FORT MYERS, Fla. — The stories we write from the early days of spring training are some of the most popular the Globe publishes all year. No dateline is more anticipated than Fort Myers.
As soon as the Super Bowl ends, thoughts in New England turn to baseball and how the Red Sox look. Reports about who’s throwing off the mound or taking batting practice take on outsized importance.
We debate the Opening Day lineup and try to pick the last few spots in the bullpen. The last guy on the roster is a good story.
The anticipation is a little like the first day of school, only it lasts a few weeks.
But on Tuesday, when a small group of pitchers gathered for a workout at JetBlue Park, there was more a sense of dread than anticipation.
“This is definitely a weird time,” righthander Matt Barnes said.
The Sox are actively trying to trade their best player, All-Star right fielder Mookie Betts, to achieve the ignoble goal of dropping their payroll under baseball’s luxury-tax threshold.
Betts has a locker in the clubhouse at JetBlue Park, but the expectation is his equipment will soon be shipped off to the Dodgers or Padres.
The Sox also don’t have a manager, their search for Alex Cora’s replacement dragging into a fourth week. The first workout for pitchers and catchers is next Wednesday and it remains uncertain whether the Sox will promote bench coach Ron Roenicke or third base coach Carlos Febles into one of the premier jobs in sports or bring in somebody from another team.
Meanwhile, Major League Baseball’s investigation into whether the 2018 World Series champion Red Sox broke rules by using video to steal signs is hanging over the organization like a sword.
That inquiry, now in its fifth week, is expected to be finished before the official start of camp.
Principal owner John Henry and team president Sam Kennedy are on the record saying the Sox were well aware of the rules and nothing happened that would taint the championship. If true, would that require five weeks of scrutiny?
It’s possible — if not probable — that the Sox will trade Betts and get punished to at least some extent for their actions in 2018 all within a few days of hiring a new manager.
None of this will be the new guy’s fault. But he’ll be the one charged with convincing the players they can overcome these obstacles and mollifying a fan base that will be on the verge of revolt about the trade.
Meanwhile, Betts will be in Los Angeles trying on his new blue cap and hugging Dave Roberts. Or worse, he’ll be joining forces with villainous Manny Machado in San Diego.
Spring training is supposed to be a time of renewal, a celebration of what’s possible. Even hopeless teams can at least feign optimism for a few weeks.
But if Betts is traded now, the message to the rest of the players is that ownership decided this season isn’t as important as the ones to follow.
Barnes and Betts were in the Red Sox’ 2011 draft class and made their major league debuts in 2014. Barnes is not the star Betts is, but he has established himself as a valuable member of the bullpen.
Like you, Barnes never expected Betts would be on the trade market.
“Mookie’s a great guy, a phenomenal player. One of the best in the world,” he said. “But the front office is in charge of those decisions. I have no idea what’s going to happen. We’re all just waiting to see.”
Barnes, Ryan Brasier, Nathan Eovaldi, Heath Hembree, and David Price were on the field on Tuesday. They are taking the approach of not worrying about something they can’t control.
“We haven’t talked about it,” Barnes said. “I’m just going about my business. It’s not really a topic. I’m trying to get my arm and body ready.”
The Red Sox have nine coaches under contract for this season, including pitching coach Dave Bush and hitting coach Tim Hyers. If anything can be presumed about the coming days, it’s that most of the coaches will be back, if not all of them.
That should make it easier for the players.
“The coaches are who you deal with on a day-to-day basis,” Barnes said. “I’ve talked to [Bush] a few times this offseason about my plan and it’s been good. It’s pretty normal in that sense.”
Even without Betts, the Sox would still have a lineup headed by Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez, and Rafael Devers, and a strong rotation if Eovaldi, Price, and Chris Sale can stay healthy.
“We’re always going to compete for a championship every season,” Barnes said. “That won’t change. That’s our focus. If Mookie is with us, that’s great. If he’s not, we can still be great. We’re still a formidable team.”
Finally, some spring training optimism.
“What else can you do?” Barnes said. “We’re here to get ready for the season.”