Opening Day is upon us. Seems crazy, right? The Boston Red Sox are set to embark on a new season that begins Monday afternoon against the Orioles, one with a new cast of characters and the coveted agenda of defending a World Series title.
Let’s take a look at what you should be watching for in this first month of 2014 for the Red Sox:
1).Grady Sizemore’s health
Everybody is familiar with the story of Grady Sizemore’s comeback by now: the seven surgeries since 2009; the two-year span between major league at-bats; the long road back to recapturing the MVP caliber play of the past.
Sizemore — appearing in his first game since September 22nd, 2011 — will be the starting center fielder for the Boston Red Sox when they take the field tomorrow against the O’s. After agreeing to a one-year deal worth $750,000 this winter, Sizemore defied the odds and beat out Jackie Bradley Jr. straight up in spring training, hitting .310 and providing a glimpse of the 30/30 player he once was.
While I appreciate the feel-good story here, there is still a huge hurdle called the regular season, which by the way, is 162 games long, and spans over the course of six months, that Sizemore will have to deal with if he is going to make a difference for Boston in 2014.
Durability is key. Management has stressed that there is a plan in place that will limit the number of consecutive games Sizemore will play in, so I would foresee a lot of shuffling around in the outfield early on — including Daniel Nava getting some playing time in center. But like I’ve said from the beginning, if Sizemore can even give Boston 50 or 60 percent of what he used to be, he could become a very valuable asset.
2).A slimmer Felix Doubront
Felix Doubront came into spring training in the best shape of his life this year. After physically breaking down towards the end of 2013, the 6-foot-2 Venezuelan could be in for a breakout year.
2013 saw some ups and downs for Doubront. After an ugly start to the season, he settled in to a groove and reeled of 16 straight starts allowing three runs or less. You could see he was understanding how to pitch, and as a result, was getting deeper into ball games, but pitching efficiency still remains a problem for the left hander.
In 29 starts in 2012, Doubront only logged 161 innings pitched. In 27 starts in 2013, it was about the same at 162.1 innings. The major league average for pitches per inning for starters in 2013 was 16.08, per Sporting Charts. Doubront was at 17.5, or about the same as Phil Hughes, who threw only 145.2 innings last season. If Doubront wants to solidify his role as the No.3 starter, his ability to pitch deeper into games must increase in his third full year in the rotation.
Look for Doubront to get off to a hot start.
3).The left side of the infield
It will be of the utmost importance early on to see how Will Middlebrooks and Xander Bogaerts — who are 25, and 21 respectively — interact with each other defensively. Having Stephen Drew’s stability at the shortstop position last season was a crucial factor in why the Red Sox walked away with the World Series trophy.
With two young, and unproven defenders manning the left side of the infield this season, the Red Sox might be sacrificing some of that defense for the bats of these talented hitters.
I’m on record saying I would have preferred Drew’s veteran presence because I believed in the approach the Sox used last season — where good defense and base running was valued more than just what a player can do with the bat. I’m not saying Boston has completely moved away from that, but they’ve certainly taken a step or two in that direction.
Winning a championship allows a team to try some things out that they otherwise wouldn’t attempt with so much pressure. And I think by handing the keys of the left side of the infield over to these two young players, that is exactly what Boston is doing here.
4).Who’s the leadoff guy?
The loss of Jacoby Ellsbury to the New York Yankees leaves a gaping hole at the very top of the lineup. Obviously, there’s no replacing one of the best leadoff hitters in the game, but my feeling is that John Farrell won’t rely on just one guy to fill the void, rather he’ll pencil in an assortment of names at the top of that lineup card.
The finalists for the spot would be appear to be Shane Victorino, Daniel Nava, or Jonny Gomes, depending on who’s playing on which day.
Out of the three, Victorino has the most experience, mainly from his playing days in Philadelphia, where in 2010, he hit .276 in 348 at-bats from the leadoff spot. But his availability to start the season remains in question with the re-injuring of his hamstring.
My choice: Daniel Nava, who was 15th in the MLB last season with a .385 OBP. Getting on base might be the most important characteristic when you’re hitting in front of the likes of Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, and Mike Napoli. While he’ll likely only get work against right-handed pitching, he could see his playing time increase if he can progress defensively in center field or at first base. In a lot of ways he is the prototypical leadoff hitter, and in a lot of ways he’s not; he sees a lot of pitches and gets on base, but he’s not quick or fast and won’t steal many bases.
The top spot should be a revolving door, but I’d venture to guess that Nava will emerge as the favorite as the season progresses.
5). Ring ceremony and Boston Marathon tribute game
The fulfillment of a lifetime for many baseball players is a World Series championship. For every member of the 2013 Red Sox, that achievement will be recognized when they host the Milwaukee Brewers on April 4th for the home opener and ring ceremony at Fenway Park.
Honestly, don’t miss it. I’ve been lucky enough to witness three of these ceremonies already in my lifetime, but you can’t take them for granted. They are special moments that you may never get to see again.
Speaking of special moments, the Red Sox will pay tribute to the Boston Marathon heroes and victims on April 20th, the day before their regularly scheduled 11 a.m. game on Patriots Day. Boston Strong indeed.