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March 01. 2014 10:52PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Red Sox taking shape

Undoubtedly, there are legitimate questions facing the Red Sox this spring, and they're serious enough that the answers could have a significant say in determining how successful a season this becomes.

There are rookies set to start at shortstop and center field, arguably two of the lineup's most important positions. The opposite is the issue behind the plate, where both their catchers will be 37 years old by opening day. The third baseman twice lost his job last year. And as exhibition games began last week, a number of expected contributors were managing a variety of minor (for the moment, at least) physical restrictions.

But for all that uncertainty, there isn't a whole lot of doubt about what Boston's 25-man roster will look like when they head for Baltimore at the end of this month - save for maybe the last spot on the bench and in the bullpen, or an injury significant enough to require the disabled list.




Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley may be question marks because of their inexperience, David Ross and A.J. Pierzynski might both be advanced in baseball years, and Will Middlebrooks might have much to prove against big-league pitching, though given the way Ben Cherington has built the Sox' roster, none of them is really facing true competition for his job this spring. And given the way Grapefruit League can be misleading - take Bradley's .097 start that followed his .417 spring last season as a prime example - it'll be weeks or maybe months of consequential baseball before their appointments can really be evaluated.

So as things unfold in Fort Myers, and across Florida, Sox fans may be wise to follow not with April in mind, but rather with an eye on the guys who could become factors in June, July and August. The guys who comprise the organizational depth that becomes important because of the grinding game's natural attrition. The guys who'll start in the minors, as lesser-knowns, but whose ability to step in and stabilize could be important as the season proceeds.

While also projecting the 25-man roster that will break camp four weeks from today, here's a look at who some of those guys could be:

Infield

Makes the team: David Ortiz (DH), Mike Napoli, Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts, Will Middlebrooks, Jonathan Herrera.

Who to watch: Brock Holt, Garin Cecchini, Deven Marrero.

Obtained from Colorado in exchange for Franklin Morales, Herrera will be the utility man, while Holt will likely step into that role if an injury dictates that Herrera needs to play every day, though the more exciting offensive prospect is undoubtedly Cecchini. The third baseman split last year between Single- and Double-A, but reached base at a .417 clip over his two-plus pro seasons, and his addition to Boston's 40-man roster makes him an option for the majors at any time. Middlebrooks, obviously, is on alert.

As for Marrero, the team's 2012 first-round pick is farther away than Cecchini, and is likely to begin the year at Portland, but his invite to big-league camp for the second straight season at least gives the shortstop an opportunity to make an impression.

Catcher

Makes the team: Pierzynski, Ross.

Who to watch: Ryan Lavarnway, Dan Butler, Christian Vazquez.

Lavarnway's once-prodigious power has seemingly disappeared (he homered four times in 296 plate appearances last year between Boston and Pawtucket), and 18 starts during a season in which Ross missed two months due to concussions suggests John Farrell doesn't trust him entirely as a receiver. He's taking grounders at first, and he's still just 26, so perhaps versatility adds value - either for the Sox, or in a trade.

Butler is the forgotten man, given the excitement over Vazquez and Blake Swihart behind him in the pipeline, but he's a solid backstop with a knack for getting on base, and if Lavarnway is moved, he'd likely get the first crack if Ross or Pierzynski goes down. Vazquez might be an option, too, given the defensive skill he's already exhibited by age 23.

Outfield

Makes the team: Bradley, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, Daniel Nava, Mike Carp.

Who to watch: Grady Sizemore, Corey Brown, Bryce Brentz.

Sizemore is a fascinating addition, but thinking he will compete with Bradley for the full-time job in center is an idea somewhere between premature and crazily optimistic. After he sat both 2012 and '13, the club is cautiously monitoring how his body reacts a day after playing a few innings. And further, even if Sizemore returns to the level he played at in his last two active seasons, it'll likely be worse than what the Sox could expect from Carp - who is able to play first base, and maybe third in an emergency, so there's no sense dealing him just to open a roster spot.

More logical for Sizemore is extended spring training, or, if the experiment fails, a chance could open for Brown, who had cups of coffee with the Nationals each of the past three years while blasting 123 minor-league homers over seven seasons. If the Sox need a right-handed bat, though, Brentz would likely get the call. A .305 OBP in 87 Triple-A games suggest seasoning is needed, but the 2010 first-rounder is likely to see the majors at some point in 2014.

Starting pitching

Makes the team: Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Felix Doubront, Jake Peavy.

Who to watch: Brandon Workman, Allen Webster, Anthony Ranaudo, Matt Barnes, Henry Owens.

With Ryan Dempster stepping away, the five-man rotation is settled. But the best part of the spring will be watching the next wave take their turns on the big stage.

Were the Sox a different type of organization, the five up-and-comers listed above could well be slotted as the team's 2015 rotation - and based on the evaluations of each on their climb up the farm system, they might be OK with that. Neither Barnes nor Owens is on the 40-man roster, but it's not inconceivable that all five could make a start this season, and the spring could be a factor in determining who gets the first cracks.

Bullpen

Makes the team: Koji Uehara, Edward Mujica, Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow, Andrew Miller, Burke Badenhop, Chris Capuano.

Who to watch: Drake Britton, Rubby De La Rosa, Alex Wilson, Jose Mijares.

Britton and Wilson were both relatively effective in the big leagues last season, while Mijares has 324 games of big-league experience, and De La Rosa has a big arm that simply needs to be harnessed. Any of them could factor in this season, and would have a shot to make the club immediately, if the relief corps weren't so deep and didn't figure to be such a strength. It's balanced, it's experienced, and it's full of options - including those who'll likely begin at Pawtucket.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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