Spring Training Battles: Centerfield

For the Red Sox, Spring Training this year is full of excitement and competition. There are several positions in which two or more players have a legitimate shot for a spot on the selective 25-man roster. One such position battle that will be very closely followed is for the starting center fielder, between Grady Sizemore and Jackie Bradley Jr. As a reminder, whoever wins this battle, the other is not necessarily guaranteed to get the backup spot. The Red Sox have six players who can play in the outfield: Nava, Gomes, Carp, Victorino and the aforementioned Sizemore and Bradley Jr. Victorino and Nava are both capable of playing center if needed, but defensive metrics indicate that it would not be in the best interests of the Red Sox if they were to play there. So, it comes down to who will start and who will more than likely back up.

Starting off with Jackie Bradley Jr.,  in case you forgot, he has been on the major league team before. After lighting up Spring Training in 2013, hitting a torrid .419 in 28 games, he made the jump from AA Portland to Boston’s major league roster. However, he did not last long only playing in 37 games hitting .189 and he was sent back down. In Pawtucket, he showed some consistency and finished the year hitting .275. Over the offseason, it became clear that starting center fielder was Bradley’s job to lose after Jacoby Ellsbury signed a 7 year $153 million contract with the Yankees. Behind Bradley Jr., there is no clear centerfield prospect and so to provide a backup plan, if he began to struggle at the major league level in 2014, the Red Sox brought it Grady Sizemore.

Grady Sizemore hasn’t played since 2011, but when it was announced that he was hoping to return this year he attracted the interest of several teams. And why not? Before injuries started taking a toll on his performance in 2009, from 2005-2008, he was an all-star caliber player, posting 20-20 seasons and in 2008 broke 30-30 barrier. Along with that, he added two gold gloves in 2007 and 2008. Reportedly, Sizemore was on the cusp of signing with the Cincinnati Reds, before meeting with Red Sox medical staff who laid out a plan to ease him back into baseball. This was enough to convince Sizemore to take his talents to Boston. Now, while it is easy to get excited for the arrival of Grady Sizemore, expectations must be tempered, because keep in mind he still hasn’t played a professional baseball game in more than two years, so its not fair to compare the 2014 Grady to the 2008 Grady, who hit 33 home runs and stole 38 bases. At the same time, all reports from Spring Training have indicated that he is progressing well and he is scheduled to play his first game tomorrow, so there is reason to be excited for his return.

At this point, Jackie Bradley Jr. is  in the driver’s seat and it is still his job to lose. Sizemore would have to have an outstanding Spring Training in order to remove Bradley from the starting role and Bradley would have to underperform. Contractually, Bradley will be under the Red Sox’s control for the next six years and will have a salary around $500,000 for this season. On the other hand, Sizemore, being a free agent, received a one year $750,000 contract but that could turn into $6 million based on incentives. Regardless, money is not as much an issue for the Red Sox so they will take whoever deserves the starting spot. Ultimately, I believe they will end up keeping both Bradley Jr. and Sizemore, with JBJ earning the starting spot.

Can the Red Sox Trust the Left Side of their Infield

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The Boston Red Sox are looking to defend their title in 2014 and for a team that just won the World Series, they come into Spring Training with a fair amount of questions. The biggest of which seems to be what should they do with left side of their infield? As of right now, the Red Sox appear to be comfortable going into this season with Will Middlebrooks at third base and Xander Bogaerts at shortstop. There is significant risk in this scenario, especially considering that if either of the two struggle, Jonathan Herrera, acquired from Colorado for Franklin Morales earlier in the offseason, is tabbed as the current utility man. He is know more for his glove, since his offensive numbers are subpar and not suited for a starting role.

In the case of Will Middlebrooks, his first two seasons have been night and day. His rookie campaign, in which he essentially ran Kevin Youkilis out of town, gave Red Sox fans something to look forward each game in the disastrous 2012 season. Middlebrooks not only hit well, putting up a .288 average, but also showed significant power delivering 15 home runs in 75 games, before his season was cut short after getting hit by a pitch on the wrist. He returned for the start of the 2013 having sole possession of third base, but struggled out of the gate. Other than a three home run game against Toronto, Middlebrooks’ month of April was very frustrating and he finished the month hitting a weak .194. May and June didn’t go too much better and he ended up getting sent down to AAA Pawtucket until getting the call back up early in August. He showed somewhat of a mixed bag from there to the end of the season, with a very good month of August, but struggling again in September. He didn’t hit great in the playoffs and lost his starting spot to Xander Bogaerts at the end of the ALCS and didn’t see any action until the famous “Obstruction Game 3″ of the World Series. The big question for 2014 is which Will will we see this season. 2012 Will, who was looked capable of holding down the hot corner for the foreseeable future at Fenway? Or 2013 Will, who was up and down the entire year and looked very overwhelmed at the plate.

