Boston Red Sox Players Turning Heads Early at Spring Training
Let's preface this by stating the obvious: It's really early. This isn't going to be a piece making outlandish declarations from a handful of spring training games. Instead, we'll simply look at which Boston Red Sox players are making notable impressions in the early stages of baseball's return.
With a down-to-earth attitude and eye-popping stuff, Matt Barnes has been the biggest winner in Fort Myers so far.
It's generally not a good sign when a player approaching his age-25 season remains stuck in prospect status for the fourth year in a row. Barnes, a 2011 first-round pick, just hasn't popped the way one-time peers Jose Fernandez, Yasiel Puig or Anthony Rendon have.
His advanced numbers have always been better than his traditional counting stats. That could indicate Barnes has been unlucky, but how accurate is that assumption if we're spanning three years and 354.1 professional innings?
Perhaps he's an outlier from the norms of what the advanced stats indicate should happen. In a sense, he would be the opposite version of someone like Matt Cain, who has outpitched his unimpressive Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) and Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) numbers in six of the past eight seasons.
To begin 2015, Barnes seems intent on shedding the bust label so many have been quick to slap on him. His first outing was a two-inning effort where he struck out three and allowed just one baserunner. He replicated that success almost to a tee Monday, again fanning three across two scoreless frames while notching a save.
John Farrell told Bill Ballou of Worcester's Telegram and Gazette's that Barnes has been a "different guy" than who he saw in limited action last season. It was an improved fastball, one that touched 97 miles per hour, and a refined breaking ball that really caught the Red Sox manager's eye.
He even seemed to hint to the Boston Herald that a bullpen role isn't out of the question for the longtime starter given the uptick in his effectiveness:
The velocity in which he pitched last night, I don’t think that shows up in a starting role. He’s always had swing-and-miss ability with the fastball. And I think last night his tightening up of the breaking ball gives him a tighter strike zone that he’s eventually going to face more consistently. Last year was more of a top to bottom type of breaking ball that might be more difficult to command for strikes.
Barnes still has to be considered a long shot to make the big league roster given his minor league options remaining and the more prominent names ahead of him. But no matter where he winds up, whether Boston's pen or Pawtucket's rotation, the right-hander told the Boston Herald he's open to either.
"Everybody's goal in this room is to play in the big leagues as long as they possibly can - obviously I want to be in the big leagues, but it's whatever the team needs, and I'll be flexible to that need," Barnes said. "It's just a shorter appearance [in the bullpen]. You can kind of let it go completely for a couple of innings as opposed to trying to get to six or seven."
Red Sox fans couldn't have hoped for a much better start to the spring for Xander Bogaerts. The now 210-pound shortstop told The Boston Globe he added muscle this offseason in the hopes of slugging more home runs. So far in March, the power stroke looks in tip-top form as he's crushed two out in his three games (with six RBI to boot).
To be fair, neither home run came off a pitcher of note. The first blast was courtesy of Tim Stauffer, the second a majestic dinger after Hansel Robles hung a slider. Even against a career minor leaguer, Bogaerts finding success against a pitch that haunted him last season has to serve as a confidence boost.
It's not just offensively where the 22-year-old has made strides. Bogaerts put in time this offseason with Dustin Pedroia trying to hone his defense, and Farrell told the Boston Herald he's been impressed with the early returns.
"If you look at his arm stroke now compared to this time a year ago, it was longer last year," Farrell said. "So he would cut the ball, it would sail, it would sink, it wouldn’t have the true backspin he’s generating now, which adds to the carry of throws."
The widely considered can't-miss prospect seemed to take issue with the fact that many believe he had a horrid 2014 season. Bogaerts told The Boston Globe it wasn't an awful season but just a "terrible" two months.
"I’d never struggled before," he said. "Honestly, I didn’t know what to do to get out of it, because I’d never struggled in my life before — especially to that extent. Mentally, I just got tired and then it wore on me physically."
The grounded youngster now looks to show he's learned from the hardships last season put him through. After a strong final month of 2014 (.313 average, 4 home runs in September) and a hot start this spring, Bogaerts is showing good resolve. Expect to hear the "breakout season" chatter commence once again.
A former MVP and Rookie of the Year doesn't usually have much to prove in spring training. But Pedroia reported to Fort Myers with a bigger chip on his shoulder than usual. That's evident by him challenging critics to "open tryouts" in a NESN interview and his reaction to being ranked 52nd in MLB Network's countdown of MLB's top 100 players.
The man affectionately referred to as Pedey opened things up against the Twins with a 3-for-3 effort that included a grand slam. As was the case with Bogaerts, the home run wasn't off anyone you've ever heard of (apologies to Ryan O'Rourke's family if they're reading). But that didn't stop the vocal second baseman from scolding the media for doubting him across all mediums (courtesy of NESN).
"I knew I was back to normal in the offseason," he said. "Obviously, I told you guys that, but you can only believe me if you see it. So there you go. Just watch. My job is to play. Your job is to watch."
Pedroia followed up the perfect debut with a 2-for-3 game Saturday. While the production is encouraging, the bigger takeaway is that the oft-injured 31-year-old is feeling his best in years. He told WEEI he's having "no issues" after battling wrist and thumb injures the past two seasons, the latter of which required surgery in November.
"I can tell just picking up a bat my hand strength is back," Pedroia said. "That’s the most important part to me. When you grab a bat, how does it feel? Can you manipulate where you want to hit the ball? It’s all back."
