Dustin Pedroia and the Red Sox are looking to hit the ground running during spring training.
With 2014 spring training now underway, the Boston Red Sox now look to start the practical steps to defending their World Series crown.
In spite of a relatively quiet offseason, Boston appears all but set heading forward into the regular season, thus begging the question—what does this team need to do this spring training?
Most of the questions are already answered. The Red Sox's pitching rotation looks set. The bullpen is deep. Positional battles are few.
Despite spring training being a time for players to acclimate themselves back into everyday playing shape, the preseason also provides ample opportunity for any team to make the adjustments and decisions pertinent to what product will be put on the field during the regular season.
There are plenty of obvious parts to the spring training process.
Which rookies will impress enough to earn recognition as being potentially major league ready? What bona fide roles will each player expected to be on the 25-man roster fill?
Ensuring the Red Sox avoid the worrisome "World Series hangover" is also a significant concern, although anyone associated with the team already knows that.
These questions, and more, will be at the heart of spring training for the Red Sox and every other major league team.
In this slideshow, let us assess five specific points Boston needs to evaluate this spring training with reference to the aforementioned questions.
The development of players like Blake Swihart will be something to watch this spring.
Saying that the Red Sox have a plethora of young talent in their farm system is an understatement.
Some of that talent may have a major league impact in 2014.
This season, the Red Sox have invited 17 non-roster players to spring training—eight of whom have major league experience—and these players do not count against Boston's 40-man roster.
The list, provided by Anna Fogel of NESN.com, also tabs pitcher Matt Barnes and catcher Blake Swihart as players to watch this spring, as they were on the list of top 100 prospects by ESPN's Keith Law (subscription required). One also cannot overlook the development of players like third baseman Garin Cecchini and pitcher Anthony Ranaudo.
Many of these players could figure into Boston's future plans within coming years.
In evaluating the pitching staff, one has to figure that the Red Sox's current rotation is aging. Veteran Ryan Dempster will miss this upcoming season, and Jake Peavy is entering the final year of his current contract.
Jon Lester also falls into that category, but one should also speculate that he stays in Boston after 2014.
John Lackey is also under contract through 2014 with a club option for the following season.
Lastly, there are perennial health concerns with Clay Buchholz and questions regarding the maturation process of Felix Doubront.
With all of that in mind, Boston needs to focus on its young talent on the mound.
Pitchers like Brandon Workman have already shown major league worth. Other talents like Barnes and Henry Owens are also worth keeping an eye on this season, regardless of what level they are pitching at.
Thus, spring training should be a pretty good indication of where Boston's future arms currently lie.
The same could be said of some of the Red Sox's position players. Guys like Cecchini and Swihart may eventually become cornerstones of future Red Sox teams at their respective positions.
These prospects, and others, have afforded Boston the luxury of being able to part ways with some of their longstanding major leaguers this past season. Expect the Red Sox to continue with this trend as long as their prospects continue to develop.
A.J. Pierzynski is tabbed as Boston's No. 1 catcher.
Boston's Nos. 1 and 2 catchers in 2014 will be A.J. Pierzynski and David Ross, respectively, barring any unforeseen circumstances.
Young prospects Blake Swihart and Christian Vazquez are waiting in the fold.
So what will spring training tell us about this position moving forward?
First, let us look at the obvious details. Pierzynski is 37 years old and was signed to a one-year, $8.25 million contract during the offseason. Ross is 36, and his two-year, $6.2 million contract expires after the 2014 season.
Pierzynski is a career .283 hitter whose offensive numbers have not taken much of a significant hit in spite of his age. Ross is as good a No. 2 catcher that any team could ask for.
Yet both could leave Boston following this upcoming season.
As a result, this slide falls into direct correlation with the previous one—keeping close tabs on how both Swihart and Vazquez develop in this year's big league camp. It is the second for Vazquez and Swihart's first, so it will be interesting to see how each performs this spring.
