Boston Red Sox: 5 Key Questions That Need Answering in Spring Training
That doesn't mean they don't have questions to answer.
The Red Sox don't have many questions, but they have enough for a list of five. They're a mix of roster spots that need to be settled and individual performances that carry some intrigue.
Let's get going on asking these questions, shall we?
Is Andrew Benintendi Ready to Live Up to the Hype?
The Red Sox won't have many elite prospects running around Fort Myers this spring. They used to have a bunch, but quite a few have been jettisoned in trades over the past year.
Save for the elitest of the elite: Andrew Benintendi.
What the 22-year-old is capable of isn't really a mystery after 2016. He appeared in 34 regular-season games with the Red Sox and hit .295 with an .835 OPS. He also flashed his defensive chops in making one of the best catches of the season.
Benintendi's next venture could be showing off more pop as Boston's everyday left fielder in 2017. As Ian Browne of MLB.com reported, Benintendi gained between 15 and 20 pounds over the offseason and is counting on the extra weight boosting his power.
From one perspective, Benintendi living up to the hype would merely give the Red Sox an embarrassment of riches in their outfield. He could be a third All-Star next to Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts.
From another, Benintendi living up to the hype is more of a need. It's going to take a village to replace the production the Red Sox lost when David Ortiz retired. Benintendi must show that he can do his part.
Is David Price Primed for a Bounce-Back?
Still, "quite good" isn't the same as "great."
That's more what the Red Sox had in mind for the former Cy Young winner and two-time American League ERA champ. Far be it from the man himself to disagree, it seems.
"Last year was the first time in my career I didn't have fun when I was on the field," Price told Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe. "When I'm pitching well, I'm smiling. There wasn't a lot of smiling."
Positives to take away from the left-hander's 2016 season include his continued ability to miss bats (8.9 K/9) and throw strikes (2.0 BB/9). But he also gave up a league-high 227 hits and a career-high 30 home runs. Hint: Those are the negatives.
Price told Abraham that his problems stemmed from poor fastball command. What also didn't help was how his fastball had less zip, going from an average of 94.2 mph in 2015 to 92.9 mph in 2016.
These are things to keep an eye on as Price begins his quest for a bounce-back season in 2017. And if he does indeed show good fastball velocity and command, he could make the ultimate statement by earning an Opening Day nod over fellow aces Chris Sale and Rick Porcello.
Who's at the Back of the Starting Rotation?
As Price looks to get back on a dominant track at the top of Boston's starting rotation, the bottom will need to sort itself out this spring.
Red Sox manager John Farrell tipped his hand for what he's expecting in an interview with MLB Network Radio: "It will be a competition, but rounding out the [No.] 4 and 5 spots are guys who made All-Star teams last year."
He's talking about knuckleballer Steven Wright and left-hander Drew Pomeranz. Although both faded down the stretch, they finished with basically the exact same ERA (3.33 for Wright, 3.32 for Pomeranz) in 327.1 total innings last season.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox also have Eduardo Rodriguez.
The 23-year-old lefty will have to prove that he's past the right knee issues that have dogged him for much of the last year. Otherwise, he only needs to remind the Red Sox how talented he is. He was largely successful as a rookie in 2015, and he overcame a slow start in 2016 with a 3.24 ERA over his final 14 starts.
Rodriguez probably won't steal a spot from Wright, as that would put four left-handers in Boston's rotation. But he might beat out Pomeranz, whose hard fastball and sharp curveball would be useful in a relief role.
All told, there's more talent here than is usually found in battles for back-end rotation spots.
Who's Going to Be Catching?
Ah, yes, but who will Price, Sale, Porcello, Wright, Pomeranz and/or Rodriguez be throwing to?
According to Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, it'll probably be Sandy Leon. But, it could also be Christian Vazquez or Blake Swihart.
"You've got three guys that can battle for an everyday job," Dombrowski told Jason Mastrodonato of the Boston Herald in November. "If you said right now who's the leading guy, it's Sandy Leon."
Leon earned the right to be the man to beat with a surprisingly productive 2016. Despite a late fade, he hit .310 with an .845 OPS at the plate and controlled the running game with a 41 percent caught-stealing rate.
But don't count out Vazquez. If he's fully recovered from his 2015 Tommy John operation, he has an arm at least as strong as Leon's and better receiving skills to boot. In an interview with Jen McCaffrey of MassLive.com, Porcello once called Vazquez "the best I've ever thrown to."
Don't count out Swihart, either. He was rated as an elite prospect as recently as 2015 and is still only 24 years old. As a switch-hitter with better-than-average athleticism, he has the most two-way potential of the three combatants. He could also serve the Red Sox at other positions when he's not catching.
One could look at all this and feel uncomfortable that the Red Sox don't have a clear answer at such an important position. But in lieu of clear answers, good choices isn't a bad way to go.
Is Pablo Sandoval Viable at Third Base?
This last question is by far the biggest question facing the Red Sox this spring: Do they really think Pablo Sandoval can handle being their everyday third baseman?
Their answer falls more toward the yes end of the yes-and-no spectrum. Speaking to MLB Network Radio, Farrell said Sandoval's aware that he'll have to earn the third-base gig but also that "all we are looking for is him to get back to his previous levels."
That's no small charge. At the best of times, Sandoval was an All-Star third baseman who was useful on both sides of the ball. Hence why he got a five-year, $95 million contract after 2014.
But his first two seasons in Boston have been beyond disastrous. Sandoval was one of the worst everyday players in baseball in 2015. In 2016, he lost his job in spring training and underwent season-ending shoulder surgery after appearing in only three regular-season games.
The bright side for now is that the 30-year-old has gotten himself into really good shape for the 2017 season. That doesn't hurt his chances of putting himself back on the map.
It's not an assurance that he will, however. And with Travis Shaw and Yoan Moncada having departed via offseason trades, the Red Sox will be in a pickle if Sandoval's comeback stalls before he even gets out of the gate.
Better grab some popcorn. This will be interesting.
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