FORT MYERS, Fla. -- While the shape of the Red Sox roster seems largely settled, there are some players with quite a bit at stake with spring training games ready to get underway.
For veterans who are certain of everyday jobs and rotation regulars, games represent an exercise in nothing more than building up physically for the season. But others without guaranteed big league jobs have more at stake.
The team's young talent base, in particular, will be evaluated to determine something of a pecking order for call-ups. Jackie Bradley Jr., of course, asserted himself as mature beyond his years and experience, ultimately earning an Opening Day lineup spot thanks to a combination of his own performance (both his process and results) as well as the season-opening injury to David Ortiz. Right-hander Allen Webster likewise accelerated his path to the big leagues by showing dominating stuff and impressive strike-throwing ability that exceeded his previous career norms last spring; he made his big league debut in April, with the Sox actively trying to find starting opportunities in the big league schedule.
So, a number of the team's prospects will be scrutinized for how they handle themselves in the big league spring training games.
"For the first year player coming into camp, I take the approach of how do they respond and deal with the game situation that seemingly might be unraveling in front of them?" said manager John Farrell. "A guy on the mound, is he handling that emotional spike? Is that hitter in the box putting a good pass on things, a pass with his swing? Is he hitting to the situation? What's their game situation, how are they responding to that, probably stands out as much as anything in terms of batting average."
So who are the players whose spring performances will be most closely monitored? Here is a look at the key story lines to follow in games:
JACKIE BRADLEY JR. AND GRADY SIZEMORE
The Opening Day job in center field is almost surely Bradley's, and it's certainly his to lose. Still.
Unlike Xander Bogaerts, who demonstrated in October that he is capable of thriving on the biggest stage and against top competition, Bradley still has yet to make his case conclusively. The Sox think he'll be a very good everyday center fielder for years to come, but it remains to be seen how his offense measures up to big league pitching at the start of the season.
Still, the Sox saw considerable progress in the 23-year-old in each of his four call-ups last year, culminating in a solid (if unspectacular) September in which he hit .243 with a .317 OBP and .378 slugging mark. If he looks comfortable in the big league setting, then the Sox can arrive at Opening Day confident in the timing of the start of the Bradley era. Certainly, anything resembling his amazing spring of 2013 would give the Sox a sense of security in that regard.
But what if he struggles? Even if that's the case, then the Sox are still likely to commit to Bradley for Opening Day…unless a viable alternative were to emerge. In this case, the only player in camp who represents that alternative would be Grady Sizemore.
Plenty remains unknown about what kind of impact Sizemore can make -- how he will perform after his considerable tools rusted for two years of game inactivity, how often he will be able to play. Still, all initial signs from the 31-year-old have been positive, to the point where he's been deemed game-ready starting on Thursday against Northeastern.
"When you've been gone so long, you have some great reps and some bad ones," said Sizemore. "I think all that's telling me is my timing is off. You want to fine tune things. Even in a normal offseason, when you haven't missed a lot of time, you're rusty in that first couple weeks. When I've been off for two years, it's even worse. But I definitely feel comfortable. It's just a matter of being more consistent and getting that timing down. It's not one of those things where I feel like I'm under water. I just need to fine-tune it like you normally have to in any other season. There's going to be ups and downs. I'm just looking forward to going through it and getting back into that grind."
The idea that Sizemore could assert himself and wrestle center field from Bradley is unlikely. Then again, so was the idea that Bradley might make the Opening Day roster a year ago.
WILL MIDDLEBROOKS AND GARIN CECCHINI (WITH STEPHEN DREW SOMEWHERE IN THE BACKGROUND)
The Red Sox believe in Middlebrooks as a potential impact third baseman. Still, after a 2013 season in which he struggled to a .227 average and .271 OBP, there's a pretty broad spectrum of potential directions his career path could take.
Right now, the Sox are committed to him at third, believing that he can add big-time power to lengthen out the lineup and feeling that he has the aptitude to use last year's struggles to his long-term benefit, making the sort of improvements needed to realize his potential.
"He's got well above-average righthanded power. We all know that. Even though there's been some challenges along the way or stretches where things have been challenging for him, you still look at a guy who's got over 30 home runs in 650 at-bats or whatever the total number is. The extra-base power is clearly there," said Farrell. "To date, his spring has been productive, his work has been outstanding. He's come in with a noticeable determination. And yet at the same time, he's done everything we could have expected in terms of getting prepared. Spring training is important for everybody, not just singling anyone out. It's evident by the work he did in the offseason to add some strength, and we're looking forward to seeing him playing on the field."
