Red Sox: Five questions for the 2017 season

Sep 24, 2016; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval (48) against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 24, 2016; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval (48) against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With select players rolling into Fort Myers and just two days left until pitchers and catchers officially report, it’s time to look at the 2017 Boston Red Sox.

After 93 wins last season and the addition of one baseball’s best pitchers in Chris Sale, the hype around the Red Sox is deservedly high. If you’re interested in projected standings, USA Today‘s panel of experts has them atop the American League East, while Las Vegas bookmakers have slightly more modest expectations.

By all accounts, 2017 is expected to be a great season for the Red Sox and their fans. But regardless of expectation, there are still areas of uncertainty that need to be addressed. Depth at key spots, battles for starting positions, and a Papi-sized hole to fill in the lineup provide intrigue as we head into Spring Training.

Without further hesitation, let’s dive into these questions.

Jul 20, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Drew Pomeranz (31) pitches during the first inning against the San Francisco Giants at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Jul 20, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Drew Pomeranz (31) pitches during the first inning against the San Francisco Giants at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The Red Sox have arguably the best trio of starting pitchers in baseball. 10 All-Star appearances and two CY Young Awards between Rick Porcello, David Price, and Chris Sale is as elite as it comes. There is nothing to be concerned about when it comes to the top, but there is still uncertainty regarding the back end of rotation.

Drew Pomeranz, Steven Wright, and Eduardo Rodriguez are the viable options to start the year in the 4 and 5 holes in the Red Sox rotation, but each come with their own individual concerns.

Pomeranz looked like a totally different pitcher than he was in San Diego after coming over in a trade at the deadline. His All-Star performance in the first half was nowhere to be found following the deal, as he compiled a 4.78 ERA in 13 starts with the Red Sox. He received a stem-cell injection in his throwing elbow shortly after the season ended. The procedure was experimental, adding another element of concern.

Steven Wright also made the trip to the Midsummer Classic for the Red Sox, before suffering a shoulder injury that derailed his season while making a questionable appearance as a pinch-runner. The injury suffered in April has prevented Wright from fully regaining the movement needed to properly slot his arm in his delivery. According to John Farrell, Wright’s on track to be ready for Spring Training. Because he’s a knuckleballer, the cause for concern isn’t as high as it would be for a conventional pitcher, but an injury to his throwing arm should be paid attention to nevertheless.

Then there’s Eduardo Rodriguez. At just 23 he’s shown the type of promise that warrants consideration for a role in the top-3 of most major league rotations. But also the inconsistency that could have him starting the year in Pawtucket. Despite his overall struggles in 2016, he pitched well over his final 9 starts, compiling a 3.28 ERA with 53 strikeouts in 49.1 innings pitched. He also tweaked his plant knee – an injury that had previously kept him out for the first two months of the season – during winter ball in Venezuela. All eyes will be on him as he plays in the World Baseball Classic.

Sep 24, 2016; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval (48) works out prior the game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 24, 2016; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval (48) works out prior the game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The story of Pablo Sandoval with the Red Sox has been written 100 times but bears repeating. Since his disaster of a season in 2015, he’s been public enemy number one in Red Sox nation. After striking in 4 of 7 plate appearances last April, he underwent shoulder surgery that ended his season. The $95 million contract he signed two offseasons ago has been nothing short of disastrous, to say the least, but the Red Sox will hope to reclaim some of that value in 2017.

There is a legitimate possibility that third base becomes a black hole for the Sox this season. Sandoval deserves credit for reportedly losing 30 lbs in preparation of Spring Training, so kudos to him for that, but his problems extend further than his weight. His OPS has been consistently falling since falling over the last four years (.789, .758, .739, .658) and his defensive play fell off a cliff in 2015. Shedding the excess weight could improve his mobility at third and thus his defense, but expecting him to become the offensive weapon he once was is a longshot.

Brock Holt and Josh Rutledge are the major league replacements but neither are viable options to start at third on a daily basis. Then there’s Rafael Devers who is still at least a season away from making his major league debut. As it stands right now, third base is Sandoval’s position, and no one knows how it’s going to play out.

May 22, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez (7) before the game against the Cleveland Indians at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

May 22, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez (7) before the game against the Cleveland Indians at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The starting job at catcher is the only position, aside from the final two spots in the rotation, that will have real competition during Spring Training. Sandy Leon had an impressive final line after the 2016 season, batting .310 with an .845 OPS, and 7 home runs in 35 games. He’ll be the incumbent going into camp, but his prolonged cold stretch to end the season has some doubting how legitimate his case is for the starting job. He hit just .204 with no home runs and 9 runs batted in over his final 31 games.

