Football is officially over. Hockey and basketball will help pass the time, but for many New England sports fans, Boston Red Sox baseball is the next big thing.
Boston Red Sox pitchers and catchers must report to Fort Myers Florida by February 18th. That’s a mere nine days away. Truck Day is less than 24 hours away. The weather is cold and grey, but the reality is that major league baseball is not so far away.
Some teams start spring training with their starting pitching, bullpen and starting lineup all but set for opening day. Other teams enter the exhibition period with a myriad of big questions.
The 2016 Boston Red Sox are somewhere in-between. Here are three questions that the team hopes to have resolved by the time opening day arrives in early April.
No.1: How does the starting rotation line-up?
David Price is the team’s best pitcher, highest paid player and an obvious No.1 starter.
After that it gets interesting.
The most recent depth chart lists Clay Buchholz as the team’s No.2 starter. Buchholz has the experience and in spite of his inconsistency, he’s also had the best performances of any other member of the Red Sox starting rotation.
Buchholz makes sense in that role now, but the reality is that he could get hurt, in fact most Red Sox fans would tell you that he will get hurt, and it is only a matter of when and how severe the injury will be.
Is projected No.3 starter Rick Porcello the guy Red Sox fans dreaded seeing on the mound for the first half of 2015? Or is he the guy who had a very encouraging, bounce-back second half?
Eduardo Rodriguez might be a lot better than the No.4 starter he’s projected as, but he’s going to have to prove that he’s solved his issues with tipping his pitches. Rodriguez certainly thinks the issue is in the past, but count on the Red Sox keeping close tabs on his performances throughout spring training.
Joe Kelly is on the shakiest ground of any of the Red Sox projected starters. Much like Porcello, Kelly had an awful first half of 2015, but rebounded with an impressive second half. Unlike Porcello the Red Sox have not invested a ton of money in Kelly.
If Henry Owens has an impressive spring and Kelly struggles then Kelly could find himself out of the starting rotation by the time April rolls around.
Basically every one of the Red Sox starters except for Price has the potential to not fulfill expectations, and in the cases of Kelly and Rodriguez their spots in the rotation are not that secure.
No.2: Does Christian Vazquez compete for the starting catcher job?
If you just started following the Red Sox last season, then there’s no doubt in your mind that Blake Swihart will be the Red Sox starting catcher this season and for years to come.
If you aren’t
so new to following the Red Sox then you know that there’s another talented, young catcher who might have a say in who starts this season, and beyond.
Christian Vazquez doesn’t have the hype of Blake Swihart. He wasn’t a first round draft pick and he didn’t appear on all the top prospect lists either.
Make no mistake about it, Swihart is the likely starter. He’s a switch-hitter who is projected as a much better overall offensive player than Vazquez. Swihart is also an above-average fielder, but he’s not Vazquez.
That’s because Vazquez is an elite fielding catcher. He’s elite when it comes to pitch-framing and he’s got one of the best arms of any catcher in the majors or minors.
Keep an eye on Vazquez this spring. He’s coming off tommy john surgery which caused him to miss all of last season. He’s already declared himself “ready to roll,” and he could put a lot of pressure on Swihart to justify his expected starting gig.
No.3: Hanley Ramirez, can he play first base?
Hanley Ramirez has spent 11 seasons in the majors. He’s mostly played shortstop, but he’s also played third base, left field and spent a little time as a designated hitter.
The Red Sox would really like to see Ramirez learn to be a serviceable first baseman. If the transition is successful, it will make what to this point has been a disastrous free agent contract, into a productive one.
As Masslive.com’s Christopher Smith has reported, Ramirez was asked by the Red Sox to lose 15-20 pounds this offseason, but as of a few weeks ago it seems like he only shed three or four.
The mission to turn Hanley into a legitimate first baseman starts soon, Hanley is expected to arrive in Fort Myers later this week, prior to his required reporting date.
Keep an eye on Hanley this spring, he has to show not just ability, but enthusiasm. If he falters the Red Sox will be forced to make some difficult choices.
There are other issues for Red Sox fans to keep tabs on of course. Health is always an issue. Can Rusney Castillo and Jackie Bradley Jr improve at the plate? Pablo Sandoval has to bounce back from an awful 2015, and the entire bullpen except for Craig Kimbrel is a bit suspect.
It isn’t all negatives though. David Price, Craig Kimbrel, and Dustin Pedroia are three established and exceptional veteran players. Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts could both be All-Stars, and David Ortiz, the greatest postseason hitter in franchise history and arguably the greatest DH in league history is entering his final season.
It all starts next week.