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Trying to answer five Red Sox questions

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  March 19, 2013 10:42 AM

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Hard to believe Opening Day is less than two weeks away, but I suppose that's the default mindset when your day begins with a no-school call and a glance out the window confirming that, yes, the oblivious plow guy ran down the mailbox one more time for all the old times. Sigh.

I suspect you agree with me that real baseball and all that it brings with it cannot get here soon enough.

Fortunately, it really is true that Opening Day in the Bronx is just 13 days away, and it's also true that the Red Sox are beginning to take shape as a flawed but likeable team that with a few overdue breaks could legitimately contend in the American League East, a division in which Toronto is the favorite but nobody is close to perfect.

This very probably will not be a championship season. But it could be a fun one. Which reminds me: One more thing before we take a look at the current status and potential resolutions of five key issues that the Red Sox as spring training dawned.

Jackie Bradley Jr. should not break camp with the big league team. Yes, his hellacious spring has been the most enjoyable story of camp, and as I wrote last year when he was making a wonderful impression upon his arrival at Double A Portland, he's going to be a player Red Sox fans adore for a long time.

But keeping him out of camp (and presuming he sticks all year) would cost a year of service time -- and given that his agent is Scott Boras, that probably means he goes to free-agency when the time comes.

If you send him down to Triple A, where he is yet to have a plate appearance, for just 11 days, he'll hit free agency a year later than he would if he makes the team. As I've written, I tend to think the Jacoby Ellsbury 2006/2007 path is the one Bradley should and will follow. Punting away a year of service time now, just to avoid waiting those 11 days, while playing him in left field where his immense defensive value will be negated, is downright foolish, especially what is set up to be a bridge year.

And please don't cite his spring stats as a reason he should stick. As the excellent Stephen O'Grady pointed out, the Red Sox' last three leading hitters in spring training, from 2010-12, were Jeremy Hermida, Oscar Tejada, and Darnell McDonald. This paragraph is brought to you by Small Sample-Size Theatre.

Bradley has made a wonderful impression, a recurring theme with him. But sending him down is the smart business move, and it's probably also the correct baseball move. Just a little patience, Red Sox fans. He'll be here soon enough, and he'll stay a little longer.

Redundant diatribe over. Now, as for those other five spring issues and where they currently stand ...

The left field logjam: We'll start with this one since we already laid it out on Bradley, whom many would prefer to be the everyday guy from the get-go, especially since Jonny Gomes is likely to fill in at designated hitter for perma-gimpy David Ortiz. Again, send Bradley down for those 11 days to two weeks. Find out if you have a piece worth keeping around in Mike Carp, who two years ago had a 125 adjusted OPS and 12 homers in 79 games for Seattle. Find out whether Daniel Nava, a league-average player last year, can get on-base at a .370 or so clip now that he's healthy. Find out whether Gomes can play left field at something resembling a Manny Ramirez-level � in other words, not gracefully, but entirely ineptly, either. Take two weeks to take inventory, and then, if you don't like what you see, well, it's a short drive up from Rhode Island for young Mr. Bradley.

Mike Napoli and his degenerative hip: Dude looks fine to me. He has two mammoth homers in 25 plate appearances with a 1.052 OPS. Again, small-sample size and spring stats really don't matter and all of the other disclaimers, but at the very least, he looks like the exact same swing-for-the-fences slugger who tormented Red Sox pitching all those years. Every fierce swing backs up his statement that the degenerative hip condition is something that he's not physically aware of at this point. I'm setting the over/under at 28 homers.

David Ortiz and the endless Achilles issue: I don't really know what else to say beyond this:

When in doubt, always go with Ted Knight.

I mean, Papi's purgatory as he struggles to recover from his Achilles' injury and its lingering effects is the most frustrating story from camp, and there's no resolution in sight after his 5-7 day rest period apparently did not have the intended effect.

Would anything surprise you right now? You could tell me he'd have season-ending surgery a week from now or be batting cleanup on, say, April 10, and I'd be inclined to believe you either way.

drewstephen319.JPGShortstop: Before he blew apart his ankle in 2011, Stephen Drew was fairly durable, playing at least 150 games in three of four seasons from 2007-10. But he's been limited to just 18 plate appearances this spring because of lingering post-concussion symptoms, and so it's become easy for Red Sox fans who grew frustrated with his brittle brother J.D. during his five seasons in Boston to presume this Drew will also require his name to be written on the lineup card in pencil.

His current status is certainly concerning � he's been out 12 days now and is planning to visit with a concussion specialist in Pittsburgh � but I still believe he'll ultimately prove to be one of the Red Sox' better signings during the offseason.

For the time being, though, smooth Jose Iglesias is getting a chance to prove that he'll hit enough to justify a spot in the lineup. He's at .220 this spring, and he's so brilliant defensively that if he can hit 20 or 30 points above the Mendoza Line in the big leagues, many won't want to see him head back down to Pawtucket when Drew, a very good player, returns.

The starting rotation: The biggest issue, bar none, facing the Red Sox entering the new season was the state of the front end and middle of the rotation. Jon Lester was abysmal in 2012 by his usual standards. Clay Buchholz was inconsistent. Ryan Dempster was in Texas via Chicago, and John Lackey was injured.

This spring, save for Felix Doubront's poor conditioning and swingman Franklin Morales's balky back, there have been extremely encouraging signs that the rotation is headed for a season of recovery and maybe even redemption.

Whether it's the return of Farrell, under whom Lester and Buchholz developed into excellent major league pitchers, or the addition of bright, communicative pitching coach Juan Nieves, or simply professional pride taking place and refusing to allow another embarrassing letdown of a season, it's apparent that the members of the Red Sox' rotation are determined to provide a better collective effort than it did a season ago.

And that is the best sign we've seen this spring that the new season that somehow begins in 13 days will be more fun and perhaps even more fulfilling than any season in awhile.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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