Spring Hopes Eternal

Spring training kicked off for the Boston Red Sox yesterday with their annual double-header against two local universities. The new season brings new hope along with it. Lisa Carney explains why spring hopes eternal.

Weather-wise, spring in New England is kinda sneaking up on us and if you listen real close, you will hear the sounds of not one person complaining. However, we don’t want to let it move in so unceremoniously that we forget to check in to Red Sox spring training to find out where our expectations for the new baseball season stand.

When last seen, our Sox completed a season of paradox with a last place finish that never looked so good. And while manager John Farrell leaving the team to fight cancer was big news, it was the team’s youth movement that everyone wanted to talk about.

Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Blake Swihart, Jackie Bradley Jr., Eduardo Rodriguez and Henry Owens got people jazzed up. As a result, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz had an exciting and talented team to lead again. However, last place finishes happen for a variety of reasons and as the year wore on, the Sox had plenty to choose from.

I wish I didn’t know what they did last summer

Trouble started early. There was no ace in spring training 2015 and that didn’t change as the schedule played out. Clay Buchholz came close to a brief early season stretch, but following a frustrating trend for the talented pitcher, he ended the stretch and his season with an injury.

The lack of an ace started a domino effect on the whole staff. An already thin bullpen had zero chance of being effective after the starting five failed, time after time, to get out of the 5th or 6th inning. By late season, there were days you could see the bubblegum and duct tape hanging from the sleeves of relievers’ arms as they trudged to the mound, heads hung low – batters’ eyes really wide.

The young offensive core was supported by the ageless Ortiz, but Pedroia only played in 93 games. Hanley Ramirez crashed into a wall in early May and left his power swing in the divot that formed. Pablo Sandoval made 3rd base look like a pad of wet cement as he plodded along with subpar defense and excruciatingly bland offensive numbers.

All this meant that despite the very real excitement for the youth movement, the Red Sox went into the offseason with some huge question marks. So how did the new management team, now led by Dave Dombrowski, do?

A signing for things to come

Without a doubt, the number one offseason need was for quality pitching of any kind. It’s safe to say that after signing true ace David Price and then bolstering the bullpen with not one but two elite relievers (Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith), some serious mending has been accomplished. Price is the kind of guy that sets the tone for the four starters that follow. He’s fierce and demands the ball. He has chutzpah. He’s also a horse who crushes it on innings per start (average 6.9 inn/game started in 2015 which was good for a 4th place tie in MLB). In short, he’s everything the Red Sox didn’t have last year.

Koji Uehara’s age coupled with the 2015 season-ending fracture in his pitching arm presented too many potential problems to ignore. Fortunately, Dombrowski’s team acted boldly in two trades that sent some prize pieces in the farm system and arguably the team’s most dependable starter in 2015, Wade Miley, off in different directions for Craig Kimbrel, Carson Smith and Roenis Elias. While Elias is a depth arm likely to begin the season in Triple A, it’s easy to hear the excitement in John Farrell’s voice when he talks about the guys joining his new look bullpen:

“What’s clearly different with this group is that it’s deeper in talent, it’s deeper in performance, it’s deeper in the ability to get strikeouts in key spots. We’ve got the ability to now assign innings to individual guys where they can probably mentally prepare for that inning.”   

It’s exciting to see that Boston has brought in some exciting talent to fix issues that held them back in 2015. So what, if anything, stands in the way of Red Sox fans’ hopes for 2016?

Well since you asked

The infield corner spots were troublesome last year and there still isn’t a clear picture on either of them. It’d be great if Hanley adjusts to first base, a la Youk 2007, allowing the comfort in the field to return his power swing at the plate, but what if it doesn’t? There’s always hope that Travis Shaw’s breakout to end last season means a little more depth at the position than say, for what we see at third.

It’s hard to put weight concerns to the side when talking about a position that requires quick reflexes and agility but you have to hope that a season to acclimate to a new team means the offense will improve for Sandoval. Sure, Brock Holt can play a decent third base but the hot corner comes with offensive expectations that the plucky kid just can’t deliver. Unfortunately for the last few seasons, neither has Sandoval. However, the extreme drop in OPS+ from 2014 to last season could mean there’s so much realistic room for improvement that an uptick is nearly a lock for 2016. If not, the alternatives are downright scary. Championship teams don’t sustain deadweight at the corners and there aren’t any power wielding third base prospects knocking on Fenway’s door anytime soon. Simply put, Panda has to do better.

The outfield is also a mixed bag for the Red Sox. Mookie Betts is a flat out star in the making but how the rest of the outfielders continue to adjust to MLB life will have a lot to say about how the Red Sox season goes. JBJ is an inning to inning highlight reel but he’s still looking for his first consistent year at the plate. Is he a .240 hitter, .280, .300? No one knows because all he does is randomly flash streaks of all three. With regular playing time Rusney Castillo began to look more comfortable at the plate but there were still too many moments of looking challenged by various game fundamentals. If Castillo and Bradley Jr. continue to be overwhelmed by the MLB, it could be another long season.

But hey, in baseball, spring hopes eternal

When everyone’s 0-0 with 162 to go, there’s no reason not to believe this is our year. Hanley’s gonna crush 45, Papi’s going out in style hugging his new buddy and Cy Young winner David Price, as MVP Mookie Betts fills the trophy with champagne so Batting Champ and Comeback Player* Pedroia can get a sip.

It’s official. Spring is ovah. Bring on summah!

* of course Pedroia will refuse the Comeback Player Award as he will never believe he was anything less than awesome, therefore not deserving of recognition for a comeback that never happened

Lisa Carney has written about the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, Pedro Martinez, and a Dustin Pedroia trade.

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