Pending those developments, the Red Sox will have a much clearer picture on what they need to do during the regular season. If signs point to Vazquez and Swihart being major league ready by 2015, Pierzynski and Ross could be a tandem no longer seen in Boston following the season.
Yet if both prospects struggle this spring, and potentially during the regular season, Boston's hand could be forced, much like it was following the departure of Jarrod Saltalamacchia earlier this offseason.
This situation is further described by Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.com who writes:
With the Sox entering the season with 37-year-old veterans A.J. Pierzynski and David Ross behind the plate, there will be an opportunity soon for a young catcher, and the switch-hitting Swihart, who will be in his first big league camp, and Vazquez are the two leading contenders. Swihart is regarded as the better prospect, but Vazquez is closer to the big leagues.
Thus, expect the Red Sox to pay close attention to how these two develop this spring. If there are doubts that they will not be ready in 2015, the team may want to consider extensions for Pierzynski and/or Ross.
But that would mean getting one year older—an attribute not necessarily beneficial to players in their late 30s.
David Ortiz has made it clear that he would like a contract extension.
Call it a gut feeling, but I have always felt that the best time to discuss contract extensions comes no later than spring training.
In spite of what any player may state about extensions not being a distraction, I have always felt that these discussions in the midst of a season can be a source of discontent. While these players are professionals and prepare themselves better than any other athletes in their sport, the uncertainty of contract discussions can assuredly have lingering effects.
So then, what should we make of two of the most notable contract talks that have been at the forefront of Red Sox news in recent months?
Designated hitter David Ortiz and starting pitcher Jon Lester are the two prime Red Sox players who have been associated with these discussions. Both have made it known that they want to stay in Boston, yet the business of baseball can always dictate otherwise.
For Lester, he stated back in January that he would like to stay with the Red Sox after this season, even willing to take less money to remain with the team.
Thus far into spring training, no discussions have taken place, although Lester has indicated that he would not mind if a deal was made per Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe:
We haven’t sat down. I think there’s going to be a time and a place for that. But that’s not really something I’m concerned about right now. I need to worry about getting for the season physically. If it’s something we do get done in spring training, great. If it’s not, I think you have to take everything as it comes. If that involves going through the season still talking or getting it done early, you have to play it by ear.
Ortiz was a little more vocal—at one point indicating on CBS4 Boston (h/t Ian Browne of MLB.com) that if the Red Sox were unwilling to negotiate, that it may be time to move on.
The interview resulted in some backlash, including The Boston Globe's Dan Shaughnessy who called Ortiz's comments "selfish and offensive."
Ortiz has reiterated—rather vociferously—that he feels his comments and desire for a new contract are nothing problematic, as he stated via John Tomase of The Boston Herald:
I don't even know why they're bitching about me talking about contracts. Guys putting up my numbers, they're making $25, $30 million. I'm not asking for that. I'm asking for half of it. And they're still bitching about it? (Expletive) them. I'm tired of hearing them talk (expletive) about me when I talk about my contract. Hey, every time I talk about my contract, I earn it, (expletive). So don't be giving me that (expletive).
Sadly, these discussions and the associated backlash have become a hot topic thus far into the Red Sox's spring training.
The easiest way to put this issue to rest?
Take care of the extension now. Ortiz has earned it.
Xander Bogaerts is all but assured a starting job in 2014.
This question mark could either be an easy one to answer, or it may create some difficulty.
Much of this depends on what happens with shortstop Stephen Drew.
Drew has yet to find a new team in 2014—his stock certainly falling given the conditional first-round draft pick associated with his name if he signs elsewhere.
Yet if Boston moves on without him, the situation for the Red Sox infield on the left side appears much simpler. Rookie standout Xander Bogaerts will get the nod at shortstop, and two-year veteran Will Middlebrooks will have another season at third to prove his worthiness.
Utility infielder Jonathan Herrera will handle the backup role.
More on Middlebrooks shortly.
