And so that celebrated truck departed Van Ness Street Wednesday, destined for the sunshine of Fort Myers, Fla. and carrying an assortment of baseball equipment and necessities (400 pairs of socks!), along with an item of much more importance: The promise of warmer days ahead.
Barring any unexpected detours or takeovers by weirdo bubblegum bandits desperate for pouches of Big League Chew – you never know, they are heading to Florida — it will arrive at the Red Sox spring training base sometime in the coming hours.
Encouragingly, a significant number of Red Sox players have already arrived in camp, long before the truck has rolled in. One can only assume the early arrivals – David Price among them — have enough clean socks and sunflower seeds (on board: 60 cases!) and such to tide them over until the gear and goodies arrive.
In all seriousness, Truck Day is a fun if semi-silly symbol of the coming spring around here that exceeds any claim a groundhog might have to such a status. But it also serves as a reminder that once the games do begin, all hopes for this season are dependent upon the players.
The supplies the truck carries of course are not nearly as important as those for whom they are carried. All of the equipment – and the checklist of what’s on board – is swell. But what the Red Sox really need this year is a roster of players who know how to use all of that stuff (1,100 bats!) to maximum effect.
I must admit, even as Dave Dombrowski upgraded the rotation (signing Price to a $217 million deal – he can afford his own fleet of equipment trucks) and the bullpen (trading for power arms Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith), I’m still not sure what to expect from this team. Not to cloud your sunny day, but I’ve wondered this even after the roster repairs were complete:
Are we sure they’re good? I mean, barring catastrophe, they will be better. They won 78 games last year. They finished in last place for the second year in a row. They added the ace/elite closer tandem. There are holdovers who should have better seasons, starting with Rick Porcello, who had a 3.53 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 71.1 innings in the second half. Some problems will be fixed.
But for a team that is expected to make the leap to contender in the competitive American League East, there sure are an inordinate number of question marks on the roster. The pitching staff obviously has fewer than it did a year ago, but I still wonder about the quality of its depth. Joe Kelly is Nuke LaLoosh in rec-specs. Clay Buchholz is probably their second-most talented starting pitcher, and he remains forever an enigma. No one ever knows what to expect from him, including, I imagine, himself. Koji Uehara had a very good season a year ago, but very good is a drop-off from otherworldly, and he’s 41 years old on April 3. They have two mediocre bullpen lefties – Robbie Ross Jr. and Tommy Layne – who make you long for the Andrew Miller/Craig Breslow tandem of 2013.
I’m more curious about the lineup ultimately shakes out. David Ortiz had another exceptional season last year (37 homers, .913 OPS in 146 games), but he is 40 years old. The record for homers by a player 40 or older is 37 by Darrell Evans in 1987, a homer-happy year for just about everyone (even Wade Boggs hit 24). There have been just 14 seasons in baseball history in which a player 40 or older hit at least 20 home runs; two of those seasons belong to Barry Bonds, and one each to Ted Williams and Hank Aaron, the elite of the elite. What is the reasonable expectation for Ortiz, presuming he remains healthy? Twenty-five homers seems like an appropriate over-under.
Some falloff must be expected from Ortiz in his final season. Yet if you look up and down the Red Sox lineup, it’s apparent they are counting on him as much as they ever have. We still don’t know what Jackie Bradley Jr. is as a hitter. Rusney Castillo was supposed to be a clone of Shane Victorino, but no one told us it was the 2014-15 of Victorino. Pablo Sandoval (.652 OPS in his lethargic first season Boston) and Hanley Ramirez (.644 OPS with 9 homers from May 1 on) might be better, or they might be dual disasters once again. It’s a foolish idea to have any expectations for either of them. And let’s not even discuss the idea of Hanley Ramirez possessing a first baseman’s mitt. He’ll forget to cover first on a routine ground ball before the first week of April is done. He will be merely hapless on his best days. I cannot believe they are doing this.
Dustin Pedroia is still almost as useful as he is popular, but he is now tagged with that caveat that comes up more and more with a hard-nosed player on the wrong side of 30: If he stays healthy. His top statistical comps through age 30 include Jose Vidro and Carlos Baerga, both of whom saw their skills erode rapidly.
Even the best thing about this roster – the electric youth — comes with some questions. Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts are 23 years old. In the second half last season, they combined to play 130 games. In those 130 games, Bogaerts and Betts tallied 594 plate appearances, 551 at-bats, 99 runs, 179 hits, 36 doubles, 12 homers, 72 RBIs, 14 steals, and a .325/.365/.460 slash line. And here are their numbers from another sample, a stretch from June 21-October 2 in which they combined for 162 games.
@GlobeChadFinn Wow! Can't wait for next season to start.— Matt Tavares (@tavaresbooks) October 2, 2015
They are exceptional and exciting and any other accolade you choose to muster. The Red Sox are actually in a remarkably enviable spot with its 23-and-under talent – Blake Swihart and lefty Eduardo Rodriguez also look like potential stars, and the organization has three of Keith Law’s top 18 prospects in Rafael Devers (7), Yoan Moncada (17), and Andrew Benintendi (18).
There are few things more fulfilling as a sports fan than to see young promise fulfilled, and Bogaerts and Betts are already there, with others en route. But they got their last year. They were the two best players on a last-place team, and it’s hard to fathom either improving with similar leaps and bounds this year. The upward trajectory for even the best young players isn’t predictable or steady. Bogaerts will hit with more power … but it may take two years, or three. Betts might be Andrew McCutchen’s equal … but that’s a lot to ask now. They’re wonderful. They’re going to need more help than they got a season ago.
I’m sure some of my concerns about this talented but high-risk roster will melt away once we see photos of David Price bear-hugging Big Papi or hear the reports of Pedroia reporting in the Best Shape of His Life or see a video clip of Bogaerts rocketing liners out of sight to left field. The optimism at this address usually arrives shortly after the truck hits Ft. Myers.
Hey, the Sox should be better in 2016. They could be much better. But for the Sox to play meaningful games in October, a few things will have to go right that we don’t expect. And at least some of the many things that could go wrong cannot.
Reviewing the Red Sox’ 40-man roster
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