Red Sox still living the dream
Healthy and strong at the midpoint of spring training, all signs point upward
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- And on the 20th day, they rested.
It has been 20 days since John Farrell assembled the Red Sox for their first full-squad workout here. Nineteen days remain before the Sox open the regular season March 31 against Baltimore in Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Here are 10 things to note at the midpoint of camp, as Sox players (with the exception of Felix Doubront, throwing in a minor league game) enjoy a scheduled day off, their only one of spring.
1. The team is mostly healthy
Always the most important part of camp: Ask the Atlanta Braves, who have already lost two starting pitchers. So far, the Sox have been blessed with a camp full of healthy players. Think about last spring, when David Ortiz had a wounded Achilles, Stephen Drew was dealing with a concussion, Mike Napoli was treading cautiously on suspect hips, Franklin Morales had a bad back and Craig Breslow was nursing shoulder tendinitis. So far, the only real casualty of note has been Jake Peavy, who nearly sliced off his left index finger with a fishing knife, but he is back on schedule, due to pitch Thursday. Shane Victorino took a couple of extra weeks to get his legs and back in shape, A.J. Pierzynski turned over his ankle a couple of times, David Ross had an inflamed tendon in his ankle and Breslow is proceeding carefully with his shoulder, but so far the Sox have dodged any major setbacks.
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2. The Grady Sizemore Experiment is more than mad science
It has been the best storyline of spring: whether the ministrations of Dan Dyrek, the man who kept Larry Bird upright, and the rest of the Sox medical staff will result in the triumphant return of Grady Sizemore, a center fielder of extraordinary skills before his body broke down in myriad ways. The early returns have elicited growing excitement within the Sox clubhouse that this thing may actually work, that at 31, a healthy Sizemore can reclaim the talents that made him a three-time All-Star before the age of 25.
The Sox have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, with this gamble. They have lost none of their confidence in Jackie Bradley Jr., a major league-ready talent who is preparing this spring as if he will be the Opening Day center fielder. So far, Bradley has not registered the impact he made last spring, when he hit .419 with a couple of home runs and played terrific defense. This spring, he is batting .208 with no home runs, and it is Sizemore who is getting his at-bats with the regulars.
But three weeks of camp does not begin to address the question of Sizemore's durability. And even if he makes the club, it remains implausible that he would be an everyday player, which invites other questions: On the days he doesn't play, who plays center? It would seem if Bradley is not the choice March 31, he would be better served playing every day in Pawtucket rather than as an occasional sub in Boston. That would also allow the Sox to keep Mike Carp, who proved a very useful bat last season, with Shane Victorino sliding over to play center and Daniel Nava to play right when Sizemore can't play.
It is too soon to pencil in Sizemore as the starter, even though it appears the Sox also view him as the solution to their search for the right man to replace Jacoby Ellsbury as leadoff man. But the next 19 days will be intriguing to watch.
3. Felix Doubront is the starter most likely to have a breakout year
The 26-year-old Venezuelan left-hander is entering his third full season in the rotation. He showed up in camp in the best shape of his career, worked this winter with pitching coach Juan Nieves on making some technical adjustments to his delivery to give him better command, is full of confidence after pitching some huge postseason innings in relief, and has reached that point of his career where top performance will be rewarded with some serious coin.
"This is a talented left-hander with four good pitches and for the majority of last season was one of the better starters we had,'' Farrell said after Doubront's first start in camp. "He was very consistent at a time when we needed it.''
Doubront has all the ingredients in place. The better conditioning should help to prevent another late-season fade, and the mound presence early in camp suggests a pitcher who realizes what's at stake for his career.
4. The pen is mightier
Injuries have made the Sox bullpen particularly volatile the last two years, with injuries to closers Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan leading to the revelation that the Sox had a closer of historic proportions in Koji Uehara. The 39-year-old Japanese reliever has set the bar extraordinarily high for himself, but the way he has looked in camp -- as frighteningly good as ever -- it's as if Koji Time was merely suspended for a few months. And behind Uehara, the Sox have lined up formidable late-inning pieces in Junichi Tazawa, Andrew Miller and Edward Mujica, with Breslow taking a measured approach to preparing for an encore to his career-best season. Drake Britton has looked very impressive to date but may start the season in Triple-A, with the Sox holding on to veteran Chris Capuano, who provides veteran insurance if a starter goes down. Veteran Burke Badenhop, a sinkerballing strike-thrower, figures to get regular work in the middle innings, with Brandon Workman also starting in Triple-A.
