CF job? Fifth starter? Here are 5 key storylines to watch this spring

February 23rd, 2024

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The morning drill work the Red Sox have been doing the last couple of weeks will continue in earnest. But starting on Saturday, most afternoons will include Grapefruit League action.

Friday was a soft launch of sorts, as the Sox suited up mainly Minor Leaguers for the annual seven-inning college exhibition game against Northeastern, which they won, 7-2.

Saturday’s Grapefruit League opener in Sarasota against the Orioles will be when the evaluation period officially starts for manager Alex Cora and his staff.

Here are some of top subplots to keep an eye on this spring:

Rafaela’s quest to win center field job
Cora said that most of Boston’s key position players will make their Grapefruit League debuts with back-to-back games on Sunday and Monday. But , MLB Pipeline’s No. 76 overall prospect, will be in action on Saturday as he begins his quest to become the team’s Opening Day center fielder.

Rafaela is a superb defender, but his offense is a work in progress. He should get a lot of chances in Spring Training to show what he can do in the batter’s box. His key area of development is to make better swing decisions.

Cora’s outfield alignment is dependent on if Rafaela breaks camp with the club. If so, he will patrol center field, with some combination of Jarren Duran, Tyler O’Neill, Wilyer Abreu and Rob Refsnyder at the corners. Should Rafaela open at Triple-A Worcester, Duran will likely hold down center field.

Giolito’s rebound
From 2019-21, was one of the most consistent right-handers in the American League. But the last two years have been a step back for Giolito. His quest to get his groove back is one of the most important storylines of the season for the Red Sox. Giolito, Boston’s most significant free-agent acquisition in the offseason, will make his Grapefruit League debut on Sunday at home in a split-squad game against the Twins.

Giolito has looked impressive in side sessions and live batting practice, but the true test starts once he starts facing other teams. The Red Sox don’t have a true ace, meaning Giolito has a chance to start on Opening Day if he can master all the tweaks he is working on this spring.

The battle for the last rotation spot
The expectation -- barring an external addition from chief baseball officer Craig Breslow -- is that Brayan Bello, Giolito, Nick Pivetta and Kutter Crawford will occupy the first four spots in the rotation. Far less certain is who will be the fifth starter.

The competition kicks off in earnest with Saturday’s Grapefruit League opener, when makes the start. A full-time reliever in his strong rookie year and a swingman the last two years, this could be the year Whitlock settles into a starting role. If he can stay healthy, he is probably a slight favorite to win a rotation spot in a derby that also includes Tanner Houck and Josh Winckowski.

Story’s impact
Not enough has been made of the Red Sox finally having a healthy . If he can get back to his previous form, this is the equivalent of adding an All-Star player to the mix, one the club basically didn’t have the last two years. Though Story did play 94 games in 2022, his first season with Boston, that was at second base. Story is a presence at shortstop, which he displayed in his 43-game return from right elbow surgery at the end of last season. What he couldn’t do was find his stroke at the plate, which wasn’t surprising given that he was four months behind the rest of the league.

Story is fully capable of hitting 25-30 homers and stealing 20-plus bases. The right-handed hitter, who looks stronger after a healthy offseason, should be fun to watch this spring.

Grissom’s defense
, the promising 23-year-old the Red Sox acquired from the Braves for Chris Sale, is going to be delayed playing in games as he deals with some "instability" in his hamstrings. Once he returns -- which should be around March 1 -- all eyes will be on his defense at second base. Grissom has been working many hours with infield instructor Andy Fox. Starting and turning double plays have been key areas of focus for Grissom, who is a natural shortstop.

The Sox are excited about Grissom’s potential on offense. He has hit for average at every level in the Minor Leagues and in his brief stints with the Braves. The belief is that Grissom’s power is going to come as he continues to develop.