It's clear that Red Sox are coming into focus

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / March 15, 2012
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - The spring training schedule is a third over for the Red Sox, who had Wednesday off. There are three weeks remaining before Opening Day and the process of determining the roster to start the season will soon pick up speed.

Two issues that appeared troublesome in February - identifying a shortstop and rotation depth - are on their way to being solved. But putting together an adequate bullpen has become “perplexing,’’ according to manager Bobby Valentine.

“It’s early,’’ Valentine said. “But we have to start putting the team together and working with the groups that we’re going to have.’’

Mike Aviles has not been named the shortstop. But he has started seven of a possible 10 games at the position and played 47 innings, more than twice that of any other player, including Jose Iglesias. The plan is for Aviles to work out at other positions before camp breaks, but so far he has played exclusively shortstop in games and practices.

“I haven’t been told anything but I’ve been preparing myself to be the shortstop,’’ said Aviles, who is hitting .318 and shown power to all fields. “They’re playing me a lot there, so I guess that says something.’’

Aviles, 31, is not the long-term solution the Red Sox have been seeking for years at shortstop. But Valentine is comfortable with him.

“He’s played real well. He’s hit well; he’s made every play,’’ the manager said.

Iglesias, out for a few days because of a slight groin strain, is expected back Thursday or Friday. The 22-year-old has shown a better approach at the plate, but not to a point where the Red Sox would abandon their plan to have him start the season with Triple A Pawtucket and continue his development.

Good spring training statistics cannot begin to overshadow the fact that Iglesias had hit .261 in two minor league seasons with a .308 on-base percentage.

Continued progress at the plate would make Iglesias that long-term solution. His tenure could start in a few months, but for now Aviles has a strong hold on the job.

The same is true for Daniel Bard, who has made an apparently seamless transition from setup reliever to starting pitcher.

Bard has started two games, throwing five scoreless innings. Building up the durability to pitch six or seven innings will take time, but Bard has handled the ancillary aspects of the switch - developing his changeup into an effective third pitch, holding runners, and fielding his position - better than could have been reasonably expected.

“Bard’s been so good he’s been invisible,’’ Valentine said. “He hasn’t been a part of the conversation.’’

Based on the games to date, Felix Doubront is the clear favorite to become the No. 5 starter. The 24-year-old lefthander, who is out of minor league options, has started twice against major league competition and once against Boston College. All told, he has given up two runs in seven innings.

Alfredo Aceves, Andrew Miller, and Vicente Padilla remain viable options for the final rotation spot. But none has started a game yet.

Aceves appears doomed by his versatility. The righthander would solidify the bullpen by having the ability to pitch in the late innings to secure a lead and the stamina to go three or four innings in case of emergency.

With Bard moving out of the bullpen, keeping Aceves in there might be a necessity. Otherwise, the Red Sox will be taking a chance on less-reliable pitchers.

Outside of closer Andrew Bailey, who started spring slowly because of a pulled muscle behind his right shoulder, the bullpen is still coming together.

Mark Melancon, who is being counted on as one of the primary setup men, did not become a major league regular until last season, and that was with the woeful Houston Astros.

Matt Albers, released by the needy Baltimore Orioles in 2010, pitched effectively for four months last season before wearing down. Franklin Morales, the primary lefthander, is likely to open the season on the disabled list, having yet to pitch in a game because of shoulder weakness and a trip to Boston to evaluate a heart condition that proved nonthreatening.

The ineffectively wild Miller and well-traveled Padilla are candidates for the bullpen along with Michael Bowden, a seven-year veteran of the organization who has pitched well this spring but has a 5.75 earned run average in 37 career major league appearances.

“There’s so many guys vying for the fourth and fifth spot right now, it’s a little different,’’ pitching coach Bob McClure said of the bullpen. “It’s a puzzle that I haven’t quite figured out yet.’’

Said Valentine: “Everyone’s healthy, everyone’s performed well. Which is sometimes the good news and sometimes the bad news when you’re trying to separate people from the pack. But we have time.’’

Another issue, the return to health of left fielder Carl Crawford after surgery on his left wrist, has been tabled because of lingering inflammation. Crawford has resumed a throwing program and could return to swinging a bat this week. But there is virtually no chance he will be ready for Opening Day. Cody Ross is being prepared to sub for Crawford with Ryan Sweeney the likely right fielder.

Peter Abraham can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.

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