Don’t count out one of Christian Vazquez or Blake Swihart, though.

Out of minor league options heading into the season, Vazquez should begin the year on the major league roster. He lost an entire season to Tommy John surgery in 2015, then had a bad season full of call-ups, starts, and stops in 2015. After losing the job to Sandy Leon in July, he played just 6 games for the Red Sox to end the season. His offensive ability remains in question, but his defense continues to earn praise from the league and teammates. David Price, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Rick Porcello have all called him the best they’ve ever thrown to. If he can find a way to approach league-average value with his bat, his glove and throwing arm will do the rest to earn the starting position.

Of all three, Swihart has the greatest potential for two-way success. A consensus top-20 prospect as recently as 2015, he’s shown his athleticism throughout his career but has yet to display consistency at the major league level. His versatility as an athlete could also hold him back from the starting position. Given his ability to play multiple positions, Swihart could see time between catcher, left field, first base, third, and DH. What’s held him back from claiming the position thus far has been his below-average defense and pitch-calling abilities. If the Red Sox really see him as a catcher, expect Swihart to start the year at AAA to refine that part of his game.

Aug 31, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox right fielder Mookie Betts (50) and pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez (52) dump powerade on first baseman Hanley Ramirez (13) after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays 8-6 at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Aug 31, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox right fielder Mookie Betts (50) and pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez (52) dump powerade on first baseman Hanley Ramirez (13) after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays 8-6 at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not trying to imply that the Sox will have a bad lineup in 2017, in fact, I think they’re capable of approaching 800 runs scored again. The big concern is that they lost the best hitter in baseball to retirement.

At 40-years-old, David Ortiz was able to lead the league in OPS (1.021) and slugging (.620), to go with 38 home runs and 128 runs batted in. The Red Sox passed on free agents Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Matt Holliday, and Carlos Beltran that could take over his absentee DH position. Instead, they signed Mitch Moreland to a one-year deal with the assumption that he’ll platoon first base with Hanley Ramirez.

There is no one player in this lineup capable of replicating Ortiz’s offensive value, everyone will have to contribute. Hanley will have to be a big part of that contribution, protecting Mookie Betts in the middle of the lineup and taking most of his cuts at DH. He has a 1.014 OPS in 155 career plate appearances in that role, so he’s obviously comfortable focusing on just one aspect of the game. So long as Mitch Moreland proves capable against right-handed pitching, Hanley will be put in a spot to excel as the DH.

The rest of the production will come by committee. Without Ortiz, Mookie will be looked at to lead the team offensively. As the MVP-runner up last season, he’s more than capable. Dustin Pedroia and Xander Bogaerts will need to replicate their success from last season. While Jackie Bradley Jr. will have to prove that his 26 home runs and 116 OPS+ are repeatable.

They’ll also get a full season out of superstar rookie Andrew Benintendi, which leads to the next question.

October 6, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Boston Red Sox left fielder Andrew Benintendi (40) hits a single in the ninth inning against the Cleveland Indians during game one of the 2016 ALDS playoff baseball game at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

October 6, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Boston Red Sox left fielder Andrew Benintendi (40) hits a single in the ninth inning against the Cleveland Indians during game one of the 2016 ALDS playoff baseball game at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

He’s the consensus number one prospect in baseball, even if he’s only still considered a prospect by technicality. The hype is certainly deserved after he batted .295/.359/.476 in his first 105 MLB at-bats. Since breaking into professional baseball in 2015, he’s had a meteoric rise through the Red Sox system, taking him just 151 minor league games to prove that he was ready for the bigs. In addition to his offensive prowess, he flashed some pretty leather with one of the best catches of the year.

However good Benintendi looked last season, there is still no such thing as a sure thing in baseball. There’s no doubt that he will have to make adjustments and experience times of struggle in his first full season, but the Red Sox will be counting on him to deliver this year. John Farrell’s already talked about batting him second and some projections are expecting him to be an elite outfielder. Time will tell if he’ll be as good as many expect, but he certainly has the talent and determination to do it.

It may seem as though the Red Sox are playing with house money in his case. If he delivers on the hype, the Red Sox could have three All-Star outfielders with Betts and JBJ. From management’s perspective, it’s going to take a team effort to make up for Ortiz’s lost production. Benintendi will need to be a big part of that effort.

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