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Touching All the Bases

5 Extremely Important Questions the Red Sox Must Answer Over Final 45 Games

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Since that transcendent dream season of 1967 and to a lesser extent before, Red Sox broadcasts have been the soundtrack to the New England summer.

This year, however, the familiar background music of baseball has faded much earlier than usual or expected.

The Red Sox, save for the occasional brief and unfulfilled tease, have slumbered through this season with little of the panache and luck that accompanied them all the way through October last year.

The defending champs haven't defended much of anything, and the early stumble from contention --- and the realization, punctuated by the exodus at the trade deadline, that a furious late-summer charge up the standings was not happening -- has brought the usual clues about our advancing ambivalence.

Television ratings are falling, emails touting "good seats available" are rising, and the desire to savor the remaining days of summer doesn't necessarily coincide with keeping up with every small plot twist regarding our afterthought baseball team.

I cannot be the only one among us who learned the Red Sox played 19 innings Saturday (and lost, naturally) sometime around 2 p.m. on that irresistibly sunny Sunday.

Forty-five games remain this season -- yes, I had to check -- and its best moments have had little to do with 2014: We celebrated past champions, and now we're watching the next generation of prospects arrive to various levels of success. Some will be central figures on that next great Red Sox team. Some will soon call another city their baseball home. Some will be here for just a glimpse, taking memories and souvenirs that will last only for them.

These games are meaningless in context of 2014, though John Farrell would probably like to see that career winning percentage creep back toward .500 sooner rather than later. But these games do have meaning in helping us begin to sort out expectations for 2015.

The most prominent question, which I wrote about this morning, is whether Xander Bogaerts can handle shortstop capably enough to remain there. A cynic might suggest that the most prominent question is whether he will hit enough to remain anywhere. But the kid is 21, bright, and supremely talented. Don't stop believing.

Here are five more questions that should be answered to some degree the rest of the way:

1. Will Christian Vazquez hit enough to be the long-time starting catcher?

We all love hearing the stories about how he's essentially an honorary member of the Molina family, and you don't have to watch the kid for long to see the influence. He is a joy and a weapon as a defensive catcher, and damned if he doesn't seem as intent on stealing as many strikes for his pitchers as A.J. Pierzynski gave away.

But is he going to be closer to Yadier Molina as a player, a middle-of-the-pack catcher like Bengie, or is he destined because of a middling bat to be a career backup, like Jose?

He looks as competent at the plate as he is confident behind it, but the results haven't quite reflected that yet. In 270 plate appearances at Pawtucket, he had a .721 OPS with three homers. So far through 75 PAs in Boston, he has a .596 OPS with five doubles and no homers.

Catchers do traditionally take time to develop as hitters -- Yadier Molina hit .216 with a .595 OPS in his second full-season. Vazquez's glove will keep him in majors for years. But if his bat comes around ... well, wouldn't it be something if he acquitted himself so well that the Red Sox felt comfortable trading premier catching prospect Blake Swihart in a blockbuster?

2. Will John Farrell's usage patterns with Daniel Nava ever make sense?

When the games mattered, he buried one of the more productive outfielders in the American League last season, not to mention a deserving player who earned his spot on the varsity with an almost unfathomable journey, in favor of the Rebuilding Grady Sizemore Project.

Then, when the Red Sox are out of it, he plays the 31-year-old Nava when the at-bats should be going to the likes of Mookie Betts.

I don't get it. The only plausible explanation that I can come up with is that Farrell is hoping Nava hits three more home runs, which would give him five for the season and allow him to surpass -- get this -- Stephen Drew and A.J. Pierzynski for seventh-most on the team.

They each hit four. Yep, it's been that kind of year.

3. Can Mookie Betts adapt to playing the outfield at the Major League level?

Actually, I probably wasn't entirely fair to Farrell in the previous item. I suspect one of the reasons he didn't play Betts as much as we would have liked when he was up is that he recognized he's just not ready.

Betts is just 21, born the same week as Xander Bogaerts, and not even a full season removed from Single A. They rushed him a little, and uncharacteristically, they made him change positions Donnie Sadler-style out of desperation rather than their usual prudence.

As exciting as it was to watch him ascend prospect lists and to the majors, the offensive sparks he might have provided probably would have been separated by too many outs.

But now, with the pennant ceding to a white flag, I hope they bring him back. There's no better place to learn the outfield than with a big-league staff in a no-pressure situation.

He should get some serious time at second base too. The season ends Sunday, Sept. 28. I'm setting Monday, Sept. 29, as the day Dustin Pedroia reveals he was suffering from a hand or wrist injury virtually all season.

4. Which of the young starting pitching prospects will position themselves for a rotation spot next year?

While so much remains to be determined about the 2015 Red Sox rotation -- they currently lack a No. 1 and a No. 2 starter, and Clay Buchholz and Joe Kelly are no certainties to return -- this much I do believe:

At least one and probably two spots will be there for the taking among the collection of young pitchers who are either in Boston or Pawtucket at the moment.

Rubby De La Rosa, possessor of poise, stuff, and a killer changeup, should have the inside track for one spot. But the others? Depends how the likes of Allen Webster, Brandon Workman (starting to think he's a bullpen guy), and Anthony Ranaudo acquit themselves over the final weeks.

Webster, who was brilliant in his last start but has exasperating confidence issues in his vast ability, is the most intriguing of the lot this year. I hope he pitches well enough that he builds serious appeal to a potential trade partner.

5. Will this guy please come to Boston in the springtime (if not this one, than the next)?

All right, I'm just playing to type now. Perhaps even trolling y'all. But watching Stanton drop atomic baseballs on beer stands all throughout the National League is a fine alternative to watching the Red Sox.

And if a few of the aforementioned questions are answered in an encouraging way -- say, Betts flashes those dynamic skills and Vazquez looks like a legitimate high-quality starting catcher -- the Red Sox' organizational depth could mean this particular dream isn't impossible after all.

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