Filling rotation hole tops spring storylines

Sale's health, back of 'pen among pressing matters Red Sox face

February 21st, 2020

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The all-camp portion of Spring Training is over, and the Red Sox are ready to get down to the business of playing games.

Friday’s seven-inning 3-0 exhibition win against Northeastern University started a stretch in which the Sox will play 197 games in 220 days.

With the 34-game Grapefruit League slate set to open on Saturday at JetBlue Park against the Rays, it is time to start focusing on the most relevant storylines that will take shape between now and Opening Day.

Pleading for the fifth
One of the most pressing issues for interim manager Ron Roenicke will be to figure out who his fifth starter will be to open the season. As you may have heard, David Price was traded, leaving a gaping hole in the rotation.

There are no obvious candidates. There’s also no clear path. Roenicke is at least open to using an opener.

“I really haven’t figured out with our personnel what would be a better way to do it,” Roenicke said. “We’ve been talking with [chief baseball officer] Chaim [Bloom] and [general manager Brian O’Halloran] and figuring what the possibilities are, and I think we’re just going to play this out in spring and see what we have; we know the different options we have to go through.

“So I’ll have to figure that out, and it helps I think having Chaim to be really familiar with that type of scenario. So we’ll continue to look at it. There’s advantages to not having maybe a lot weaker fifth starter, but we’ll have to see how that plays out at the end of camp.”

And don’t rule out the always-aggressive Bloom signing or trading for another starter before the end of camp. Also, keep an eye on power lefty , who came through the ranks as a starter and could be a weapon as an opener.

Ready to set Sale?
All eyes will be on ace this spring. The lefty arrived in camp a few days late due to the flu and pneumonia, and he is also coming off an elbow injury and performance issues last season.

If the Red Sox are to compete for a spot in the postseason, there is no more important player on the roster than Sale. Therefore, he is going to be must-watch from his first live bullpen session to his first Grapefruit League start and the rest of the starts after that.

The illness setback might be just enough to force Sale out of starting on Opening Day, as Boston isn't going to rush the progression of a player so vital to its success.

Roenicke hasn’t set a date yet for Sale’s Grapefruit League debut.

Bullpen spots up for grabs
This is what we know in the bullpen: Brandon Workman, Matt Barnes, Josh Taylor, Hernandez, Marcus Walden and Heath Hembree are likely to get the first six spots.

After that, there is a crowded derby vying for two to three spots.

Ryan Brasier, Ryan Weber, Austin Brice, Josh Osich, Brian Johnson (also in the mix for No. 5 in the rotation), Colten Brewer, Hector Velázquez, Chris Mazza, Jeff Springs and Matt Hall are all in the mix.

A bounce-back season from Brasier -- a key setup man for the 2018 championship team -- would be key for the Sox.

Keep an eye on hard-throwing starting prospect Tanner Houck (Boston's first-round pick in 2017), who could be used instead as a bullpen weapon if the Red Sox think they need him out there.

Right side of the infield
Roenicke has some decisions to make when it comes to dividing time on the right side of the infield. At this stage of his career, can Mitch Moreland still start four or five times a week? If not, that could open up more playing time for young power hitter Michael Chavis at first.

But if Moreland gets off to a hot start at the plate like he did in his first three seasons with Boston, you could see Chavis more at second base. And that could cut into the playing time of newly acquired free agent José Peraza, who is hoping to be the primary player at second.

Outfield alignment
For the past three years, the Red Sox had the best defensive outfield trio in the game in Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts.

But with Betts gone and key trade acquisition Alex Verdugo out for at least the early portion of the season, there are some questions as to how Roenicke’s outfield best fits together.

Will Kevin Pillar fill in for Verdugo in right? Or could he possibly play center with Bradley moving to right until Verdugo returns?

Pillar has spent most of his career as a center fielder, but he did get reps at the corners with the Giants last season.

Bradley has looked comfortable in right whenever he has played there. You can make the case that right field is a more important -- and challenging -- position at Fenway than center. Another possibility would be Bradley playing right at Fenway and center on the road.

It will also be interesting to see how often Roenicke deploys J.D. Martinez in the outfield. The slugger had his share of back woes last season.

Catching competition
There is a clear No. 1 in Christian Vázquez. However, there should be a stiff competition for the backup spot between Kevin Plawecki and Jonathan Lucroy.

Plawecki is the definition of a defensive specialist. Lucroy, on the other hand, was once an All-Star due to his hefty production at the plate.

To go from non-roster invitee to Boston’s backup catcher, Lucroy will have to overcome significant offensive and defensive deficiencies from the past couple of seasons. He seems to be looking forward to the challenge, and he has a lot of comfort with Roenicke, his manager in Milwaukee from 2011-15.