Xander Bogaerts will get every opportunity to prove that he is the franchise shortstop, until he shows that he isn’t quite ready to handle the job just yet. This isn’t to say that Bogaerts will get traded, rather he may see a short stint at AAA if he can’t keep up with major league pitching. He has already become a fan favorite, which is a combination of the unavoidable hype and his impressive playoff performance helping the Red Sox en route to their 2013 title. Still, it is tough to remember that Bogaerts is in fact a rookie and could struggle just as Jackie Bradley Jr. did last year. Another difficulty with Bogaerts is that he has a big frame at 6’3” 185lb that is only going to grow as he matures. This should be good for his offensive output, especially considered the lowered offensive expectations for shortstops, but at the same time, he may become too big and not have the range that many coaches prefer their shortstops to have. Again, Bogaerts will get the opportunities to start at shortstop and show the coaching staff that he can indeed handle the position, until he proves them wrong, but for now Bogaerts projects to put an end to the revolving door at shortstop.

So, what’s the solution? Well, right now the Red Sox don’t need one, since there is no problem yet. GM Ben Cherington is slowly starting to integrate their minor league prospects into Boston’s major league system and the idea is to give these young studs a chance. A contingency plan that has been discussed internally is bringing back Stephen Drew, who played excellent defensively last year and gives the Red Sox a lefty bat on the left side. The hesitation with signing him is he has Scott Boras as his agent, who always seems to find a lucrative deal for his clients and they have set a price and don’t plan to settle for much less. Along with that, is Drew turned down a qualifying offer from the Red Sox, which means that if he is signed by another team, the Red Sox gain a first round draft pick, which they covet given their philosophy shift from big money free agents to short term deals and using the prospects in their minor league system. Drew would prove to be an excellent backup plan if he is brought back on the Red Sox’s terms, but until Middlebrooks and Bogaerts show that they aren’t quite ready to handle the majors full time, they are projected to be the starting left side on Opening Day. So, should the Red Sox give them a chance or go out a sign another player as backup.

Should the Red Sox Give Jon Lester an Extension

Jon Lester

Jon Lester has repeatedly said that he is willing to give the Red Sox a hometown discount for an extension in order to stay and pitch for Boston in 2015 and beyond, just how much? We don’t know. The Red Sox as of right now have yet to start contract talks with Lester, which is somewhat concerning given he will be a free agent at the end of the 2014 season, along with his desire to remain with the Red Sox. There are a couple reasons as to why the Red Sox are hesitant to sign their opening-day starter for the past 3 seasons to a long-term deal.

There has been an emergence of talented young arms that are on the verge of being ready to contribute to the major league club. In AAA Pawtucket alone, there are three pitchers who saw time last year that could help out again in 2014. Allen Webster, who came over from the Dodgers in the 2012 salary dump, made seven starts last year, but struggled tossing a 8.60 ERA. This number is somewhat inflated, due to two starts against Seattle and Minnesota in which he only managed to go a total of 4.0 innings allowing 15 runs, but without a doubt he has talent that will become more refined as he matures. Brandon Workman impressed many in his stint with the Red Sox. He is a starter and projects to remain there, but he was primarily used out of the bullpen last year and has won over some fans thanks to his playoff performance: 8.2 innings 0 earned runs. Finally, knuckleballer Steven Wright saw limited time last year, but doesn’t figure to see the major league club too much this year thanks to added depth. In addition to the three pitchers mentioned above, top prospects Matt Barnes (AAA) , Anthony Ranaudo (AAA), and Henry Owens (AA) haven’t even been on the major league club and they are big plans in the Red Sox future.

The other major reason the Red Sox might pause before opening a conversation with Lester is his 2012 season. Lester looked lost much of 2012 and couldn’t seem to get himself on track. He returned to old self this past season posting a 3.75 ERA, but it was still higher than his ’08-’11 seasons in which his ERA was never higher than 3.47. A thought coupled with this is that Lester could be getting old, but he is only 30 years old and to use a measuring stick as to what he might deserve, the best comparison to Lester would be Cole Hamels. Hamels was two years younger than Lester when he signed a six year $144 million dollar contract. They are very similar, both star lefties for high payroll teams and their seasons leading up to the contract year are very similar, with Hamels having a slight edge number-wise. Hamels earned his way into $24 million a year, which doesn’t sound like too much of a discount for the Phillies.

Lester on the other hand wants to stay in Boston to the point that he is willing to leave some money on the table. This doesn’t mean Lester would come cheap, especially considering his World Series performance, which would have given him a World Series MVP award if David Ortiz hadn’t hit an other-worldly .760 against St. Louis. Still, in an age where star lefties are starting put themselves in the $30 million a year range (yes, you Kershaw), if Lester hit the open market, it would not be a surprise if he were to receive an offer for 5 years around $125 million. Given his willingness to provide the Red Sox with a discount, a fair deal for both sides would be something in the 4 year $80-88 million range. This would retain the Red Sox most consistent pitcher for the foreseeable future and not to mention, provide the young studs with a veteran leader. So, what do you think should the Red Sox sign Lester to an extension or do they allow him to hit free agency.