FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Before baseball was put on hold indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic, there were a lot of important developments that took place in Fort Myers with the Red Sox.
Here are five things we learned, and what they might mean when baseball resumes.
Sale situation more uncertain than ever
As the offseason progressed, the Red Sox became increasingly optimistic that ace Chris Sale was recovered from the left elbow issues that he had last season and would get back to being a force. Things went bad from the start, however, once Spring Training began. Sale’s entrance to camp was delayed due to the flu and pneumonia, putting him two weeks behind the other pitchers. And once Sale tried to ramp back up, he quickly ran into trouble. A day after he threw to teammates on a back field, his elbow started barking.
Sale got at least three medical opinions after that, and the diagnosis that the Red Sox announced was a strained left flexor tendon. Sale is expected to start playing catch soon, if he hasn’t already, and then progress to mound work. If his elbow barks again, season-ending surgery could be the next step. Then there is the more appetizing flip side. With MLB shutting down, perhaps the extra time will allow Sale to get healthy again.
E-Rod, Eovaldi primed to lead rotation
For the Red Sox to hang in the race early in the season without Sale, they would need the 1-2 tandem of Eduardo Rodriguez and Nathan Eovaldi to be strong, if not dominant. If their Grapefruit League performances were any indication, that might actually be realistic and not a pipe dream. Rodríguez, 26, is coming off the best season (19-6, 3.81 ERA, 213 strikeouts) of his career and is at the age where he can still get better. In three Spring Training starts, he had a 1.64 ERA and an eye-popping 20 strikeouts to just two walks over 11 innings.
Eovaldi was a much bigger question mark coming into the season than E-Rod, because the former was injured and inconsistent last season. But Eovaldi came in healthy and looking much like the pitcher who dominated during the 2018 postseason. Eovaldi didn’t give up a run in his three Grapefruit League appearances, walking one and striking out 12 over eight innings.
Benintendi ready to lead (off)
Without Mookie Betts, the Red Sox are left with the daunting task of replacing the superstar in the top spot of the lineup. Initially, that was a concern because Andrew Benintendi struggled as a leadoff hitter in 2019, hitting .256 in 48 starts atop the lineup. His problems were compounded when he led off the game, going 5-for-42 (.119) in those situations. But Benintendi came in this spring on a mission to prove that those numbers last year were a fluke. He belted a homer to lead off a game at Hammond Stadium early on and has been hitting the ball hard all spring.
Not just as a leadoff hitter, but in general, it’s crucial the Red Sox get a bounce-back performance from Benintendi after his disappointing 2019 season. With dangerous hitters like Rafael Devers, J.D. Martinez and Xander Bogaerts right behind Benintendi, Boston’s lineup could be dominant if the leadoff man has a big year.
JBJ finds stroke
The void left by Betts must be filled collectively. One important piece to that would be Jackie Bradley Jr. getting back to the point where his hot streaks at least keep pace with his slumps. Last year, the slumps won out and Bradley hit .225, his lowest average since 2014. Bradley had seen a launch-angle specialist in the offseason prior to ’19 and it appeared to do more harm than good, as the center fielder was lost, from a mechanical standpoint, for the first couple of months of the season.
JBJ is back to a more simplified approach at the plate, which is allowing his athleticism to take over. Before the games stopped, Bradley went 12-for-29 (.414) with two doubles, two homers and five RBIs. When Bradley is productive in the lower-third of the batting order, the Red Sox are hard to stop.
Brasier top comeback candidate
Ryan Brasier came out of nowhere to become a lights-out setup man in the championship-winning season of 2018. Last season, he was just another guy. At one point, he was struggling enough that he went back to the Minor Leagues for a month.
However, Brasier looks poised to become a force again. He has spent considerable time this spring with pitching coach Dave Bush and assistant coach Pete Walker, eliminating flaws in his delivery. He was strong in Grapefruit League games, allowing one run over five innings in his first four appearances. The Red Sox have every reliever back from a bullpen that was quietly strong in the second half of last season. And if they get a strong Brasier back, that could make the unit a team strength in 2020.