Spring Training 2016:Two good signs for the Red Sox this spring

Koji Uehara

Boston Red Sox pitcher Koji Uehara reacts after Tampa Bay Rays’ Ryan Roberts pop out to end the top of the ninth inning with two men left on base during a baseball game in Boston, Saturday, April 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Sometimes teams leave Spring Training with injuries and question marks. Sometimes the six or seven week period leading up to opening day ends with a team and their fans feeling really good about the upcoming regular season.

Now that the most essential equipment has left Boston and is headed to Fort Myers Florida, it is time to start imagining what a really good spring training might look like for the 2016 Boston Red Sox. Here are two things to look for that would be considered very positive developments.

No.1: Who are those two slimmer guys at the corner infield positions? 

Red Sox fans know exactly who this refers to. Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. Two veterans with contracts worth a total of $183 million in guaranteed money, Sandoval and Ramirez are likely two of the key reasons that Ben Cherington is now referred to as “former Red Sox General Manager.”

Sandoval and Ramirez were disappointments in just about every way imaginable last season. Both players battled injuries, Sandoval played in 126 games and Ramirez played in just 105.

Both players had sub-par offensive numbers when they were healthy. In the field, Sandoval was a lot worse than expected, while Ramirez was a total failure in left field. Sandoval also was benched for a game when it was revealed he was spending game time on his Instagram account.

When the last place campaign finally concluded, the Red Sox top brass asked the two players to return to the team in better physical shape next season.

To sum it up, just about everything that could go wrong for the two high-priced veterans, did.

What if everything is reversed this spring?

What if Ramirez looks solid at first base and is spraying line drives all over the outfield? What if he’s not on pace for a career-worst on-base-percentage? What if he’s slimmer and quicker, and he’s hustling and high-fiving?

Could Pablo Sandoval morph into an elite third baseman? Probably not. In spite of his large contract, Sandoval has never been an elite third baseman. He’s been elite in the postseason, but at the end of the day you’re looking at a guy who has a career slash line of .288/.339/.452 who has never hit more than 25 home runs or driven in more than 90 runs in a single season.

Sandoval can still be a lot better than what he was in 2015.

He’s another player who needs to slim down and ramp up his production. His fielding needs to improve, his hitting needs to improve, as a whole Sandoval needs to dramatically improve on his lack-luster 2015 season.

Ramirez and Sandoval have a ton of pressure on them. They’re the two highest paid offensive players on the team, and they’re both coming off awful seasons. A fast start to the 2016 season would do wonders for their confidence and would help relief some of the pressure from the fans and media.

A solid spring training does not guarantee a good start to the season, but it sure wouldn’t hurt.

No. 2: Koji Uehara looks like that guy from 2013

When the Red Sox traded valuable prospects for closer Craig Kimbrel, the team effectively ended the era of Koji Uehara as the team’s closer. Kimbrel will close while Uehara reverts back to a role he’s familiar with, that of eighth inning set-up man. Don’t think for one instant, that the change in his role diminishes his importance to the team.

Major League Baseball is in the era of the bullpen. Winning teams often have great closers, but they’ve also got great arms that appear in the 7th and 8th innings. The World Series Champion Kansas City Royals had Greg Holland as their closer, but when he got hurt the team was able to insert Wade Davis into the role. Davis was every bit or even more dominant than Holland.

The point is the the Red Sox really need a healthy and effective Koji, and until he’s on the mound making opposing batters look silly with his split-fingered fastball, the jury is out on what the team will get from him.

Uehara is coming off a fractured wrist which ended his season in early August. He turns 41 years old on April 3rd.  At some point in the not-too-distant future, Uehara’s health won’t be as big an issue as his age will be.

The Red Sox really need Uehara in top form this season.  The rest of the bullpen offers up some promise, but the two most likely replacements for Uehara, Carson Smith and Junichi Tazawa have both shown signs that they’re not fully prepared for the wear-and-tear of a full season of constant use.

If Uehara looks shaky on the mound this spring that’s not good. If he looks like the guy who was almost impossible to get a hit off of in 2013 then the 2016 Red Sox bullpen could be a legitimate strength, a welcome change for a team with one of the league’s worst bullpens in 2015.

 

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