Red Sox spring training is winding down. With trucks parked next to the team’s clubhouse to load both equipment for Philadelphia and all of the clothes and earthly possessions of Red Sox players and their family members (many a tricycle and Big Wheel has been spotted) getting prepped for the drive to Boston, here’s a look at some of the late signs of spring regarding the shape of the club come Opening Day:
MOLDING AN OPENING DAY STARTER: Much of the scrutiny Clay Buchholz has faced throughout his career has related to what he is not or has not done. Yet as he prepares to take the honor of serving as the Red Sox’ Opening Day starter for the first time in his career, it’s easy to overlook the path that Buchholz has taken to this point. Rob Bradford of WEEI.com offers some remarkable detail of Buchholz’s growth from a shy minor leaguer daydreaming of having his car shipped north with the big league club to the responsibility of kickstarting the Sox’ season on April 6, including exploration of what might have been a near-death experience in 2012.
A MYTHICAL FEAT OF STRENGTH: Most observers were awestruck at the sight of Mike Napoli clearing the ginormous Megamonster at JetBlue Park on Monday night, amazed that the first baseman could clear the hulking edifice despite the fact that his bat shattered so completely that he was left only with a puzzled expression on his face and the handle in his hand. It made for entertaining after-the-fact conversation in the Red Sox clubhouse.
Physics professor Alan Nathan, however, detailed why the fact that the bat shattered likely didn’t alter the ball’s flight. While it might seem natural to feel disappointment in the debunking of the notion, Nathan’s exploration of why shattered bats don’t change flight trajectories is revelatory, with spectacular and eye-opening video to reveal how he reached his conclusions. Read and learn.
Even with Nathan’s point, the fact that Napoli has been smashing homers (four and counting) this spring attests to his overall health and the potential strength of the Sox lineup. Napoli has hit a couple of unusual homers this spring, not just the broken-bat blast but also a slicing opposite field liner down the right-field line against the Rays that snuck just inside of a foul pole more than 340 feet from the plate, a testament to some of the strength and bat speed that he’s been able to reclaim this year.
Just six teams last year had three hitters with 20 or more homers, and just one had four such players. The return of a healthy Napoli could place the Sox among the power-hitting elite.
JACKIE BRADLEY JR. AND THE WILLIE MAYS PROBLEM: Bradley has had an outstanding spring, hitting .381/.469/.452 with five walks and just six strikeouts (12.2 percent of plate appearances). That’s a drastic departure from 2014, when he offered the first glimpses of vulnerability to a drastic spike in strikeouts, hitting .158/.213/.263 while whiffing in 27.9 percent of plate appearances.
But, as Nick Cafardo explores, there’s not a place for Bradley on the Red Sox’ big league roster despite his combination of superlative defense and potential offensive improvement.
Assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez says he heard Pablo Sandoval say, “Willie Mays could walk in that door and even he couldn’t replace Mookie Betts.”
Cafardo explores what that means for Bradley in 2015 and the future.
CATCH AS CATCH CAN: Christian Vazquez is hoping that today’s examination with Dr. James Andrews in Pensacola, Fla., will offer the possibility for an outcome other than Tommy John surgery, but the catcher said he’s ready to be positive about whatever news he receives.
“It sucks to stay out that long,” said Vazquez. “It’s hard. I was feeling better every day, but they found something changed in my MRI.”
Yet as much as Vazquez is disappointed with what has transpired, he’s electing to look forward rather than dwell on his unexpected setback.
“I’m positive,” said Vazquez. “My mind is clear.”
Meanwhile, Sandy Leon made his Red Sox debut and collected a hit. He has been anointed the Sox backup (barring another trade), as catcher Humberto Quintero was reassigned to the minor leagues. Cafardo reports that Quintero accepted a $100,000 retention bonus and accepted the minor league assignment rather than opting out of his deal to become a free agent.
GETTING XANDER BOGAERTS’ HEAD RIGH T FOR OPENING DAY: Xander Bogaerts’ strong early impressions this spring have given way to a period of struggle, but the shortstop and hitting coach Chili Davis believe they’ve found the fix for Bogaerts’ hitting mechanics, writes Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal.
