Free agents will be working out in Florida, hoping for a job. J.D. Martinez will continue to be a hot name until someone signs him. Maybe the union and the league will keep sparring. Through it all, there will be regular old spring training, some baseball normalcy. A Red Sox team that's lost a couple pieces but remains largely unchanged from last season's 93-win team reports to Fort Myers this week. A new manager is in place, and there are some elements to keep an eye on right away.
How do Alex Cora, the coaches and the players blend?
The Red Sox do have some new faces in uniform as spring begins. They’re just not going to be playing. Manager Alex Cora’s expected hands-on approach with some of the younger players could create some interesting scenes: is he in the clubhouse more often? Is he working one-on-one with guys in certain drills? A new coaching staff has a getting-to-know-you process with all the players. With another year under their belts, players like Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi and Jackie Bradley Jr. — Bradley in particular, given he’s older (he turns 28 April 19) — could start to take on different roles in the clubhouse, as part of the natural growth and maturity process. This is a group that’s been together a long time and is virtually unchanged from last year. The consistency of player personnel, when combined with the new perspectives of Cora and his staff, could amount to something special.
How does the bullpen shake out?
You can argue that the most reliable unit on the 2017 Red Sox was its bullpen. The group’s 3.07 ERA was second in the majors only to the Indians. Carson Smith returned at the end of the season. If he remains healthy, the Sox should have their replacement for Addison Reed in-house. But do they really have enough?
If you look back to the playoffs, David Price was the most trusted reliever the Sox had, along with Craig Kimbrel, naturally. Spring training isn’t exactly the proving ground in this case, but does Cora want to establish typical bullpen roles, or keep things more fluid? Inside of that conversation, does one of Matt Barnes, Heath Hembree or Joe Kelly distinguish himself further? Kelly threw 2 2/3 innings in the Division Series, and Austin Maddox threw two innings even. Barnes, meanwhile, wasn’t on the playoff roster. Along with a big bat, the Sox this offseason had their eye on a lefty reliever. Fernando Abad departed via free agency. They could still land a southpaw, but if they don’t, Robby Scott is the guy. Tyler Thornburg could be a contributor eventually. Kimbrel discussed the need for communication with his new manager when it comes to pitching outside of the ninth inning. Presumably, that matter will be sorted out in Florida.
How do the starters approach spring workload?
Less is more. David Price has a throwing elbow to manage. It’s well known that Chris Sale is going to be modifying his routine in an attempt to maintain his dominance all the way through the end of the season. He was amped up for his first year in Boston and came out firing in April, but wasn’t the same guy when the playoffs arrived. Around the game, you’re seeing fewer and fewer pitchers throw 200 innings. Bullpen usage is on the rise, in part to keep starters healthy, in part because effectiveness dips the more times a starter works through an opposing lineup’s order. Rick Porcello has had a huge workload the past two years: including the postseason, Porcello threw exactly 20 fewer innings in 2017 than he had in 2016, yet the difference in pitches thrown was only 17. Sale has the third most pitches thrown between the 2016-17 seasons, and Porcello the fifth most, including the postseason.
Are the Killer B’s confident, healthy and ready to party like it’s 2016?
If the Red Sox don’t get J.D. Martinez, there is a chance the team can still be excellent and win 93 games again. It’s just a lesser chance. The combination of Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts had 201 fewer regular-season at-bats in 2017 then they did in 2016. They still struck out a combined 27 times more in 2017, a whole game’s worth of K’s. They collected 115 fewer hits and 27 fewer home runs. All had health issues, with Bogaerts’ the most pronounced. They all felt a connection with David Ortiz. A year later, are they comfortable and primed for a return closer to 2016 production levels?
How does second base work out in Dustin Pedroia’s absence?
For a decade, second base has been a given. It’s easy to take Dustin Pedroia for granted. As he’s recovering from right knee surgery, will Brock Holt and Marco Hernandez hold down the fort effectively? Will they share time? The Sox could have added some infield help but didn't do that either. Pedroia’s a central figure on the Red Sox, but how strong he’ll be at the plate upon his return is to be seen.