FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The end is nigh. The spring training that felt like it might never end is, in fact, approaching its terminus. In one week, the Red Sox will wrap up their Grapefruit League schedule with a game against the Twins and jump on a plane for New York in anticipation of the April 1 opener in Yankee Stadium.
And so, as the end of March nears, the eventual shape of the Red Sox roster is becoming clearer. There are some details to be resolved -- with a particularly prominent decision about outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. looming -- but for now, the roster appears largely defined. Here's a look:
STARTING PITCHERS -- 5 SPOTS
OTHER CANDIDATES (0)
This group has impressed over the course of the spring. Multiple talent evaluators from other teamshave raved about Lester this spring, suggesting he looks very much like the top-of-the-rotation pitcher who anchored the Sox pitching staff from 2008-11. Buchholz, meanwhile, has looked like a starter with an array of pitches that can do just about anything.
Though there were concerns about Doubront's fitness at the start of camp, he's seemingly addressed those, and in games, he's looked like the same pitcher with a promising pitch mix who proved capable of striking out more than a batter an inning last year. Dempster is expected to be a reliable provider of solid if unspectacular innings, a steady presence in the middle of the rotation, and one evaluator suggested that Lackey's most recent outing -- in which he elicited 13 groundball outs, mostly by leveraging his 87-92 mph fastball down and getting his cutter on hitters' hands -- was the best he'd seen the right-hander since at least 2010.
Barring an injury in the final days of spring, there are no questions about who will comprise the starting five. And right now, though the memory of last year's desperate rotation struggles remain somewhat fresh, there may be fewer questions about the rotation than any other part of the team. Indeed, one talent evaluator felt that, based on what the starters had shown this spring, pitching will be an early strength of the club.
Depth could be an issue, though Alfredo Aceves certainly has the pitch mix to be a fill-in starter, and of the Triple-A depth options, Allen Webster showed a tremendous arsenal if he can harness it in the strike zone, while Chris Hernandez continued to show his characteristic ability to produce bad contact this spring despite the fact that his fastball produces radar gun readings that start with an "8."
RELIEVERS -- 7 SPOTS
DISABLED LIST (2)
The bullpen is deep enough, at least on paper, to shorten games for the rotation. Without Breslow or Morales, the group of six locks leans right-handed. However, virtually all of the pitchers possess weapons that permit them to stifle opponents from both sides of the plate.
The idea of a competition between Mortensen and Bard is one in name only. Manager John Farrell said on Saturday that no decision between the two has been made, but a pair of factors weigh strongly in favor of the Sox opening the year with Mortensen over Bard on the roster: 1) Mortensen is out of options and would likely be lost if exposed to outright waivers, thus meaning that a decision to retain Bard in the big leagues would deplete the team's pitching depth; 2) Bard has yet to demonstrate the necessary outing-to-outing consistency to be on the roster.
Still, even if Bard opens the year in Triple-A, his spring should still be characterized as a success. His stuff and, at times, command were vastly better than they were for most of the final five months of 2012.
Conceivably, the Sox could make a deal involving a right-handed reliever, but at this juncture, the injuries to Breslow and Morales leave less latitude for such a move than existed during the offseason or at the start of camp. The team seems unlikely to erode an area of strength, particularly when the lineup has already been diminished by the absence of Ortiz to start the year.
Carter and De La Torre have both shown an ability to get swings and misses this spring. While neither is on the 40-man roster, both could emerge as bullpen depth options at some point in 2013, given the inevitability of relief attrition. De La Torre was extremely impressive in the World Baseball Classic, where he displayed a wipeout slider.
CATCHERS -- 2 SPOTS
Saltalamacchia has an aggressive approach at the plate with a long swing that results in plenty of strikeouts, but he's nonetheless a catcher with formidable thump. This spring, he's put together quality at-bats as both a left-handed hitter (.318/.423/.636) and, in contrast to previous seasons, as a right-handed hitter (.333/.375/.467). He will return for a third year as the Sox' primary catcher.
