Under-the-Radar Red Sox Players to Watch in Spring Training
Look alive, people, look alive! The Boston Red Sox have pitchers and catchers reporting on February 20, a mere week away.
The spring training intrigue starts with pivotal players like Xander Bogaerts, Justin Masterson and Clay Buchholz trying to rebound from disappointing campaigns. It continues on with the unknown of Rusney Castillo and the shiny gleam of new toys Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez.
Then we get to Davis Ortiz, dissecting if there is any hint of decreased bat speed as he enters his age-39 season. We'd reach Dustin Pedroia next, keeping a keen eye on if he shows the renewed pop to match his offseason bluster.
That's when our gaze wanders to the critical injury question marks of Shane Victorino, Koji Uehara and Mike Napoli. Bypass Mookie Betts and Rick Porcello, because barring truly horrific performances I'm not sure much can be gleaned from their pre-April play, and we finally get to our under-the-radar bunch.
They may not be the biggest brand-name entities, but they're in the well-respected Little Caesars division compared to the Papa John's, Pizza Hut and Domino's groups that the aforementioned players fall under.
So with the successful pizza integration check mark complete, let's delve into lower-profile Red Sox with a lot to prove this spring.
The addition of the hard-throwing right-hander is a nice gamble for the Red Sox. Alexi Ogando's $1.5 million base salary, as reported by Fox Sports, makes for very little risk.
Four years removed from an All-Star season, the concerns about Ogando's elbow (which limited him to just 25 innings in 2014) made the Rangers decide not to tender an offer to the 31-year-old.
Texas general manager Jon Daniels explained the decision to The Associated Press in December: "There was just too much uncertainty, and we didn't want go to through the process with that out there. It would have helped to have seen him in games. I fully expect he's going to go by camp without any limitations. We saw off-the-mound live BP, he was healthy, ready to go."
While Ogando's longtime team choosing to let him walk rather than roll the dice for about $2.6 million is eyebrow-raising, the good news is that his elbow didn't require surgery. Ogando's agent also told MLB Trade Rumors in January that, like Daniels, he believes his client will be ready by "Day 1 of 2015 spring training."
Despite 48 career starts and Boston's lackluster rotation, Ogando is expected to be primarily a bullpen piece this season. The elbow troubles coupled with shoulder concerns make it hard to imagine his body can withstand the innings workload of a starter.
But as the Kansas City Royals showed in 2014, flamethrowers out of the pen can be valuable weapons. Even with his health issues a season ago, Ogando's fastball averaged just a tick under 94 miles per hour and he touched 96.7, according to FanGraphs.
In the previously linked MLB Trade Rumors piece, Ogando's agent said the right-hander was sitting at 92 and 93 in an early January bullpen session. It'll be interesting to see where his velocity stands when camp opens, and how it progresses throughout spring training will be key to watch. If he can build up arm strength and regain the ability to rear back to get 97-98 mph when he needs it, then Boston likely got a steal.
Ogando sports a career ERA of 3.35 in 406 innings pitched. His 138 innings out of the bullpen show a slight improvement to 3.25, but the big difference is the spike in his strikeout rate: 8.6 per nine innings as a reliever compared to 6.5 as a starter.
Though he relies heavily on his fastball, Ogando's best pitch may be his slider. Opposing batters hit .181, .121 and .217 versus the pitch from 2011 to 2013, according to FanGraphs. The threat of his slider is crucial to the effectiveness of his fastball.
The Dominican also did a good job of developing his changeup into a viable third pitch in 2013 (.211 batting average against the 283 offerings). He'll need to refine it after struggling with it in limited use in 2014 (he threw it just 53 times, and opponents hit .833 against it).
There seems to be a rift forming among Red Sox fans with people pledging their allegiances to either Christian Vazquez or Blake Swihart. I'll again ask that the record show I'm not anti-Swihart; Vazquez's defensive ability is just so awe-inspiring that making Swihart untouchable confuses me.
The Boston Globe's Peter Abraham had a nice piece that proposed a trade package for Cole Hamels centered on left-handed pitcher Henry Owens. Given that a rotation is comprised of five starters and you can only put one catcher out there, I'd prefer to hold onto Owens than Swihart because of Vazquez's presence, particularly given the uncertainty of Boston's staff after this year. Only Wade Miley and Joe Kelly are guaranteed to return in 2016, but I digress.
