2014 Boston Red Sox: Biggest Winners and Losers of Spring Training

Matthew Musico@@mmusico8Contributor IIIMarch 25, 2014

2014 Boston Red Sox: Biggest Winners and Losers of Spring Training

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    The Boston Red Sox are getting closer to starting the defense of their World Series title when they begin regular season play on March 31 against the Baltimore Orioles.

    Some questions about the roster have been answered during their time in Fort Myers, Fla. However, new ones have appeared due to certain performances, and others still need to be figured out.

    A few players have taken full advantage of their opportunity this spring, while others aren’t getting the results they were hoping for. Unfortunately, strong performances from some in Red Sox camp won’t end with a spot on the Opening Day roster.

    With the 2014 season-opener less than a week away, let’s take a look at some of Boston’s biggest winners and losers from this spring.

    All player statistics sourced from RedSox.com, unless otherwise noted.

Winner: Jon Lester

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    Jon Lester had plenty to prove in 2013 if he wanted to stay in Boston for the long haul. Following the worst overall season in his career (9-14 record, 4.82 ERA, 1.38 WHIP), the southpaw regained his status as the team’s ace last year.

    He posted a career-high 213.1 innings pitched with a 15-8 record, 3.75 ERA, 1.29 WHIP and 177 strikeouts. Lester continued his dominance in the postseason, racking up three more wins en route to a World Series title.

    The left-hander hasn’t been shy about his preference to stay with the Red Sox. His 2013 season has given general manager Ben Cherington the confidence to negotiate a lucrative, multi-year deal with the leader of his pitching staff.

    As negotiations have progressed, Lester has shown he’s ready to do more of the same on the field in 2014. In 12.2 innings pitched, he’s posted a 0.71 ERA, 0.79 WHIP and 14 strikeouts.

    His strong performance last season and continuation this spring has motivated Boston to get a deal done now, instead of letting him enter the open market next winter.

    Lester told Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe a little about the process:

    I know they’ve been pretty busy dealing with David’s stuff and all that. It’s a negotiation. No matter how optimistic people are about it, it’s a tough process. We’ll keep grinding it out and see where we get.

    Abraham reported on Saturday the Red Sox and Lester are getting close to an agreement.

    He could receive a contract in the neighborhood of five years and $110 million. Getting a deal done now will allow Lester to focus on pitching and returning to the postseason, instead of answering questions from the media about his contract status.

    That peace of mind alone makes him a big winner coming out of camp.

Loser: Jackie Bradley Jr.

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    Losing Jacoby Ellsbury to the New York Yankees hurt. However, it opened the door for Jackie Bradley Jr. to take over center field at Fenway.

    He had an amazing spring last season, hitting .419/.507/.613 with 12 RBI in 62 at-bats. That breakout performance and his minor league resume has made him Ellsbury’s likely successor.

    Bradley still may be the long-term answer, but not so much heading into Opening Day. He’s hit a disappointing .188/.250/.313 in a team-leading 48 at-bats. He’s also struck out 14 times, the most on the squad.

    The combination of his performance this spring and the emergence of Grady Sizemore has given manager John Farrell plenty to think about. The starting center field job will not be handed to Bradley, and it’s still to be determined whether he starts the year in the majors or not.

    Farrell told Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal that he’s proud of how Bradley has carried himself during this competition:

    We couldn’t be more proud the way he’s handled it. He’s a smart guy. He knows exactly the situation he’s in. He’s asked about it daily. He’s not afraid of who he is as a player. He’s not trying to be Jacoby Ellsbury or anybody else. He’s Jackie Bradley, trying to be the best he can. He’s going about it the absolute right way.

    It’s only a matter of time before Bradley gets his chance to prove what he’s capable of. He’s only played in 37 big league games, not nearly enough time to decide whether he’ll be successful in the majors or not.

    Either way, his trying spring and this surprise competition should help him grow as a player. According to Farrell, it’s already had a positive effect on him mentally.

Winner: Grady Sizemore

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Sizemore hasn’t suited up for a regular season game in the big leagues since he played for the Cleveland Indians in 2011. The last time he played over 100 games in a season came in 2009, appearing in 106.

    When Boston signed him this winter, they weren’t expecting much. Being a former three-time All-Star, it was worth a low-risk deal to see if he had anything left in the tank.

    Apparently, there’s plenty.

    Through 29 at-bats this spring, he’s hitting .310/.333/.345.

    Getting into games for the first time in nearly three years, Farrell made sure to ease him in to get his timing back. So far, he’s passed every test given to him, and even created a competition for center field with Bradley—which he’s currently winning.

    Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald reported this week would be telling for Sizemore. He’s scheduled to play five games in six days, starting on Sunday (before yesterday's cancellation). This will be the final durability test before he finds out if he’s won the center field competition.

