Sunday, March 22, 2015

Dog Days of Spring Training

With two weeks to go before the start of the regular season, April 6 in Philadelphia for the Sox, the teams are in that period of limbo of spring training( the fans are as well).  The hitters ( and fans) are ready for the real games to begin, but the pitchers are still building up their innings.  It is the time of camp when one hears of "dead arms" and other nagging ailments.  At this point of the Grapefruit League season, let's take at look at the Red Sox.

Starting Rotation.

The five man rotation is set barring injury (or trade): Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Justin Masterson, Wade Miley, and Joe Kelly. Buchholz and  Porcello have pitched the best in Florida, with 1.80 and 2.70 ERA's respectively.  Masterson and Miley have had up and down performances.  Both got toasted in the same game versus the Phils a week ago, but Miley was outstanding yesterday with five innings of two hit shutout ball.  Masterson's biggest question seems to be his velocity which in his last outing was only around 88-89 instead of around 93 which is his career standard.  Kelly left his last start with an injury which is being called bicep tendonitis, Kelly is also being skipped in a start today.

The botom line is these five have not stopped the questions over a need for an ace, but the real question is could they have really done that by pitching in spring training?  If the Red Sox trade for another starter like Cole Hamels ( or Jordan Zimmerman, Johnny Cueto, David Price, et al) do not expect it to happen before June or more likely, July.

Pitching Depth aka the Pawtucket rotation.

Matt Barnes, Henry Owens, Eduardo Rodriquez, Brian Johnson, Stephen Wright, Edwin  Escobar.

The first and last names on that list seem to be heading for the Boston bullpen at some point in 2015.  Escobar might even be moved to the pen in AAA to start the year.  If Barnes ends up in Pawtucket he may continue to be in the rotation to start the year, more on Barnes in the bullpen section.

Stephen Wright, the 30 year old knuckleballer, qualifies as a kid only in knuckle ball age, seems to be the Sox "sixth starter".  He will start today in Florida in Joe Kelly's spot.  By all accounts, Wright will get the first shot in Boston if/when an additional starter is needed if it happens early in the season.

The three young lefties have all had impressive springs, although Owens has had his up and downs, and despite his ranking near the top of all Red Sox prospects, he could use more AAA seasoning.  Rodriquez and Johnson have both pitched very well with an ERA of 1.17 for Eduardo and 2.35 for the 2012 first rounder, Johnson.  Both have opened eyes this spring, Rodriguez was especially dominant with three perfect innings early in March against his old organization, the Orioles.  Any or all of the lefties could help out in Boston before the 2015 campaign ends.

Bullpen.

Two or three story lines have cropped up here.  Closer Koji Uehara has tweaked a hamstring and by his own admission being ready for Opening Day is uncertain.  Between this injury and the fact Koji turns 40 on April 3, the issue of who closes if Uehara cannot has arisen.  Assuming the Red Sox leave the underrated Junichi Tazawa in his 8th inning role, Edwin Mujica would seem to be the leading candidate from the current staff.  But that leads us back to Matt Barnes.  The young right hander can bring the fastball at 97 mph, especially in short one or two inning stints.  Whether on is bullish or bearish on the Boston bullpen, there is no question they could use more power arms in the pen ( Edwin Escobar also may help there). Early in the spring games, Barnes worked in relief, but the brass assured all he was still a AAA starter.  But this week Barnes has been twice brought in games on two days rest to pitch an inning or so at a time.  Manager John Farrell admitted to the press, Barnes was auditioning for a bullpen job.  Could Barnes be thrust in as closer if Koji cannot answer the bell on April 6?

Other bullpen issues include Timmy Layne looking like he is ahead of newcomer Robbie Ross, Jr for the second lefty role after Craig Breslow.  As far as getting out tough left handed hitters, former Brave Anthony Varvaro has spectacular numbers getting out lefty batters even though he pitches from the right side.  Also Brandon Workman has had a poor spring with an ERA of 11.25 in his four innings.  Brandon's conversion to the pen will likely continue in Pawtucket.

Catcher.

Starter Christian Vazquez missed most of the last week with a tender right elbow.  It is not considered serious, just one of those dog days type of ailment.  If healthy and if his bat stays healthy enough, he will catch about 110-120 games for Boston.  The other focus on the backstop position has been on prospect Blake Swihart.  Swihart, who was optioned to Pawtucket this week, had an outstanding major league camp hitting .389 with a home run in 18 at bats.  His defense and throwing also caught the staff's eye.  Swihart will hopefully get most of the year to catch at AAA before pushing his way to Boston.  I still believe there is no way the Sox include Blake in any potential Cole Hamels deal.  Backup catcher and newcomer Ryan Hanigan, hitting .231 on the spring, has been completely overshadowed by the kids.  Likely that will continue throughout his Boston career.

Infield.