Ross has struggled offensively this spring, but he's already made a strong impression with his work behind the plate, and a fairly consistent career track record suggests that he'll be able to do some damage against left-handed pitchers.
Farrell has said on multiple occasions that Lavarnway is at a stage of his career where he'll benefit from regular catching time, and so his return to Triple-A Pawtucket seems like almost a lock, even with the lineup/roster opening created by the absence of David Ortiz. Of course, left unsaid: Lavarnway's offense (.150 average, .205 OBP, 1 double, 0 homers) has been invisible this spring.
INFIELDERS -- 6 SPOTS
NEAR LOCKS (2)
- SS Jose Iglesias (unless Stephen Drew's return from a concussion proves unexpectedly rapid)
- UT Pedro Ciriaco (assuming his return from back spasms goes without incident)
LIKELY DL (1)
Pedroia, of course, is a franchise cornerstone. Middlebrooks similarly could prove a building block for years to come, particularly if he can cut down on his aggressiveness on breaking stuff outside of the zone.
Drew took a notable step forward in his return from a concussion on Saturday, taking batting practice outside and also fielding groundballs. Still, there's no identified timetable for him to return to games, and so it seems likely that he will be on the disabled list for at least the first few days of the season, thus opening the door for Iglesias.
Iglesias has impressed this spring by showing some ability to impact the baseball, as evidenced by his six extra-base hits (four more than in his previous three spring trainings combined). However, while he had an RBI single on a fastball on Saturday, he continues to struggle both to lay off breaking balls outside the strike zone and to make solid contact with them. Still, offense will be a bonus while he's in the majors; he'll be expected to provide impact on the defensive side of the ball.
Napoli has not only sailed through spring training without a hitch, but he's also shown better than-expected aptitude at first base. That, in turn, has led Farrell to suggest that the team won't need a late-innings defensive replacement -- a proclamation that works against Overbay, who is likely the best defensive first baseman in Sox camp but who has shown little at the plate since signing a minor league deal.
While Overbay is a non-roster invitee, and would require the Sox to free a spot on the 40-man roster if he were to be placed on the major league roster, that likely wouldn't be an issue, since the Sox would likely waive Carp if Overbay was deemed the better option. However, that seems unlikely to happen, given Overbay's relatively uneventful spring (.222/.341/.361).
Carp has been worse at the plate (.194/.256/.306) than Overbay in spring training and he's not as strong a defender as his colleague. Still, a couple of factors work in his favor for landing a roster spot.
First, though Carp struggled after getting injured on Opening Day last year (he hit .213/.312/.341 with the Mariners), he's just two years removed from a very strong performance in his age 25 season (.276/.326/.466/.791 with 12 homers in 79 games) in 2011. There's upside, as he's now in his prime years. Moreover, if he does prove to be closer to his 2011 than his 2012 form, the Sox potentially would have a young and inexpensive asset for several years. Finally, Carp has experience as an outfielder, giving him greater roster value in the bench role for which he's competing.
That's not a guarantee that Carp will be on the roster, given his unimpressive spring. Still, given that he's experienced some dislocation this spring in going from the Mariners to the Sox early in spring training, the Sox might well look beyond his struggles much as they did when keeping Mark Bellhorn after a poor spring training in 2004.
If healthy, the out-of-options Ciriaco would appear a lock for a utility reserve role given his ability to impact a game both with his strong defense and baserunning ability. However, if there's a recurrence of the back spasms that slowed him for a couple of days, then Holt would represent a natural option given his versatility, speed and the fact that he has options.
GM Ben Cherington recently downplayed the need for the Sox to carry a right-handed bat, something that works against the possibility of carrying Mauro Gomez.
Non-roster invitees Drew Sutton and Jonathan Diaz remain in camp, though neither has performed to the point where the Sox would be likely to consider a roster spot for either, given that both are on minor league deals that do not include spring opt-outs. Xander Bogaerts also remains in big league camp as a non-roster invitee, but the team's top prospect could be sent to minor league camp at any time given that he will open the year with Double-A Portland.
