FORT MYERS, Fla. — Camp Uncertainty. Camp Unease. Camp Unsettled. Call it what you want, but Red Sox spring training definitely has a strange feel to it this year.
The Sox are a team in flux, and like the Democratic Party, it’s unclear exactly where they’re headed in 2020.
Right now, they’re standing on the platform waiting for a transitional train to take them to parts unknown. The unknown is the theme of this spring training. The Sox are in wait-and-see mode on a number of fronts, which has put the actual baseball on the backburner a bit. Some teams need to find a closer during spring training. The Sox need to find some closure.
The Sox don’t know how their clubhouse is going to respond in the aftermath of the seismic trade that shipped outfielder Mookie Betts and pitcher David Price to the Dodgers just one day before pitchers and catchers reported on Feb. 11, a deal that stripped the Sox of their best player and part of their identity.
They’re still awaiting the all-clear from Major League Baseball on allegations that the 2018 World Series-winning team engaged in impermissible electronic sign-stealing using the video replay room, a charge first levied in a story by The Athletic, which unearthed the sign-stealing shenanigans of the Houston Astros that have rocked baseball. The investigation and possible punishment hang over the Sox like the Sword of Damocles as the inquiry drags on and the exculpatory silence from MLB becomes conspicuous.
Interim manager Ron Roenicke is a familiar face who has been thrust into an unfamiliar role. Roenicke has the unenviable task of replacing a popular and charismatic bilingual manager, Alex Cora, and no one knows whether the new skipper is more than a placeholder. Cora parted ways with the team on Jan. 14 after his name was splashed all over the commissioner’s report condemning the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme. Cora was Houston’s bench coach in 2017 before becoming Sox manager.
The uncertain milieu surrounding the Sox extends to ace Chris Sale, trying to return to form and health after a disappointing 2019 season (6-11, 4.40 ERA) that was cut short by elbow trouble. The Sox are exercising caution with Sale so far after he was slowed by a bout with pneumonia.
As they’ve declared repeatedly, the Sox still harbor visions of playoff contention even with Betts and Price sacrificed to the luxury tax gods. Sale is absolutely indispensable to any such plans. If there is one player the Sox can’t afford to lose, it’s the ace.
There was some positive news Wednesday as Sale threw an enhanced bullpen session — add this to the list of new baseball argot we could do without — that was moved indoors at Fenway South because of rain. Roenicke, with the team in Bradenton to play the Pirates, said Sale came through the session fine and is slated for live batting practice Saturday. Still, it’s looking more and more doubtful that Sale will be built up enough for Opening Day in Toronto March 26.
Everything about the Sox just feels a little off and a little odd right now, including sparser-than-normal crowds for spring training workouts and games.
The Sox’ belt-tightening following an 84-win dud of a season dulled enthusiasm and bred apathy. Fans seem both weary and wary of the club after the Offseason of Discontent. The team isn’t writing off the season, but it feels like some Fenway Followers are writing them off.
The Sox announced that Tuesday’s 3-2 win over the Orioles at JetBlue Park was played in front of a sellout crowd of 9,219. As colleague Peter Abraham pointed out, that seemed like a generous assessment. It was a good crowd, but there were noticeable patches of empty seats.
The fan presence at workouts — or lack thereof — has been a conversation piece since camp opened. It feels like the Sox have faded into the Boston sports background with the Tom Brady Watch and the playoff anticipation generated by the Celtics and Bruins.
In some respects, the Red Sox require a reintroduction to the masses. Three huge personalities and leaders who shaped the team have been excised: Betts, Price, and Cora. Boston effectively has a 36-year-old first-time general manager with a technocratic title in chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. The only Green Monster this season is the famed left-field wall, as part of the plan for sustainability is to take a step back from a payroll standpoint.
That’s a lot of change to process for those inside and outside of the organization.
“It’s obviously different,” said center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr., part of a core of holdovers who won the World Series in 2018. “A lot of attention has been brought to our clubhouse with those big-name guys being gone.
“Yeah, it’s going to be different. As we all know with this business, we have to continue to move forward. We have to continue to progress. Focus on the things that we can control and that’s each other and being here and work on that.”
While the feel around Fort Myers is different, Bradley indicated it has been largely business as usual for the players as they prepare for the season.
The team isn’t worried about formulating a new identity. As Bradley pointed out, the Sox still have several players who came up through the organization together like him and Xander Bogaerts, and players like Sale and slugger J.D. Martinez, who have become linchpin pieces.
“You see new faces,” said Bradley. “Luckily, we have a great group of guys here already. Guys who have been through our system from the minor leagues to the big leagues, a lot of us have played with each other every step of the way. We have great guys that we’ve brought in who have been with us for multiple years now. So, we’re comfortable with a lot of the guys that are in here.
“I think that obviously knowing who you’re going to war with every single day is also a pretty big advantage and having each other’s back.”
Still, it’s going to take some time for the streamlined Sox to forge an identity that fans can gravitate to. This is not an easy team to project at this point.
There is still so much up in the southwest Florida air that needs to get settled.
These are strange days in the Fort, and the Red Sox can only hope that this doesn’t represent the new normal.