Let’s start with the manager. Apparently, it’s Ron Roenicke.
FORT MYERS, Fla. — A manager search that is apparently still ongoing. An investigation by Major League Baseball into cheating allegations against their 2018 World Series title team that also isn’t done. And a trade involving their MVP right-fielder that took nearly a week to complete.
Is that all? Talk about an awkward start to spring training.
One of the most tumultuous offseasons in team history will conclude when Red Sox pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers on Wednesday, but there are still far more questions than answers hovering over the team as camp officially opens. Resolutions, eventually and preferably soon, will be found. But coming off a disastrous 83-win season in 2019, expectations, excitement and optimism are at an all-time low for the Red Sox.
Here are 10 storylines to monitor as 2020 spring training gets going this week.
1. Who’s the manager?
The Red Sox still don’t officially have a replacement for Alex Cora, who was dismissed on Jan. 14, but reports late last week indicated bench coach Ron Roenicke is in line to take the job. The Red Sox, though, responded by saying the search is ongoing, leaving some doubt.
If Roenicke is the guy, he’s charged with the unenviable task of leading who remains with the team into the season after a drama-filled offseason. But the 63-year-old skipper represents continuity and he’s well-respected in the clubhouse, something that should benefit the Sox with so much uncertainty circling around them.
2. How do they fill Mookie Betts’ shoes?
The departure of Mookie Betts leaves a gaping hole in right field and the batting order for the Red Sox. Simply put, there’s no replacing Betts. Alex Verdugo, the 23-year-old outfielder traded from the Dodgers, will likely take his spot in right, but Betts’ ability and production is far too much to replicate.
Betts, the 2018 American League MVP, was the face of the franchise. Without him, Xander Bogaerts likely takes that mantle, and the likes of veterans Chris Sale and J.D. Martinez will continue to be leaders and respected voices in the clubhouse. But as the emoji Martinez tweeted last Tuesday after news of the trade broke indicated, they will miss Betts badly, and it will take more than one guy to make up for his departure.
3. How does Chris Sale look?
As his five-year, $145 million contract kicks in, Sale’s status is critical, especially with the rest of the rotation in some limbo after the loss of Price. Most importantly, how is his health? The ace missed the final month and a half of last season with an injured elbow, but reports throughout the offseason from upper management indicated he was progressing as planned and would be ready to go for spring training.
Sale, who turns 31 in late March, has not pitched a full season in his last two, breaking down physically at the end of both. After a self-admitted disastrous 2019 season in which he had a career-worst 4.40 ERA, the Red Sox need a bounce-back season from Sale if they have hopes of being competitive.
4. Who emerges as the fifth starter?
With Price gone, the Red Sox have a glaring need for a No. 5 starter behind Sale, Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi and new signing Martin Perez.
They have plenty of different paths they can take. Some in-house candidates include Tanner Houck, Hector Velazquez and even Darwinzon Hernandez. The Sox view Hernandez as a reliever, where he blossomed last season, but he has the ability to start, even if he’s still a little raw.
Chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom could navigate the free-agent market, too, even if it’s slim pickings, with Marco Estrada, Aaron Sanchez and even Clay Buchholz still available. Bloom, who was with the Rays when they introduced the opener, could go that route every fifth day as well.
5. Who’s on first? And second?
The biggest positional competition at spring training this year will come on the right side of the infield, with question marks at first and second base. Mitch Moreland recently signed a one-year deal to stay in Boston, so it’s likely he’ll see a chunk of the playing time there. Michael Chavis showed flashes at the plate last year and provides versatility for the Sox at first and second.
And then there’s power-hitting prospect Bobby Dalbec, who is transitioning to first and says he’s comfortable playing there. He could make a case.
The Red Sox signed Jose Peraza in the offseason, and he’s the favorite to play second. They also like Jonathan Arauz, who was selected in the Rule 5 draft, and the 21-year-old could also get a look at second.
6. What’s up with Dustin Pedroia?
Dustin Pedroia is not a candidate to play second base right now; that much is clear. The 36-year-old, who has played a total of nine games over the last two seasons with lingering knee problems, suffered a significant setback while rehabbing last month and his future is completely unclear.
It would not be a surprise if Pedroia, who is under contract with the Red Sox through 2021, tries to make yet another comeback after his refusal to give up over the last few years. If he ultimately decides to retire, it’s possible he can latch on to a role within the organization. Whatever the case, we should get some more clarity about his future during spring training.
7. Are there any prospects who can make an impact?
There’s already a bunch of youth on the roster, and there could be more. As mentioned, the 24-year-old Dalbec will certainly get a long look to compete for a spot on the Opening Day roster, something he said a few weeks ago he feels like he’s ready for.
Top prospect Triston Casas will also get a chance to show what he’s capable of this spring. The 19-year-old first baseman with a power bat is likely at least a year away from making his big-league debut.
Beyond Dalbec, it’s unlikely there’s another prospect who will progress enough to be major-league ready this season. Right-hander Tanner Houck, who will likely open the season in Triple-A, may have the best chance to break in. It’s an important spring for many others, including Bryan Mata, the Red Sox’ top pitching prospect, who will look to build off a strong 2019 season.
8. What’s next for Rafael Devers?
One MVP may be gone, but a potential future MVP may be just getting started. Rafael Devers, who finished 12th in AL MVP voting last season, broke out in 2019, putting together one of the best seasons for a 22-year-old in league history, hitting .311 with 32 homers, 54 doubles and 115 RBI. He also drastically improved defensively at third base, where he struggled as a rookie.
It’s scary to think about the possibilities for Devers in 2020. If he can even exceed what he did in 2019, the Red Sox have a bona fide superstar in the making.
9. How will the bullpen look?
The Red Sox bullpen eventually figured it out last season after roles were clearly defined. Brandon Workman had a breakout season after locking down his role as the closer, Marcus Walden was solid all year and newcomers Hernandez and Taylor came on and made an immediate impact. The Sox bring back the same group to spring training this year. It remains to be seen if the roles will change at all, but if the bullpen can build off its strong end to 2019, it could be the team’s best strength.
10. Can Benintendi bounce back?
With Betts no longer in the fold, the Red Sox are going to need someone to step up, and they need Andrew Benintendi to show what he’s truly capable of.
One of the purest hitters on the team, Benintendi had a frustrating 2019 in which he posted career lows in average (.266), on-base percentage (.343) and home runs (13).
Reports all offseason have indicated that the left fielder is in good shape physically and hitting coach Tim Hyers recently raved about his attitude and what he’s doing to right the ship in 2020. One way or another, how Benintendi performs this season will significantly impact the Red Sox’ outlook.