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Four Red Sox storylines to watch for in 2020

@IanMBrowne
June 30, 2020

BOSTON -- When Spring Training came to a sudden halt on March 12, we were still trying to get a feel for what the 2020 Red Sox could be without Mookie Betts. Manager Ron Roenicke was still in the process of making his imprint on the team as Alex Cora’s

BOSTON -- When Spring Training came to a sudden halt on March 12, we were still trying to get a feel for what the 2020 Red Sox could be without Mookie Betts.

Manager Ron Roenicke was still in the process of making his imprint on the team as Alex Cora’s successor.

Chris Sale was close to finding out there would be no 2020 season for him, but instead, Tommy John surgery.

With baseball coming back following the coronavirus shutdown and the first workout of Summer Camp expected to happen at Fenway Park on Friday, it’s time to re-visit the top storylines for the Red Sox heading into what will now be a 60-game season.

Roenicke expects full house at Red Sox camp

What impact can Verdugo make?

The biggest difference between now, and when Spring Training was suspended? Right fielder Alex Verdugo, the key acquisition piece in the trade for Betts, is a full-go. Verdugo had spent the first several weeks of camp confined mainly to the trainer’s room due to an L5 stress fracture in his back. Over the last several weeks, Verdugo has worked relentlessly to get back to full playing capacity.

“This guy, he’s probably further along than all of them,” said Roenicke. “This guy has been doing his rehab assignment and hitting in the cage, on the field, probably more than anybody has, so I feel good with where he is. Hopefully there won’t be any setbacks with him in these three weeks, and he’ll be ready to go.”

In the three weeks of Summer Camp, the Red Sox are looking forward to getting a full glimpse of what Verdugo’s dynamic skillset looks like on a daily basis. He has a cannon arm in right field and a line-drive stroke at the plate. Verdugo had become a very effective player for the Dodgers last year before the injury. Is it fair to expect him to be Betts? No. Is it fair to expect that if things go well, he could provide similar value as someone like Andrew Benintendi? Sure.

Red Sox announce 60-man player pool

Can E-Rod, Eovaldi come up aces?

Not only did the Red Sox lose David Price (traded to the Dodgers) and Rick Porcello (signed with the Mets) from their 2019 rotation, but they are without ace Sale until June or July of ’21. This means that even in a shortened season like this one, the only way Boston can be successful is for Eduardo Rodriguez and Nathan Eovaldi to be a strong 1-2 at the front of the rotation. Rodriguez proved himself over the final four months of last season, going 15-3 with a 3.21 ERA over his last 24 starts.

Eovaldi was never himself last year. Perhaps it was the wear and tear of the innings he pitched the previous October. Perhaps it was the fact he had to have another elbow surgery two weeks into the season. But he sure looked dominant in the shortened Spring Training this year, firing eight shutout innings in three starts. Rodriguez looked equally powerful, giving up two runs in 11 innings while striking out 20.

Now, they must recapture that momentum in the three-week, ramp-up to the season.

“I feel good about the starting pitchers,” Roenicke said. “They’ve done a really good job of not just throwing a simple bullpen but of throwing a three- and four-inning bullpen. You look at Nate Eovaldi, what he’s done so far, he’ll probably be ready for a season in a week. Everybody is a little different, so we’ll see exactly where they are.”

Integrating an opener

Lefty Martín Pérez -- who was effective for the Twins in the first half of last season, but shaky in the second half -- is the No. 3 starter. Ryan Weber, a 29-year-old finesse pitcher with just 11 career starts, seems to have the inside track on the No. 4 slot. So who will fill out the rotation? The answer is likely to come in the form of an opener.

Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom helped create the position when he was with the Rays, and he’s already given the coaching staff his thoughts on the best way to implement it. But Boston could go about it a few different ways. If Collin McHugh, a one-time effective starter for the Astros is healthy enough, he could start games with three or four-inning stints.

Or the Red Sox could have the opener pitch just an inning or two and then bring in a strong arm to give them bulk innings. Powerful young lefty Darwinzon Hernandez could be the perfect person to shut down an opposition in the mid innings if he commands well enough. This is one of the areas the Red Sox will evaluate the most during camp.

Christian’s backup

After several years of back and forth, the Red Sox finally know that Christian Vázquez is not only their primary catcher now, but likely through 2022, the season the team holds a club option for him. The goal now is to figure out who will back him up. Initially, it looked like that would be Kevin Plawecki, a defensive specialist the Red Sox signed as a free agent. And it still might be.

But there is now competition. Early in Spring Training, Boston signed veteran Jonathan Lucroy to a Minor League contract that included an invite to Spring Training. Not only did Lucroy used to be one of the best offensive catchers in the game for the Brewers, but Roenicke was his manager at that time. For the last three years, Lucroy played with a herniated disc in his neck. He finally got that fixed over the offseason, and the hope is that his production can return along with his health.

Lucroy wasn’t in Boston’s initial pool of 47 players announced on Sunday. But it was just a technicality. He is expected to restructure his contract and report to the first workout on Friday along with the rest of the roster. With the roster at 30 games for the first two weeks of the regular season and at 28 for the two weeks after that, there’s a chance the Sox will carry three catchers for the first month. That would give Roenicke and his staff more time to evaluate which backup best fits the team.

Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.