The early signs suggest Pedroia's capable of recovering his consistent, line-drive swing that Boston fans became so accustomed to. Even if he can't turn back the clock to provide the power numbers of his prime, he looks poised to snap the four-year skid in slugging percentage (which dropped all the way to a dreadful .337 last year) and return to respectability.
As the preeminent fielding second baseman, Pedroia doesn't need to hit 20 home runs to hold great value. Double-digit home runs would be welcomed, but the Red Sox just need him to return to being the .300-plus hitter with 40-plus doubles that they can lock into the two-hole all season.
Just like with Koji Uehara, Justin Masterson's initial spring outing was noteworthy given the mounting questions he faced after a horrific 2014. The towering right-hander had his sinker dancing for two innings this past Friday, finding more promising results than the Sox closer in the process.
Masterson allowed just one hit but did surrender an unearned run in the start. He said he got "exactly" what he was looking for in his first game action on the mound.
"Four seamers, sinkers, a lot of movement," he told the Boston Herald. "Roughly inside the zone. A lot of groundballs. That’s exactly what I’m looking for."
If Masterson can harness his stuff and display the sort of control he had during his 2013 All-Star season, he has a shot to be Boston's best starter. The expansion of the low strike across the majors in recent years, as brilliantly detailed by The Hardball Times, works in the 6'6" righty's favor given his sinking repertoire. His improved health, a sound infield defense behind him and a reunion with pitching guru Farrell all also bode well for his potential to succeed.
While Farrell told the Boston Herald he was impressed with the late movement against the Marlins, he noted it will only improve along with Masterson's arm strength as the month wears on. Ahead of his second spring start Tuesday, March 10, the eighth-year pro was quick to point out he has a long way to go.
“You're not really overly caring about results until we're a few games away from go time," Masterson said. "Continue to up the ante, make sure that yeah, I might overthrow a few, but I've got to make sure the arm's working through."
Big Papi isn't turning heads with anything on the diamond; he's garnering attention with all the noise he's making off of it. Baseball's most prominent voice and perhaps its most recognizable face, David Ortiz has been a walking pull-quote in Fort Myers. From venting about the new batter's box rules to claiming he deserves to showboat after home runs, the age-defying slugger is in midseason form.
First the designated hitter railed against the new MLB rule requiring batters to keep one foot in the box in between pitches. In eloquent Big Papi fashion, Ortiz called the edict "b------t" in his season-opening press conference.
"They don’t understand that when you come out of the box you’re thinking about what the guy’s trying to do," Ortiz said. "This is not like you go to the plate with an empty mind. We’re not doing it just for doing it. Our mind is speeding up. When I come out, I’m thinking, 'What is this guy going to try to do to me next?'"
Then there was the intrigue of Ortiz discussing his deteriorating relationship with Alex Rodriguez. He's come a long way from hosting A-Rod at charity events and defending the infamous PED user when Ryan Dempster plunked the Yankees third baseman. Papi explained to ESPN in late February how "things are not good anymore" with A-Rod.
The rift stems from Rodriguez's lawyer suggesting Ortiz is as much of a cheat as his client, and an angered Papi hasn't spoken to his one-time friend since. In the present days of a withering rivalry, this is closest thing we have to Red Sox-Yankees juice. I'm sure fans on both sides wouldn't be opposed to a legendary 2015 brawl to reignite a historic feud that's gone stale.
But the future Hall of Famer wasn't done making headlines there, as just last week he strongly defended his right to preen after home runs to the Boston Herald.
"If you’ve got two days in the big leagues, I don’t agree with you doing crazy stuff out there," Ortiz said. "But you have 19 years in the big leagues like I do, you can do whatever the hell you want — because you’ve earned that. ... The bottom line is, it’s not that bad."
Whether you agree with Ortiz on all or none of his stances, the one thing that's certain is he'll always make clear what he thinks and feels. Arguably the greatest clutch hitter ever is in the Kobe Bryant stage of his career where he's eliminated the filter completely. Comfortable in his own skin with the backdrop of three titles to support him, Ortiz will continue to be baseball's voice that resonates most until he retires.
Not many closers coming off All-Star seasons are worth paying attention to in spring training. As long as someone of that stature escapes with his health intact, you just consider it a success.
However, Uehara is not most closers. Concerned eyebrows raised when his ERA spiked from 1.40 to 2.64 over a 20-day stretch this past August to September. Arm fatigue and a flat splitter were to blame, but that sharp decline coupled with the fact Uehara's about to turn 40 has created a level of angst amongst Red Sox fans. Has Father Time time come knocking?
Koji didn't do much to ease those worries in his spring debut. In his first official inning of 2015, he allowed one run on three hits, including a pair of well-struck doubles. We're talking about one outing at the beginning of the preparation process for a new season, so it's clearly no time to panic. However, Uehara hasn't pitched in a game since, and given the aforementioned uncertainty entering March, a blemished beginning is disconcerting.
Uehara was quick to brush aside the idea that the shaky inning held any tangible meaning. He told WEEI his focus is solely on fine-tuning grips and releases as he builds up arm strength for 2015. "I’m not even looking at my location or anything, I’m just trying to get my innings in," he said.
It's too early to fret, but Uehara's performance in his next scheduled appearance today, March 10, is worth monitoring closely.