Snubs, Surprises and Grades for Red Sox's Final 25-Man Roster
This is not a drill, people. The Boston Red Sox's 2015 opener against the Philadelphia Phillies is less than 24 hours away. The organization used just about every second it had before finalizing its 25-man roster, but now the Opening Day squad has been announced.
There were plenty of surprises to the initial collection of players, thanks to a barrage of injuries late in camp. The snubs weren't plentiful, but there are a couple of guys with reasonable gripes. Meanwhile, the unit grades may be a little harsher than most Sox fans envisioned.
First, let's run down the roster before we dive into each of the alluded to bullet points:
Position Players (13): David Ortiz, Mike Napoli, Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts, Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, Mookie Betts, Shane Victorino, Ryan Hanigan, Allen Craig, Daniel Nava, Brock Holt, Sandy Leon.
Pitchers (12): Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Justin Masterson, Wade Miley, Steven Wright, Edward Mujica, Junichi Tazawa, Anthony Varvaro, Alexi Ogando, Robbie Ross Jr., Tommy Layne, Craig Breslow.
Disabled List (3): Joe Kelly (biceps, 15-day DL), Koji Uehara (hamstring, 15-day DL), Christian Vazquez (elbow, 60-day DL).
Sandy Leon, Catcher
The tragic Christian Vazquez news forced the Red Sox to make a move to acquire catching depth. Cue Sandy Leon, the inexpensive, short-notice replacement option that was available. The ex-Nationals backstop hasn't proven to be an MLB-caliber hitter in his brief career, batting just .189 in 107 plate appearances spanning three seasons. However, like Vazquez, Leon's strength is his defensive ability.
Jason Mastrodonato of the Boston Herald notes that Leon gunned down 45 percent of runners attempting to steal on him during his eight-year minor league career. He's also a good pitch-framer who Amanda Comak of The Washington Times said drew "rave" reviews from his pitching staff back in 2013.
So why Leon rather than everyone's favorite prospect, Blake Swihart? The 23-year-old had a strong spring (.333 average with 8 RBI in 30 at-bats), but unlike the Cubs' decision on Kris Bryant, this is more than a service time issue.
Swihart has just 18 ineffective Triple-A games to his name—.261/.282/.377 slash line—and he didn't go mash nine home runs in March to demand a roster spot the way Bryant did. Even if he had, Baseball America's 17th-ranked prospect would still likely be Pawtucket-bound. The Red Sox want to see Swihart "polish up" his defense before thrusting him into the big leagues.
"Given the responsibilities of that position, he just barely got to Triple-A last year," general manager Ben Cherington told Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.com. "So it was very clear coming into spring training this was going to be Blake’s opportunity to go to Triple-A and play at that level, catch more veteran pitchers, and that’s not going to change due to injury."
Leon's strong arm and comfort level handling a staff fits the "defense-first" mindset that Red Sox catching instructor/bullpen coach Dana LeVangie preached to the Boston Herald. The organization hopes its potent lineup can hide Leon's shortcomings with the lumber and allow it to utilize his skill set behind the plate every so often.
Yet, despite public claims of comfort with the Opening Day catching duo, the door remains ajar for Swihart. Incumbent starter Ryan Hanigan is no great shakes with the bat (.208 average in 159 games since 2013), and it's possible the offense isn't the juggernaut many assume.
Xander Bogaerts' struggles could continue, Dustin Pedroia's wrist issues could flare up, father time could catch David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez could succumb to one of his laundry list of past ailments...you get the picture. If Swihart's bat gets off to a hot start and he shows progress defensively in Triple-A, then he can earn a June call-up. That's something that seemed highly unlikely pre-Vazquez injury.
Steven Wright, Starting Pitcher
Prepare for the Tim Wakefield references. Joe Kelly beginning the year on the disabled list with a biceps strain paved the way for knuckleballer Steven Wright to take the final rotation spot. For those who checked out amid 2014's last-place finish, Wright had a cup of coffee with the big league club late in the season. He posted a 2.57 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 21.0 MLB innings a year ago. Wright followed that up with a 2.60 ERA this spring, though his unsightly 1.62 WHIP is far from assuring.
Despite garnering an initial 25-man roster spot, Wright may not be long for Boston. Kelly could still make his first scheduled start April 11, the day he's eligible to be activated thanks to the backdated March 27 DL designation. After Kelly's horrific spring numbers—11.05 ERA, 2.45 WHIP—the Boston Herald's Mastrodonato notes his recent minor league outing was far more encouraging. The ex-Cardinals pitcher's immediate future will in part be determined by how he comes out of a simulated game slated for Monday.
In the meantime, the untaxing nature of a knuckleball makes Wright a nice long-inning option should Clay Buchholz's Opening Day start go off the rails or Justin Masterson get knocked around. If Kelly suffers a setback and isn't ready, Wright will take the hill Saturday afternoon against the Yankees.
Robbie Ross, Left-Handed Reliever
In what appeared to be a battle for one spot between Robbie Ross and Tommy Layne, both lefties earned Opening Day nods thanks to Koji Uehara's hamstring injury. The ex-Rangers pitcher flashed the same effectiveness out of the bullpen this spring (2.16 ERA) that he displayed from 2012-2013 before an unsuccessful transition to the rotation last season.