Bogaerts—who can play either third or short—appears destined for a full-time role in 2014, so there should not be any concerns whether or not he sees the field.
If Drew is eventually re-signed, that would shift some of the roles on the left side of the infield. Bogaerts would likely move to third and Drew would retain his shortstop position, leaving Middlebrooks the odd man out.
The lingering question is of concern to manager John Farrell, as he stated via Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe:
The one thing that we don’t want is a lingering "what if" if Stephen is still out there. In all fairness to our guys, our clubhouse [and] guys that would be affected if he were to be brought in. Certainly I can’t speak for Ben [Cherington] in this situation, but I think the more that we know what our team is going to look like, or at least those guys in our clubhouse, it probably settles some of that wondering if another player is going to join us.
Judging from this comment, it appears as if Farrell wants the situation to be addressed sooner rather than later. This would solidify this portion of his defense and establish roles necessary for the team to prepare for the regular season.
As mentioned, Middlebrooks is likely the odd man out if Drew returns. Middlebrooks, whose wrist injury thwarted much of his second season in the big leagues, is likely playing for his job in 2014. Even if he performs well this year, Boston could be looking to the future regarding the position.
Third base prospect Garin Cecchini is the heir apparent at third base moving forward, and while he may not be quite ready for the majors—as indicated by Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.com—his development does suggest the Red Sox are looking at Cecchini over Middlebrooks in future seasons.
Re-signing Drew could throw a proverbial "monkey wrench" into all of that.
Thus, one should consider that Boston needs to solidify this portion of the field as soon as it can with or without Drew. As Farrell stated, this situation should not linger.
I would not expect it to for much longer.
Shane Victorino appears to be the favorite to bat leadoff in 2014.
For the better part of seven seasons, the Red Sox enjoyed the contributions of Jacoby Ellsbury at the top of their lineup.
Ellsbury is gone now, signing a lucrative and lengthy contract with the rival New York Yankees.
While the Red Sox were not willing to sign Ellsbury to the length of contract he was seeking, they will assuredly miss the production he provided atop the order—an aspect argued by Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe.
As far as replacing Ellsbury in the field, Boston has two legitimate options—rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. and veteran Grady Sizemore.
Bradley and Sizemore expect to compete for that job during spring—an element further described by Jesse Spector of the Sporting News.
With Boston beginning to focus more on its young talent, it would appear as if the team is willing to bank on Bradley in the competition for the starting spot. Yet slating him as the Red Sox leadoff hitter may be a bit too much to ask in his first full season at the major league level.
So who else?
Yahoo! Sports' Andrew Martin lists three potential candidates to take over the job—one of them being Bradley, and Daniel Nava and Shane Victorino being the other two.
From this trio, the best option appears to be Victorino, who has plenty of experience hitting leadoff, especially during his days with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Ricky Doyle of NESN.com also makes this argument by writing:
Victorino stole 21 bases in 122 games this past season, so he’ll certainly provide an element of speed, even if it’s not in line with Ellsbury’s wheels. The Flyin’ Hawaiian hit .294 and posted a .351 on-base percentage, which are marks comparable to those compiled by Ellsbury (.298 average, .355 on-base percentage).
Even Victorino has said that he is up to whatever challenge the Red Sox give him, as he stated via Zack Cox of NESN.com:
I never say where I want to be. I don’t care where I hit. I said it all along. Whatever opportunity presents itself, whether it be leadoff, whether it be down in the lineup, wherever. I’m not really focused on all that. I think it’s more about getting myself prepared and wherever I’m put in the batting order, I’ll be ready to go.
Spring training should give the Red Sox a perfect indication of whether or not Victorino is up for the task at hand. While competition is a good thing, expect Boston to lean toward Victorino as their leadoff hitter come Opening Day.
It is a valuable position to any team, given the importance of setting the table in front of the big bats in the middle of the lineup.
Boston's situation is no exception. Thus, they will evaluate this decision carefully this spring.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the Boston Red Sox. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.