By Matt Straub
Thursday is “Truck Day” for the Boston Red Sox, who have gotten so good at selling things they’ve made the day the team’s equipment trucks head to Florida for Spring Training into a fan fest type event at which they will sell tickets and merchandise.
More importantly, however, it signals the start of the process which will determine the 2015 Red Sox roster. Position battles will emerge, rookies will impress, and various lineups and defensive alignments will emerge.
Most fans won’t really turn their attention to camp until March, when roster debates begin, and I assure you we’ll have some here on the site. There are, however, plenty of things to keep track of before the trucks and players come back north in April.
So while we’re a ways away from breaking down the roster, here’s a look at what to watch for during the next two months as the Red Sox look to put the stench of 2014 behind them.
How do Shane Victorino, Allen Craig, and other players who battled injuries last year look? Victorino is the most important case, as his return would give the Red Sox another important weapon offensively they lacked last year. Boston missed his energy during its bungled title defense. His return would make the outfield even more crowded, but that’s a better problem to have than not having enough players.
How Mookie Betts continues to grow from last year’s hot start to his career is crucial. Is he another flash in the pan like Jackie Bradley Jr. appears to be, or a star in the making who will force himself into the lineup. Speaking of Bradley Jr., can he turn his career around, or is this the year he forces the Red Sox to give up on him? Making the team won’t be as easy as he and the fans seem to think it will be for JBJ.
The Red Sox insist they don’t need an ace, but they will need to settle on a rotation. Rick Porcello seems to be the leader in the clubhouse to start Opening Day, so watching to see if he takes command of the staff will be interesting. Clay Buchholz also needs a strong spring, both on the field and with his attitude in the clubhouse, if he’s going to emerge as a key piece like the Red Sox hope. Spring training numbers mean very little, but how the new pitchers (and an important old one) assert themselves into this year’s team will start to be determined in Florida, and matters greatly.
Xander Bogearts is still young, but he’s closer to veteran status than rookie status at this point. It’s time for him to put the inconsistencies of the past behind him. He must take hold of the shortstop position and establish himself as someone who belongs every day to make sure his place isn’t questioned again. He needs a solid spring.
Settle The Outfield Mess
If Victorino is healthy, Boston will have six outfielders who will all need to play for various reasons. The Red Sox have to have Rusney Castillo out there to see what they have, they stupidly gave Hanley Ramirez a small fortune to play left field, Betts needs to play every day to develop the way he can, and Daniel Nava is too helpful to rot on the bench. Throw in Bradley Jr. and the Red Sox have to move at least one player before the season starts. They can’t come north with all those players unless they plan on carrying only 11 pitchers.
Fill The Middle
Assuming Koji Uehara is healthy again, the back end of the pen is set with Koji and Junichi Tazawa. But the Red Sox need to figure out the rest of the bullpen. They need a lefty specialist (unless Craig Breslow miraculously comes back to form, which seems unlikely.) They must figure out what they have in Alexi Ogando, and they will need to figure out who pitches the often overlooked middle innings. Will they let the young players do it again? The strength of the bullpen hasn’t gotten enough attention in recent years for Boston, and it might finally get some when people see how shaky this bullpen is shaping up to be.
More questions will emerge, but Boston has to get some answers down in Florida. September and October are what matter, but the Red Sox will need to use the spring to figure out how to reach the fall.