Photo by Doug Eisenhart of Boston.com

Top 5 Story-lines to Watch in Spring Training 2011

We are now just a handful of days away from when pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to Spring Training 2011 in Fort Myers, FL. It is a chance for old teammates to catch-up after a long off-season and for fresh faces to get a feel for their new team and their new home. Spring Training can turn into a grind pretty quickly, with workouts until late February, then 37 games in 32 days (including split-squad games) with only 1 full day off on March 23rd. Each game will have a different lineup and a different set of subs, because with 60+ players in camp, the Boston Red Sox want to give everyone a chance to play and prove themselves. With so much commotion and lineup switching on an inning-by-inning basis, I thought it would be helpful to look at the top 5 story-lines to follow this Spring in order to get a good read on where the Sox club is as the regular season approaches.

Without further ado, let’s begin with #5 and work our way to #1.

5. Pitching Coach Change Effect

This off-season didn’t just bring in some fresh faces on the player roster, the Sox also welcomed a new pitching coach, Curt Young. In his time with the team, Toronto Blue Jays manager and former Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell developed a lot of young talent (Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz) and guided a pitching staff that consistently finished at or near the top in the AL in most stat categories. After the underachieving year last (partly due to injuries),Young has a lot to prove in his 1st year in Boston.

What made Farrell great, was his rapport with the staff, so this Spring, it will be interesting to watch how Young builds those relationships and how quickly he can gain respect on the field. With a battle for the bullpen brewing, he will need to get a strong feel for the staff in February and in March, he will get a taste of what each pitcher brings to the table and how they will be used during the season. Francona will need Young to be by his side all season helping him make the right moves, so it will also be interesting to watch the rapport develop between them this Spring.

4. Catching Situation

The situation behind the plate received a ton of attention this off-season with the departure of Victor Martinez and the insertion of Jarrod Saltalamacchia in the starters role. With Salty being tapped as the starter already, barring any unforeseen injuries, how he performs this Spring could go a long way towards building his confidence. He arrived early in camp and has been working with bullpen/catching coach Gary Tuck, showing that he understands the importance of his new role and how hard he will need to work in order to help the team win and guide the Red Sox pitching staff to victory.

Another piece of the puzzle is Jason Varitek. He comes into camp as the back-up catcher, but depending on Salty’s progression, he could end up playing a much bigger role and spending 40+% of his time behind home-plate. It will be interesting to watch ‘Tek mentor Salty as the Spring progresses and on through the season, because no one understands this pitching staff and the pressures of Boston more than the captain. I will also be curious to see if any of the Red Sox pitchers choose to have ‘Tek as their guy instead of Salty, which could certainly hurt the kid’s confidence throughout the season.

3. Chemistry

The often overlooked topic of team chemistry. I am a firm believer that in order to advance far in the post-season and win a World Series title, a club needs a strong team-mentality and built up chemistry. That begins in Spring Training and continues to grow and meld through the final game of the season. As soon as a team begins to in-fight or have any type of conflict, it creates a distraction and prevents players from joining together to maximize their potential success. Chemistry is a difficult thing to rate or judge, but just think back to the 2003 and 2004 Red Sox and the ‘Idiots’ and ‘Cowboy Up’ group-think. Those teams bonded together, albeit in their own unique way, and the results on the field spoke for themselves. They weren’t playing as individuals, they were playing as 1 unit for each other.

That building of chemistry begins in workouts, so watching players interact this Spring will tell us a lot about the direction the team is heading. In theory, this team shouL. Bond together well, because guys like Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford are respected clubhouse figures who work hard every day and give it their all on the field. Teammates notice and respect hard work above all else, so we can likely expect this team to grow together quickly and continue growing until November (hopefully). Chemistry also plays out in the batting order, which Francona will definitely experiment with during games in March and likely throughout the 1st few months of the season as well.

2. Bullpen

The parade of pitchers looking for an opportunity to prove themselves in Spring Training seems to be never ending. There are likely to be at least 15 pitchers with a legitimate shot at filling 2 bullpen slots, making for some interesting competition once games begin in March. At least 1 of those spots will be for a lefty, either Hideki Okajima, Andrew Miller, Felix Doubront, Dennys Reyes, Rich Hill, or Randy Williams, so the remaining 9 or so righties will be fighting for 1 spot (assuming both spots don’t go to lefties). Because many of the pitchers competing for a job are new to the organization, it will be a balancing act to get them all sufficient playing time this Spring to truly understand their capabilities.

As the Spring games wear on, the amount of appearances for each pitcher will become more significant. The more time a pitcher sees on the mound, the more likely they are either to make the big-league roster, or be a target for a future call-up. Often in the past, the pitchers who the Sox knew were going to begin the season in AAA Pawtucket received significant mound time in late March, because they staff knows they won’t have a chance to see them pitch live again until they are called-up, or next Spring. Although favorites will develop quickly for Young and Francona, most everyone has at least a small shot at making the bigs in 2011.

1. Injuries

The most talked about topic in 2010 and this off-season was injuries. It seemed the entire Red Sox roster last season was banged-up or seriously injured at one point in time or another, but what I am referring to is a 2-fold story-line this Spring. The 1st piece is recovery from injuries for all of the Sox players that had surgery or were nursing issues this winter and the 2nd piece is new injuries popping up.

In terms of recovering from injuries, the Sox have a lot to monitor this Spring. The list of players recovering from major issues in 2010 includes returning players Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Jacoby Ellsbury, J.D. Drew, Josh Beckett and Marco Scutaro, as well as newcomer Adrian Gonzalez. The list is not comprehensive, but is pinpoints an area of concern for the Sox, because they will need to be super-cautious with playing time this Spring. As of now, most everyone is expected to be ready for Opening Day, but the Red Sox may, and in some cases should, be extra-cautious, which may result in delays of a week or two (this is likely the case with Gonzo). There is some concern already with Drew, who has a hamstring issue that still seems to be bothering him, even after the off-season rest.

On the other side of the injury-coin is new injuries. There is always a high-risk of injury in Spring Training because of many factors. The 1st factor is the shape many players are in after spending time away from the game. Some work hard in the off-season, others do not, and when your body needs to return to working-out and playing baseball daily, there is a risk of muscle pulls and tears. The 2nd risk of injury comes when games begin in late February/early March. Most players are hyper-competitive and only have 1-gear, so trying to leg-out a double or dive for a ball in the field will trump being cautious. As a sub-set of the 2nd risk, another prime issue comes when players slide into bases. It is risky and can easily end in injury, but most players instinctively want to take that gamble. The final factor is just luck. Players get injured in odd, freak-circumstances and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

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Those are my current top 5 story-lines to follow this Spring and are subject to change in an instant. I would love to hear your thoughts on these or other topics you feel should be included. Leave me a comment and let me know your thoughts.

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Tags: Adrian Gonzalez Andrew Miller Boston Red Sox Bullpen Carl Crawford Catchers Chemistry Clay Buchholz Curt Young Dennys Reyes Dustin Pedroia Felix Doubront Fort Myers Gary Tuck Hideki Okajima Injuries J.D. Drew Jacoby Ellsbury Jarrod Saltalamacchia Jason Varitek Jon Lester Kevin Youkilis Marco Scutaro Randy Williams Rich Hill Spring Training 2011 Victor Martinez

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