows up in. If he shows up in the same sort of shape he was in last spring, it's easy to see him quickly falling out of favor and either ending up in the bullpen or on the block.
However, Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald noted that the Red Sox have been watching Doubront's conditioning like a hawk this winter. It's a solid bet that the lefty will show up in shape, in which case the Red Sox could be treated to the same pitching they got down the stretch in 2013.
I'll go out on a limb and guess that's what will happen.
The Final Bullpen Spot: Royal Rumble
Assuming the Red Sox set aside a spot in the bullpen for Dempster or Doubront, and assuming Uehara, Breslow, Miller, Tazawa and Mujica are all locked into relief roles, then the Red Sox are going to have 11 pitchers set to go for Opening Day.
That leaves one bullpen spot up for grabs between Badenhop, Workman, Wilson and Mijares.
Mijares can probably be counted out with two lefties in Breslow and Miller already set in stone. And with Wilson having posted an ugly 4.6 BB/9 in the majors in 2013 and Workman being a candidate to wait in the wings as a starter, I figure Badenhop is likely the man to beat for the job.