3 Things We Learned About the Red Sox in Spring Training
Spring training declarations are a difficult beast to tackle. Putting too much weight in March statistics would be misguided, as Jake Fox and his 10 Grapefruit League home runs in 2011 remind us. "Jake Who?" you ask? Precisely.
At the same time, this is the first extended look at the 30 MLB clubs, and in some cases managers are determining roster spots based on performance. So these games aren't entirely meaningless; they just have to be viewed through the proper lens.
Are Xander Bogaerts' struggles (.222 average) really cause for concern, or is he merely a slow starter the way David Ortiz has been throughout his career (.227 career spring training average)? For a player of Bogaerts' pedigree I'd advise stepping away from the ledge and waiting for real games before inciting panic. His on-base percentage is more encouraging (.333), and he's slugged a pair of home runs. A better start would have been welcomed after his roller-coaster 2014, but it's too early to say anything definitive about the 22-year-old at this point.
That said, there are some takeaways we can glean from what we've seen in Fort Myers so far.
Mookie Betts Earned the Starting CF Job
For all those who kneel at the alter of Blake Swihart, don't forget to pay your respects to Boston's younger, more immediate franchise cornerstone.
It was comical when earlier this month intelligent people believed Mookie Betts could start the season in Triple-A. That notion looks even more foolish after the 22-year-old's torrid spring: 16 hits in 11 games (.471 batting average) including nine extra-base knocks (and this inside-the-park home run).
As a devout Betts disciple, it almost feels like cheating to include him here since I predicted he'd be a 2015 All-Star back in January. He really hasn't taught me anything this past month since my faith in him never wavered, but others questioned Betts. After Shane Victorino was named an Opening Day starter (barring injury), Betts was pitted against Rusney Castillo for Boston's final starting outfield gig. The doubters chimed in.
The Red Sox aren't paying Castillo $72 million to ride the pine or start in Triple-A. Betts has plenty of options remaining. The bulk of his 2014 success came when a last-place team was playing meaningless games down the stretch.
While soft-spoken Mookie says all the right things publicly, every frozen rope off his bat is the real message to those non-believers: "I won't settle and be Pawtucket's leadoff man. I won't be relegated to fourth outfielder duty in Boston." Whether it's been against Matt Harvey, Shelby Miller or an unknown entity, Betts has succeeded versus just about everyone in his 34 spring at-bats. And while the skeptics point to the sample size, Mookie just keeps on raking.
The young second baseman-turned-center fielder has also developed defensively since the end of last season. John Farrell praised the improved reads and routes Betts is taking these days to the Boston Herald. Soon after camp opened on March 1, Betts expressed his improved comfort level in the outfield while also displaying his endearing humility in an interview with MLB.com.
"I may not be a starter," he said. "I may. That's whatever they want to do, and what's best for the team. I know that I can't try to be anybody else but me."
Betts wasn't handed the job. He went out and earned the Opening Day leadoff spot and the "8" penciled next to his name that denotes center field. Betts may not be a center fielder for long with Castillo's budding career on the horizon, but he's primed to establish himself as an outfield staple in 2015.
Team Camaraderie Is Alive and Well
As the upcoming team takes shape, the Fenway faithful have to like the renewed camaraderie this group is showing. Maybe it's not the "Beards" of 2013 or the "Idiots" from 2004, but this Red Sox incarnation is already displaying more togetherness than the disjointed version from a season ago.
To be fair to 2014's collection of players, it's hard to build chemistry with a roster in flux. Four of Boston's 10 Opening Day starters left the franchise before the season ended: Jon Lester, Mike Carp, Grady Sizemore and A.J. Pierzynski (with Will Middlebrooks being traded for pennies on the dollar in December).
But the players have already exhibited their rapport in multiple ways. First, members of the starting staff wore "I'm the ace" shirts on the days they took the hill, while their rotation mates donned "He's the Ace" T's in support. A witty way to construct an "us against the world" mentality out of the constant, yet warranted, media speculation regarding a rumored trade for Phillies ace Cole Hamels.