There's a good chance that Middlebrooks is the Opening Day third baseman regardless of his spring performance. Still, as with Bradley, if Middlebrooks struggles and other alternatives at third base present themselves, then his job security could face a challenge -- either during the spring or early in the season.
Thus far, one of the more impressive prospects in camp has been Garin Cecchini. The 22-year-old has always possessed a tremendously mature offensive approach, and he appears to have made considerable defensive strides at third. He doesn't offer Bradley's Gold Glove-caliber defensive impact, but his offensive profile is similar to that of Bradley a year ago. While the Sox likely would let Middlebrooks open the year as their third baseman, with a strong spring performance, Cecchini could position himself to push Middlebrooks if he struggles early in the year.
The other wild card at third is Stephen Drew. If the shortstop remains available on a deal that the Sox consider attractive, then even though the Sox currently are not engaged with Drew, a struggle by Middlebrooks could prompt them to reconsider.
RYAN LAVARNWAY AND BRYCE BRENTZ
These are two players who could reverse their plummeting prospect stock with strong showings in big league camp -- particularly if they both reveal themselves to possess the increasingly hard-to-acquire commodity of right-handed power against big league pitching.
Both players slammed 30-plus homers in the minors in 2011, but since have failed to make the same kind of offensive impact. After hitting 34 homers across three levels that year, Lavarnway has hit just 14 in the last two years combined while shuttling between Pawtucket and Boston. (That said, Lavarnway showed an ability to barrel the ball and spray line drives against major league pitching last year, hitting .299 with a .329 OBP last year.)
"I'm well aware that the extra-base power has trended downward," said Farrell. When we sat and met the other day, there's a feeling that inconsistent play -- his home runs probably came in bunches at the minor league level, and when he didn't have that regular at-bat as he did in the minor leagues, I think it's harder to catch the upswing and ride the wave a little bit where those home runs might come in bunches. That's something that we continually look inward. Is it an approach at the plate? Is it more of an effort to hit for average rather than drive the baseball? That's hard to ask a guy to do when he's not getting everyday at-bats."
Now, he will get a considerable number of at-bats in the spring, with a chance to show whether he can drive the ball with the frequency that put him very prominently on the map just a couple years ago. One other element that will prove important in his quest for playing time: His ability to play first base will be critical, at a time when he ranks behind the other catchers on the 40-man roster (A.J. Pierzynski, David Ross, Dan Butler, Christian Vazquez) in terms of defense.
"At this point, we would have no hesitation to put him at first," said Farrell. "That's the kind of, the work he's done there and how quickly he's caught on. It's not just in terms of fielding a ground ball. It's the nuances of the position. He's a smart guy. He's got great aptitude. Like I said, there's no hesitation at this point to put him in a game."
Brentz, likewise, has a chance to unload on some fastballs early in camp and display the well above-average raw power that made him one of the Sox' top prospects in previous years. This is his first opportunity to make an impression in big league camp.
PITCHERS JOCKEYING FOR POSITION FOR CALL-UPS -- AND DEFINING ROLES
The Red Sox pitching staff, barring injury, appears set. The rotation features Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Jake Peavy and Felix Doubront. The bullpen is expected to feature Koji Uehara, Edward Mujica, Andrew Miller, Craig Breslow, Junichi Tazawa, Burke Badenhop and Chris Capuano.
But, of course, there will be injuries and there will be performance struggles. Assuming he starts the year in the minors, Brandon Workman will represent an obvious first line of defense to start the year given what he proved as both a starter and reliever at the big league level last year. The rest of the pitchers in camp, while wildly talented, offer greater performance uncertainty. With the eyes of the big league staff on them, pitchers like Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa and Anthony Ranaudo have a chance to make their cases for early-season starts if needed. (Even Henry Owens and Matt Barnes, both non-roster invitees, have a chance to make their cases, though both are both further from the big leagues in terms of experience and face the additional barrier to call-ups of not being on the 40-man roster.) De La Rosa may be pitching to prove his future can still be in the rotation, so he has plenty at stake.
And in the bullpen, pitchers like right-handers Alex Wilson, Dalier Hinojosa and Noe Ramirez and lefty Drake Britton will be competing with veterans (right-handers like Francisco Cordero, lefties such as Jose Mijares) to assert themselves for early-season call-ups.