THE LONG VIEW WITH SWIHART: Jason Mastrodonato explores why the Sox can’t rush the development of catcher Blake Swihart, with intriguing insight offered from Red Sox bullpen and catching instructor Dana LeVangie, who offers these points of comparison for the young catcher (while also discussing why Swihart is a very different animal from Vazquez):
“First off, his athletic ability behind the plate is hard to classify at the position because there aren’t too many like him,” LeVangie said. “He’s gifted, he’s fast, he has quick feet, a powerful arm. And you add that he’s a switch-hitter, there are a lot of tools to like.
“I know when (Marlins catcher) Jeff Mathis came to the big leagues, everybody raved about his athletic ability and ability to field his position and throw. Is Swihart potentially more gifted with the bat? Probably. Kind of like Russell Martin back there, he’s really athletic.
“His ceiling is so high, the point that he can get to, that we can’t rush the process. And it is a process, what he’s learning right now. He hasn’t been catching a long time. Typically catchers take a long time to groom before they become what they are. We just have to stay patient. We know what he is to us, we’re just not going to be forced into something.”
MIND THE (COMMUNICATION) GAP: While players from Japan and Cuba routinely speak through a translator (often after signing contracts that stipulate the provision of such a person), players from other Latin American countries either speak in a second language or seek an ad hoc translator amongst teammates and coaching staff members. That may change, as Billy Witz writes for the New York Times.
A WRINKLE IN WRIGHT? Sean McAdam of CSNNE.com writes that Steven Wright may be in the Red Sox’ rotation to open the year.
The Red Sox have committed to having lefthander Wade Miley start the fourth game of the season in New York, but while the team has announced that Buchholz and Rick Porcello will start in the first two games of the year in Philadelphia, plans for the third game of that series have remained vague. The team appears to be keeping open the possibility that, if Joe Kelly opens the year on the disabled list while stretching out, Wright could get the start in the third game of the year.
BETTING AGAINST BETTS’ SUPERSTAR TRACK? Dave Cameron of Fangraphs and Fox Sports, who evidently spends his free time informing children that there is a no such thing as Santa Claus, offers a cold splash of statistical reality that it is highly unlikely that Betts will become the next Andrew McCutchen.
Of course, even Cameron’s (air quotes) projections aren’t entirely dismissive of Easter Bunny scenarios, as he’s compared Betts’ skill set in the past to that of Ben Zobrist. (Worth noting: As Betts came up through the Sox system, amidst his 2013 breakthrough, his potential versatility and ability to combine elite on-base skills, low strikeout rates, and an ability to drive the ball led to theoretical conversations about the potential for Betts to go Zobristing around the field as a versatile player of enormous roster value.)
DISPATCHES FROM THE BACK FIELDS: Righthander Pat Light, a 2012 first-rounder who struggled with health in 2013 and featured some uneven performance (even as he stayed healthy all year) in 2014, has been sitting at times this spring at 95-97 mph and touching 99 mph as a starter.
“I’ve never been above, like, 93 in spring training in my life,” beamed Light.
He had a velocity breakthrough near the end of the 2014 season for High A Salem, at a time when he was trying to work through the end-of-season fatigue that resulted from a jump of nearly 100 innings from his injury-riddled 2013 campaign to 2014. Prior to his penultimate start of the year, he had a revelation while loosening.
“That day, I really wanted to get my arm loose. I used less legs in the outfield. I just kept going further back, and all of a sudden, I was in center field and just using my arm. I got extension. It really taught me how to use my arm a little bit better,” said Light. “That day, I was 97-100. It was like, ‘Oh, geez – where’d this come from?’ It taught me a little bit more about how to get more out of my arms and how to complement that with using my legs.”
For a power pitcher, his minor league strikeout numbers have been low (he’s pitched largely to groundball contact), but the bump in velocity along with the reincorporation of a split-change that he used as his college out pitch could change that outlook. Thus far this spring, he’s remained in the rotation, but there is some feeling among team officials that Light – likely ticketed for Double A Portland to start the year – could get on a fast track if he’s moved to the bullpen.
If you like this newsletter, please tell your friends about it. They can sign up here.