While it will continue to be fun to observe Vazquez's defensive exploits in Fort Myers, his bat is the real thing to watch this spring. The Swihart camp points to Vazquez's shortcomings with the lumber as the reason the 24-year-old can't be trusted.
It's fair to question the Puerto Rican's hitting after he batted just .240 in 55 MLB games last season. However, it's not uncommon for a player to struggle as he transitions to the big leagues, and Vazquez did show improvement in September (.277 average, .351 on-base percentage).
Despite smacking 18 home runs during his 2011 campaign in A-ball, Vazquez will likely never be a slugging catcher. He has just 17 home runs across all levels the past four seasons combined.
He does have some success with hitting for average in the minors. Vazquez batted .279 in 66 Triple-A games last season and hit .289 with a .376 OBP in Double-A in 2013.
Red Sox fans will see a trimmer Vazquez when the backstop reports next Friday. He told the Boston Herald he's dropped seven pounds after taking the initiative to shed some blubber as he tries to improve his strength.
The new physique is nice, but to continue to make strides offensively Vazquez needs to drive the ball with more authority. FanGraphs notes 57.1 percent of the balls he made contact with during his 2014 major league stint were on the ground.
His line-drive percentage of 16.6 percent was an alarmingly low rate for someone who doesn't have the number offset by home runs (which count toward fly-ball percentage).
Another thing for Vazquez to improve is his hitting against sliders. FanGraphs' pitch values show the catcher had a minus-3.6 rating versus sliders in 2014. Opposing pitchers consistently attacked the weakness, throwing him sliders 15 percent of the time (his most-faced pitch besides the four-seam fastball).
Despite those concerning numbers, the less-than-ideal sample size is worth noting (201 plate appearances). However, the two future Hall of Fame catchers in Vazquez's corner certainly don't seem to think it's time to panic.
Ivan Rodriguez told the Boston Herald in October he's confident Vazquez will develop into a .300 hitter due to his inside-out approach. Meanwhile, the man Vazquez is always compared to, Yadier Molina, voiced his belief that the youngster will improve at the plate when he spoke with MassLive.com last spring.
"He’s a great kid. Pretty smart. He’s got the ability to catch. He has a great arm. And he’s going to hit—he’s still young. Really good player.”
Perhaps the most fascinating reason that will draw attention to Allen Craig is John Farrell's revelation to ESPN Boston that the 2013 All-Star could see time at third base. Craig only has four career appearances at third in the big leagues and hasn't manned the hot corner since 2011.
He did play third base in the minors but has since had major foot issues including the dreaded Lisfranc injury. His defensive performance at the more forgiving first base plummeted from slightly below average to abysmal in recent years, presumably due to those ailments coupled with age.
Pablo Sandoval played 157 games a year ago, but he averaged just 122 games in the three seasons spanning 2011 to 2013. It was expected that Hanley Ramirez would shift to third base if Sandoval went down since that was his primary position the previous two seasons.
However, it's possible the Red Sox don't want to be moving around an already subpar defensive player and instead let Ramirez focus solely on acclimating to his new spot in left field. If at-bats make themselves available at third, it's an intriguing way to get what Boston hopes will be a rejuvenated Craig in the lineup. We'll see if he can show enough progress at the position this spring to make it a viable possibility.
Even if the Cal Berkley grad can't cut it defensively at the hot corner, his Fort Myers production at the dish could be telling for his long-term future. Contrary to the unsightly .215 batting average Craig put up in 126 games last season (a number that fell to an even more pathetic .128 in 29 games with Boston), he was recently a hitter of some renown.
From 2011 to 2013, Craig batted .312 with a .364 on-base percentage in 1,296 plate appearances. His 162-game average over that timeframe also included 23 home runs, 40 doubles and 114 RBI.
Craig told Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald his foot issues haven't impeded his preparation for the upcoming season the way they did ahead of 2014. If his troublesome feet don't betray him, there's reason to hope he can recapture that past success.
That would make Craig the clear favorite to take over first base duties should Boston let Mike Napoli walk in free agency after this season, particularly given the weak 2016 crop of free-agent first basemen and the $25.5 million owed to the 30-year-old over the next three years (plus a $13 million team option for 2018).