At first base, watch out for Mike Napoli in 2015.  Nap after recovering from serious jaw surgery to correct his sleep apnea condition, is hitting .381 with two long home runs.  2015 is a contract year, and expect Napoli to make the most of it in the new and improved Sox lineup.

Another player who seems to have returned to good health is Dustin Pedroia, hitting .321 with a home run and double in his nine hits.  Pedey has been playing his usual Gold Glove defense as well.  Dustin has promised no more head first slides into first...we will see.

Shortstop Xander Bogaerts began the Grapefruit League with a pair of long home runs, although his batting average has slipped to .200.  Daily reports come from Fort Myers chronicling his improved first step and range at short, and despite a few erratic throws to first, Brian Butterfield and others have said they expect a much improved defensive showing from the X man.

At third base  one of Boston two major free agent signees, Pablo Sandoval, has not put up big numbers, but seems to be integrating himself into the team, and you can expect the Three Amigos ( Pablo, Big Papi, and Hanley Ramirez) to be the heart of the offense.

Despite a very strong camp form Jemile Weeks, Brock Holt appears to be the backup infielder.

Outfield.

Stories abound here, but the two major ones are Mookie Betts and the continuing log jam of outfielders.
Mookie at the beginning of camp looked to be blocked in center field by rookie Rusney Castilo and in right by returning Shane Victorino.  But Betts has ripped through Florida with almost daily extra base hits and diving catches in center field.  An oblique injury to Castillo opened the door for Betts and he has thrown that door wide open.  There is almost no chance that Betts is not the Opening Day center fielder and lead off hitter for Boston.

Castillo had not played in a Grapefruit League games until Friday.  The conventional wisdom is that due to this missed time in March and in the last year or two as he extricated himself from Cuba, Rusney will need to start the year at AAA to get at bats and playing time.  But in his debut on Friday, Castillo hit a three run pinch hit home run and the next day played center and had a single and triple.  The Cuban rookie may yet have time to make this club.

Another player involved in the center/right field competition is Shane Victorino.  Vic is 2 for16 on the spring and there have been a couple of signs he may not be as healthy as he claims.  He missed a week or so earlier after feeling soreness after some aggressive base running.  Then yesterday, John Farrell announced Victorino, a career switch hitter, will bat only right handed because batting left handed causes soreness.  Shane had been hitting only right handed since late 2013 due to injuries.  In the first days of camp, Farrell announced if healthy Shane Victorino was the Opening Day right fielder.  And he may well be there in right on April 6 in Philadelphia.  But I still contend Betts and Castillo will play a lot more games than Shane Victorino  for Boston in 2015.

The last player not completely out of the right field picture is Allen Craig.  Craig has looked a little bit more like the 2011-13 St. Louis version of himself this spring hitting .267 with a home run and four RBI.  Craig, who one year in St. Louis hit .454 with RISP,  showed some of that yesterday with a two out single to score Castillo.  One possible red flag still remains, Allen has struck eleven times in 30 AB's this spring.  Depending on what report you believe the Sox are shopping Craig hard or they do not want to trade him at all at his current low value.  His only chance of starting in right field would be an injury to Victorino and the need for Castillo to start at AAA for at bats.

Daniel Nava is a second switch hitter to give up the practice.  Nava however will hit only from the left side. The lefty bat may be the only thing that keeps Nava on this roster, as many of his teammates bat from the right side.

Hanley Ramirez, although not having a ton of fly balls hit his way in games, by all accounts is adjusting well to left field under the tutelage of Arnie Beyeler.  He is the likely cleanup hitter on this squad.

Two youngsters have acquitted themselves well enough this spring to earn big league jobs.  It just will not be in this crowded outfield at this time.  Bryce Brentz has hit two home runs and played well in the outfield.  At age 26, Brentz will head back to AAA as part of a prospect laden Pawtucket team, be he could use a trade to a big league team in need of an outfielder.  Jackie Bradley, Jr. seemingly has totally revamped his swing, making it quicker and shorter.  He is hitting .345 with line drives all over the field.  Farrell daily seems to mention Jackie is the best defensive outfielder in the game.  Barring more than one outfield injury, Bradley, Jr. is also ticketed for Pawtucket.  But if he keeps hitting over .300 with that same improved swing there, at some point he will become a valuable fourth outfielder in Boston, with another chance to start perhaps in 2016.

DH

This past week David Ortiz has been out with what was first called dehydration, and then the flu.  At this point Papi all ready has 15 spring at bats.  Give him another dozen or so, and he will be ready to play first base on Opening Day ( in Philly don't forget, no DH).

Others.

Some other players like infielders Garin Cecchini, Deven Marrero, and Sean Coyle have also opened eyes at Fort Myers, but will likely spend the bulk of their year in Rhode Island.

The rest of spring training will be a time where teams look to make, mostly minor, trades and moves to finalize rosters.  Boston could be involved in that process so stay tuned.

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