After impressing with his excellent defense and solid bat down the stretch for the team as a rookie in 2014, 25-year-old Puerto Rican catcher Christian Vazquez missed all of 2015 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in April of last year. The club had planned to use Vazquez and veteran Ryan Hanigan in some combination last season, but instead entered the year with Hanigan as the primary catcher and Sandy Leon as the backup. Leon was demoted in favor of 22-year-old Blake Swihart in early May, and Swihart quickly became the Red Sox everyday catcher, batting an impressive .274/.318/.392 in his rookie campaign. However, Hanigan is under contract again in 2016, and at age 35 has no minor league options left.
While this situation allows Vazquez plenty of time to come up to speed in the minors, when he’s fully healthy the Sox will have a predicament on their hands. They could choose to keep Vazquez down for an extended period, or they could send Swihart down to focus on improving his defense while receiving plenty of at-bats. Alternatively, they could choose to go with the young duo, instead attempting to trade or otherwise move Hanigan off the roster. At $3.7 million, Hanigan’s contract isn’t awful, but it’s more than what most teams would like to pay a catcher of his caliber. Either way, should they deal Hanigan, the Sox may be eating some of his contract. Look for the three catchers to battle for a roster spot as well as the starting job this spring.
In 2015, the outfield was a mess, with the only consistent starter at any position being 22-year-old Mookie Betts, who made 130 of his 140 starts in center field. Left field was mostly occupied by Hanley Ramirez, who publicly, and sometimes comically, failed to simply be passable as major league outfielder. Right field was a revolving door of faces and names, with no player starting more than 40 games at the position, while five players started more than 20. Going into 2016 there will be some shuffling of positions, but the faces in the outfield should remain relatively similar on a day-to-day basis. From left to right, the Red Sox should roll out Rusney Castillo, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Betts on opening day in 2016 against the Indians.
While this makes it seem like there’s not much of a “battle” to be had in the outfield, there’s one catch – the Red Sox signed 32-year-old veteran Chris Young to a two-year deal in December, giving him $13 million over the length of his contract. Young is past his prime, and hasn’t had more than 400 plate appearances since 2011, but he was a 1.2 WAR player with the Yankees in 356 plate appearances last season. Young’s calling card is his ability to hit left-handed pitching, batting .263/.362/.474 in his career against southpaws, good for a 126 tOPS+ (meaning his OPS is 26 percent better for this split than it is for his career total).
Young will likely start the majority, if not every game that the Red Sox face a left-handed pitcher, so someone in the outfield will have to sit. With Betts cementing himself as a legitimate major league star last season, it’s unlikely to be him, so it will come down to Bradley or Castillo (Young could also give 41-year-old David Ortiz a few days off against the lefties he often struggles against in the DH slot). Bradley is at a disadvantage, being a left-handed hitter, so it may make the most sense to sit him, but his outstanding defensive capabilities make the issue a tougher decision. The two young outfielders’ performances in the spring and early in the season will determine who has to bow out of the lineup when Young gets the nod.
After the subsiding of the previously mentioned dumpster fire that was the Red Sox starting pitching in 2015, Dave Dombrowski wasted no time spending some money to upgrade the position, inking David Price to a 7-year deal on December 4. While Price certainly slots in as the Red Sox Opening Day starter, the men who will follow him and in what order they proceed is still to be determined. Starters #2 through #4 are likely going to be Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, and Eduardo Rodriguez. Each has legitimate concerns entering the season – Buchholz’s durability, Porcello’s performance, Rodriguez’s youth – but the trio has the potential to be very good. The fifth starter position is where the biggest battle is going to be fought.
The Red Sox have a number of pitchers to choose from as their fifth man, including veterans Joe Kelly, Roenis Elias, and Steven Wright as well as youngsters Henry Owens and Brian Johnson. Kelly is probably the front runner for the spot as of now, after starting 25 games for the Sox in 2015. While his overall numbers weren’t outstanding, Kelly improved his results down the stretch, winning seven starts in a row from August 7 to September 9, pitching 43.2 innings to a 1.85 ERA. Elias is an underdog competitor for the position after coming to the club with Carson Smith in the Wade Miley deal this winter. With the Mariners in 2015, Elias posted a 4.14 ERA in 22 games (20 starts) and 115.1 innings pitched. The knuckleballer Wright worked to a 3.96 ERA in nine starts with Boston, striking out 40 and walking 17 in 52.1 innings. Owens also saw a decent amount of time in the rotation last season, finishing with a 4.57 ERA and 4.28 FIP in 63.0 innings across 11 starts. Johnson made one major league start in 2015, pitching 4.1 innings and allowing four runs (all earned) on three hits, three walks, and four strikeouts.
While it’s likely that the job will go to Kelly, the other four candidates will still have a chance to earn the job in spring training. It’s also likely that either Wright or Elias will earn the last spot in the Sox bullpen as a long reliever, so even if they don’t earn the starting role they may have a chance at making the 25-man roster. Should Owens or Johnson not prove enough to earn a starting job, they’ll likely begin 2016 in Pawtucket’s rotation at the Triple-A level.