5. Middlebrooks throws down the gauntlet
Third-year third baseman Will Middlebrooks came to camp looking noticeably stronger, declared his aspirations to win a Gold Glove and has been making consistent, hard contact at the plate, especially in the last week. He got off to a great start last season, too, hitting three home runs in the sixth game of the season in Toronto, then went into a horrific slump, compounded by a separated rib. The Sox believe his right-handed power has increased value because of market scarcity, and if he can avoid succumbing to the dual temptations of getting pull-happy and expanding his strike zone, he could be a force in the Sox lineup. If nothing else, he can temporarily end the talk of moving Xander Bogaerts to third.
6. The "X" games have yet to begin in earnest
Bogaerts carries enormous expectations this spring, ranked as Boston's top prospect, the No. 2 prospect in the game (behind Minnesota's Byron Buxton), an All-Star in waiting by almost all accounts, with 25-to-30 home run power and an advanced approach at the plate that marks him as a perennial .300 hitter. To date, all that promise has only intermittently been on display, with Bogaerts batting just .167 in the early games. But more importantly, he has demonstrated that playing shortstop is well within his purview, and whatever drop-off defensively the Sox will experience from the absence of Stephen Drew, Bogaerts' bat should more than compensate. The Sox are still trying to get a better read on newly imported utilityman Jonathan Herrera, who is fine at short and second, and can play third base, and the Sox may well look for more depth at the position. But the Middlebrooks-Bogaerts combination has all but ended talk that Drew will be added to the mix, unless Drew totally capitulates and comes back to the Sox on their terms, which is unlikely. One injury, though, could change the conversation.
7. Clay Buchholz comes with a "Handle With Care" label
The rotator cuff strain/bursitis that caused Clay Buchholz to be shut down for three months last season apparently has responded well to the rest; he is throwing free and easily again, bearing no resemblance to the guy who, minus his usual velocity, held the Cardinals at bay for four innings in Game 4 of the World Series. Still, the Sox, mindful of the run of injuries that have limited Buchholz in each of the last four seasons, are proceeding cautiously with the right-hander, even more so than with the other starters in camp, all of whom have been given limited work early on. Buchholz is slotted in the No. 5 spot in the rotation to open the season, in the hope that careful management of his innings early will result in an ability to maintain his workload all summer.
8. Deals on deck for Ortiz, Lester
A one-year extension for David Ortiz should not take much longer to finalize; the Sox DH has been a contented camper, joking about his advanced age, the behavior of a man secure in the knowledge that the Sox will satisfy his desire for another year tacked on his contract. The negotiations for Jon Lester figure to be more complicated, despite Lester's stated preference to stay here, even if that means taking a discount. How the Sox and Lester define the term "discount" will be a key factor in negotiations, but Lester came out throwing like an ace at the top of his game in his first spring outing, and his durability marks him as a good risk going forward.
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9. Christian Vazquez is a keeper
Last spring, catcher Christian Vazquez dazzled with his powerful throwing arm; this spring, the talk is of how the 23-year-old native of Puerto Rico has made dramatic strides in developing a fully rounded game, with great improvement at the plate. He and Daniel Butler will give the Sox viable options at Pawtucket should either of their 37-year-old catchers, A.J. Pierzynski or David Ross, break down. And Blake Swihart, in his first big-league camp, demonstrated the athleticism that makes him another catching prospect of great promise.
10. Get your Pawtucket tickets early
They will not all pan out; baseball never works that way. But the Sox will be loaded in Triple-A with legitimate prospects all over the diamond, starting with a rotation brimming with talent (Allen Webster, Anthony Ranaudo, Henry Owens, Matt Barnes, Rubby De La Rosa, possibly Workman and Britton). Vazquez, third baseman Garin Cecchini, shortstop Deven Marrero and right fielder Bryce Brentz all have made eye-catching impressions, and the Ryan Lavarnway as first baseman experiment should get a long look.