OUTFIELDERS -- FIVE SPOTS
In many ways, Bradley appears the superior player to Sweeney. Both can play all three outfield positions at a high level. Whereas Sweeney has a long track record of struggles against left-handed pitchers, Bradley has shown this spring (just as he did in his first full pro season last year) an ability to handle both righties and lefties. Bradley has produced consistently better at-bats this spring, despite Sweeney's work with Hall of Famer Rod Carew during the offseason that, according to manager John Farrell, has him "[looking] to be a very similar player to what he's been throughout his career."
Even so, there remain a few factors in Sweeney's favor:
1) Service time: The Sox get an extra year of control of Bradley before he reaches free agency if they keep him down either until April 12 or, if they have him break camp, if they option him to the minors for 20 consecutive days at some point during the season -- presumably when David Ortiz returned. But if the team opens with Bradley in the big leagues, there's at least a chance that he impacts the team as Will Middlebrooks did, thus making it impossible to send him back down (especially if there's another outfield injury to give him a more permanent opening), and thus losing a potential year of his services before he hits the open market.
2) Depth: Sweeney can opt out if he's not added to the big league roster by Tuesday. If he does, then the Sox would lose one of their few major league-ready above-average outfield defenders -- and one with a solid big league track record (.280, .338, .378 -- not spectacular, but the average and OBP represent above-average marks) as a hitter. If the Sox keep him, they are guaranteed to have both Bradley and Sweeney in their system. Given that the team experienced extreme outfield depletion last year, there is something to be said for maximizing the number of potential options.
3) A normal player development experience: If Bradley is on the roster to start the year as an everyday big leaguer, coming off a spring in which he's hitting better than .400, expectations for him would be immense. His big league integration would come under glaring circumstances, and while he seemingly has the makeup to handle just about anything, even the most impressive prospects can get blown back by their first exposure to the big leagues. (Consider Dustin Pedroia's deep struggles in both Sept. 2006 and April 2007.) If Bradley gets comfortable and posts solid numbers in Triple-A to start the year, his foundation to deal with either success or failure in the majors in 2013 would become even sturdier.
(It is worth noting that for either Sweeney or Bradley, the Sox will have to create a spot on the 40-man roster. So, roster status won't be a factor in the decision.)
In short, the factors beyond the relative performances this spring of the two players almost all work in Sweeney's favor. Even so, the on-field component cannot be overlooked, particularly given that the Sox will open their schedule with 13 consecutive games against their four AL East rivals -- and the team can ill afford another slow start.
On the bright side, a debate that has been raging for the entire month is nearing its resolution. With Sweeney able to opt out of his minor league deal if the Sox have not added him to their roster by Tuesday, the fate of the most compelling Sox roster debate in years could soon be over if the Sox do not keep Sweeney.
As of Saturday, however, according to a team source, the decision as to whether or not Bradley would open the year in the big leagues had not been made.
One other scenario: Because of the progress Nava has made this spring as a first baseman, it could render Carp expendable. As such, at least in theory, the team could part ways with Carp (thus clearing a spot on the 40-man roster) and add Sweeney and Bradley to its roster. Again, that would come at the cost of some organizational depth, but it might represent a better shape for the roster that will break camp.
In other words, there are three or four players (Bradley, Carp, Sweeney, perhaps Overbay) competing for the two open position spots on the Sox' roster. With opt-outs (and thus decisions) looming for Sweeney and Overbay on Tuesday, clarity could arrive before long.
Outfielder Mitch Maier also remains in big league camp, though he's currently sidelined by a wrist injury.
DESIGNATED HITTER: 0 SPOTS
DISABLED LIST (1)
- Anyone who needs a day off their feet
Farrell made it clear early in spring that the Red Sox don't exactly have another David Ortiz sitting on their roster, and so in his absence, the team appears ready to mix and match from its roster to address its DH vacancy.
The decision with Bradley could have a considerable role in determining how the Sox fill the DH void. If the Sox start the year with the outfielder in the big leagues, then he'll be an everyday outfielder -- meaning that the DH at-bats would go primarily to Nava and Gomes.