Then just this past Sunday the ballclub had an obstacle-course relay race that went viral. It wasn't exactly at an American Ninja Warrior level of difficulty, but the point wasn't to push their physical limits. Strengthening bonds was the purpose more than the actual results. Simple bragging rights trumped avoiding a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride as the real reward.
This current team seems to have the right dynamic to sustain the mojo for the length of a season. The aforementioned rotational relationships are off to a strong start, and the position players have a nice mix of personalities. From the future core (Dustin Pedroia, Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, Betts, Bogaerts, Castillo) to veteran leaders/chemistry creators (David Ortiz, Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Pedroia again) to the consummate yeoman professionals (Daniel Nava, Christian Vazquez, Brock Holt, Ryan Hanigan).
Most importantly, there doesn't seem to be a knucklehead or A.J. Pierzynski in the bunch to detract from the greater good. Just bring back the old bullpen band to serve as a unifying force for that fraternity, infuse some specialized Big Papi-generated high-fives and this collective bromance should be built to last.
Fans Were Right to Worry About Aging Vets
David Ortiz's absence due to "general soreness" smells like a Gregg Popovich-esque way to rest the slugger and give at-bats to fringe players who have more to gain/prove. But if the designated hitter is actually ailing, it only adds to the list of elder statesmen already causing Red Sox fans angst.
First there is the "growing concern" that Koji Uehara won't be ready for the April 6 opener due to a lingering hamstring injury. The Providence Journal reports the 2014 All-Star has progressed to long-tossing but that there is no timetable for him to return to mound work.
It's an ominous beginning to 2015 for a closer entering his age-40 season. After his forgettable post-All-Star break meltdown last year, Uehara managed just three innings this month. His 6.00 ERA a far cry from the 15.2 scoreless frames he amassed over his previous two spring trips to Fort Myers.
The uncertainty around the Japanese high-five machine makes the Red Sox bullpen far more dicey. John Farrell has been reticent about his closer plan should Uehara begin the season on the DL, but Edward Mujica seems to be the favorite for the gig. He has a checkered history as a reliever but got the ninth-inning call last season when Koji went on his mental health sabbatical. The former St. Louis Cardinals closer earned an All-Star nod with an excellent first half of 2013, but the results in the year-and-a-half since have been underwhelming.
Junichi Tazawa and new addition Anthony Varvaro seem better suited to anchor the pen given their dependable success the past few seasons, but neither has ever closed before. It's unclear if Farrell is one of those managers who puts stock in experience and not wanting to risk pushing players into new roles for a short-term fix.
Meanwhile, after a little over a month, Shane Victorino has abandoned his attempt to be a switch-hitter again. The Hawaiian will strictly bat right-handed due to persistent soreness he feels when swinging from the left side, Farrell told the Providence Journal.
While the manager talks about wanting to "free up" Victorino's mind with the one-sided approach, the fact that offseason back surgery didn't alleviate the 34-year-old's physical issues is concerning. He's also already sat out a spell this spring due to sore legs, a red flag after hamstring woes hampered him in each of the past two seasons.
Victorino's struggled versus right-handed pitching as a right-handed hitter in limited action, batting .250 with a .320 on-base percentage in 296 career plate appearances. He's historically provided more power from his natural stance on the right side (55 homers righty compared to 52 lefty, despite over 1,400 more at-bats left-handed). However, he's slugging just .398 in those aforementioned 96 games righty-on-righty.
The immediate thought is that Rusney Castillo's quickest path to at-bats could be in a semi-platoon situation if there is room on the roster. It's unlikely Farrell does a 180 and flat-out benches a well-respected veteran like Victorino, but Castillo could see time against right-handed pitchers if the two-time All-Star can't improve his non-switch hitting approach against righties.