The advantage for an extra left-hander during the early slate of games trumped Matt Barnes' eye-popping fastball and strong final spring showing. The Red Sox go from Ryan Howard and Chase Utley to Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner before they christen Fenway for the first time in 2015 by hosting Bryce Harper's Nationals.
Rusney Castillo, Outfielder
There is no doubting that Rusney Castillo is one of the Red Sox's 25 best players. He gets the shaft initially due to loyalty to a respected veteran ahead of him. Given the lack of games Castillo has been able to play in recent years as he transitioned over from Cuba, the organization determined everyday at-bats in Triple-A were better for his development than fourth-outfielder duty with the big league club.
Castillo hit .310 in nine spring training contests after sitting out early in camp with an oblique strain. He didn't draw a walk and his patience at the plate is known to need some refinement. Despite the early demotion, Ben Cherington told The Boston Globe's Peter Abraham he isn't discouraged about Castillo's progression.
"He’s done everything within his control and only confirmed for us why we signed him in the first place. This is a long-term investment...We certainly see him as a major league player. It’s just not going to be on Opening Day in 2015."
Joining the likes of Swihart, Henry Owens, Eduardo Rodriguez and Barnes in Triple-A, there will many reasons to regularly check the Pawtucket box scores. Shane Victorino struggles remain Castillo's clearest path to regular playing time in Boston.
Matt Barnes, Right-Handed Pitcher
Back-to-back rocky appearances in mid-March ended up dooming Barnes. He surrendered three earned runs in two innings on March 14 and followed it up by allowing two runs in an inning of relief three days later.
The five earned runs in that stretch made his spring ERA a crooked 5.54, but the advanced numbers were favorable. His 1.08 WHIP and 18 strikeouts in 13 innings (compared to just three walks) turned some heads. His 97-98 mph fastball and .229 opponent's batting average impressed those within the organization. John Farrell praised the soon-to-be 25-year-old multiple times in Fort Myers.
With Kelly on the DL and Wright's lack of proven dependability, a man capable of providing multiple innings of relief would have been advantageous.
But as discussed in the surprises section, the extra lefty was deemed more valuable to the club. Barnes will slide into the Triple-A rotation and look to stretch himself back out as a starter. Given the rotation unrest, he could earn himself a "show me" start or two sometime this season.
The Sox's infield backbone comprised of a former MVP (Pedroia), World Series MVP (Pablo Sandoval), revitalized first baseman (Mike Napoli batting .400 with six home runs this spring) and future Hall of Fame designated hitter (David Ortiz) is one that most teams envy.
Thrusting Hanigan into a larger role that seems ill-suited for him at this stage in his career hurts the overall grade here. The unknown of Bogaerts also helps knock this down from the A range, but his pedigree still provides reason for hope (particularly after a spring where he posted a .368 on-base percentage).
Betts and a healthy Ramirez (for now, at least) is a good outfield base. Victorino didn't exactly put the questions surrounding him to rest by abandoning switch-hitting (again) and then batting just .190 in 16 spring contests.
Going with the veteran and 2013 playoff hero out of the gate makes sense, but you have to imagine Victorino's leash is short given Castillo's presence in Triple-A. If Betts and Castillo can fulfill their perceived potential and Ramirez has the ability to dodge the injury bug, then this could wind up being Boston's biggest strength.
Simply put, Allen Craig and Daniel Nava are starting caliber players. Being able to utilize them to spell Napoli (who has needed built-in time off in his career) or Victorino (who is trending in the wrong direction) is a big plus.
The human swiss army knife that is Brock Holt is also a decided advantage. His defensive malleability allowed the Red Sox to keep just four position players on the bench and arm the bullpen with an extra reliever. Newly acquired catcher Leon is the only negative that knocks what would have been an A+ down a couple of notches.
The rotation is the glaring weakness of the team that everyone has known for months. Kelly's biceps injury that forced the right-hander on the DL drops the mark ever so slightly. Buchholz is the Opening Day starter, but Rick Porcello is the most dependable arm at Farrell's disposal. Wade Miley should bounce back to the land of respectability, but he's a middle-of-the-pack innings eater.
Masterson was solid in his final regular season tune-up (two runs in five innings pitched) to finish the spring with a 3.52 ERA. The three-quarter arm thrower and Buchholz are the two biggest wild cards Boston has. Their play will likely determine if Boston's title hopes are legitimate.
The roller coaster Edward Mujica closer ride has the most damaging impact on this grade. A healthy Uehara would vault this to a B+, but there is too much uncertainty in the All-Star's absence.
Statistically speaking, Mujica is the third-best ninth-inning option with Uehara shelved, yet he'll get the end-of-game nod thanks to the ill-conceived "closer experience" argument. His 4.50 ERA and 1.50 WHIP this spring don't put my mind at ease that he's the right man for the temporary job.
The trio of aforementioned lefties is a nice short-term bonus, and Anthony Varvaro has pitched like the reliever who shined in Atlanta the past two seasons.
Outside Koji, Alexi Ogando is the most interesting man to watch in the pen. His spring performance (7.94 ERA) failed to reflect the glowing testimonials from Farrell and his teammates as he tries to resurrect his career.