    For the time being, Sizemore told Lauber he’s just trying to control what he can:

    I’m just trying to get back in shape, get conditioned, get the body feeling right, get the timing back. It’s one of those things where I’ve still got to earn a spot. I’ve still got to prove I can play every day. I’ve still got to prove I’m the guy.

    If he responds to this last test, he very well may be “the guy” in center on Opening Day.

Loser: Ryan Lavarnway

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Watching Jarrod Saltalamacchia leave via free agency this past winter potentially opened the door for Ryan Lavarnway at catcher.

    That was until Boston signed veteran backstop A.J. Pierzynski.

    Lavarnway has put together a great spring, hitting .333/.389/.545 in 33 at-bats. Having Pierzynski tabbed as the starter with David Ross as his backup, there is no room for Lavarnway in the major leagues.

    His season will likely start in Triple-A Pawtucket, but he will also have to compete for playing time there with prospects Dan Butler and Christian Vazquez. Lavarnway has more major league experience than either of them, but Farrell told Gordon Edes of ESPN Boston he views them all equally.

    With a crowd forming behind the plate, Edes reports Lavarnway will continue learning how to play first base. Butler could also be the first catcher called up if someone gets hurt, not Lavarnway.

    Even if he learns first base quickly, Mike Napoli will be there for the next two years, barring a trade or injury. Mike Carp and Daniel Nava can also fill in at first on his off days.

    At the very least, Lavarnway is becoming a more versatile player. However, his path to the major leagues appears blocked on multiple routes. Unless the front office believes he can contribute and clears the way for him, he’ll only see consistent big league time if he gets traded.

    According to Sean McAdam of Comcast SportsNet New England, that could be sooner rather than later.

Winner: Will Middlebrooks

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    It was important for Will Middlebrooks to instill confidence in his manager before the start of the regular season. So far, he’s been successful in doing that.

    His .288/.325/.509 line in 75 games during 2012 led the organization to believe he was the long-term solution at third base. Instead of taking a step forward last season, he struggled to a .227/.271/.425 line in 94 games, spending another 45 in Triple-A.

    Xander Bogaerts also ended up taking his job in the postseason because he wasn’t producing enough.

    Middlebrooks has come into camp with renewed confidence, and it shows. He told Ron Borges of the Boston Herald how useful last season’s struggles were:

    I learned more from hitting .230 than I did from hitting .290. I learned how to pick myself up. That’s part of growing up as a player. It’s part of growing up as a person, too. I learned from the grind of it that I don’t have to force things. I don’t have to try too hard. I don’t have to try to hit the ball out of the park. I just have to stay under control.

    That renewed confidence and experience has led to a .289/.325/.474 line in 38 at-bats this spring. Despite Bogaerts’ struggles at shortstop, Middlebrooks has played well enough to prevent Cherington from reaching back out to free-agent infielder Stephen Drew.

    Borges noted that statistician Bill James is predicting 32 home runs and 104 RBI from Middlebrooks this season. He’s confident and capable of reaching those numbers, and Farrell feels secure giving him that chance.

Loser: Francisco Cordero

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    After sitting out in 2013, the Red Sox gave Francisco Cordero a chance to resurrect his career. He signed a minor league deal, which included an invite to big league camp.

    The 38-year-old is taking full advantage of his opportunity, posting a 0.75 WHIP and eight strikeouts in eight shutout innings this spring.

    ESPN Boston reported Cordero wasn’t ready for his career to end after a tough 2012:

    This has been my life. I've been playing professional ball for 20 years and I feel like I can get people out. I'm trying to prove to myself I can still pitch. If I see that's it enough, I say enough is enough.

    Edes notes that Cordero’s minor league deal doesn’t include an opt-out clause, which would’ve forced Boston to make a decision on his fate prior to the regular season starting. Despite his impressive spring, he could be optioned to Triple-A Pawtucket.

    Injuries to pitchers happen all too often. Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan are prime examples of that from last season, as well as the long list from spring training this year.

    If he does begin 2014 in the minors, Boston might have to dip into their pitching depth for help sooner than anticipated.

    His closing experience (329 career saves) would be an asset to Farrell’s bullpen if he can locate his pitches effectively.

    It’s unfortunate that there may not be room for him on the Opening Day pitching staff. There isn’t much more he can do to prove he can still pitch at the big league level. His present performance and proven track record should speak for itself.

    The above quote from Cordero is interesting. It could imply that if he’s happy with his performance, yet doesn’t make the big league roster, he might retire.

    That’s pure speculation. If that were to happen, it would be a loss for Cordero because it may not be long before he’s back in The Show. It would also be a big loss for Boston if relievers start hitting the disabled list like last season.

    With less than a week until Opening Day, time is winding down for all of these players. It's their last opportunity to seal their fate to start the season, whether it's good or bad.

    Matt's baseball opinions have been featured on MLB Trade Rumors, Yahoo! Sports, MetsBlog, Amazin' Avenue and Mets Merized Online. To keep up with Matt, you can follow him on Twitter.