A year ago, the sense was undeniable. The Red Sox were going through the motions in spring training.
The roster was all but set prior to the first pitch of spring training. At the margins, there were a couple of small questions, chiefly related to the 12th pitcher on the staff to break camp at the start of the season (the big winner having been…Dennys Reyes, whose addition to the roster cost the Sox a bit more than $900,000 for a pitcher who gave up three runs in 1 2/3 innings spanning four appearances). But otherwise, the Red Sox approached the spring like a group that had answered nearly all of its roster questions prior to the start of the regular season. That doesn’t mean that members of the team failed to work hard or purposefully, but work behind the scenes is different from a dogfight for a roster spot or role.
And so, when the team got off to one of the worst starts in franchise history, losing its first six games and then going 2-12, that lackluster spring training was blamed by some for the team’s flat-footed beginning of 2011 — a start that, of course, proved costly given that the Sox missed the postseason by one game.
This year, the Sox will take a different approach. There will be a host of positions that are awaiting definition, with the team having open competitions for playing time.
The Sox will have Daniel Bard, Alfredo Aceves, Vicente Padilla, Aaron Cook, Andrew Miller, Felix Doubront and Carlos Silva (among others) competing for the last two spots in the starting rotation. The team will have Mike Aviles and Nick Punto trying to assert themselves as primary shortstop options. In the outfield, Cody Ross and Ryan Sweeney will have the chance to lay claim to a role as the team’s primary right fielder (once Carl Crawford returns from his injury). Spots will also be up for grabs in the bullpen, where the pitchers in the rotation competition will join others such as Michael Bowden, Matt Albers and Franklin Morales in a scrum for the final spots.
“We like [competition] for spring training. We’ve had years where we haven’t had a ton of competition for the team. Some level of competition is healthy and it gives [manager Bobby Valentine] and the staff a chance to evaluate players when they’re in a little bit more of a legitimate setting,” said Sox GM Ben Cherington. “Spring training isn’t the best time to evaluate players, but when guys are trying to win a job, you’re seeing a version of them that’s closer to the real thing.
“We think there’s some benefit to having a team that’s not just going through spring training getting ready for Opening Day, but going through spring training with a purpose and something at stake. We’ll have that this spring.”
Valentine is mindful of the fact that it is difficult to hold legitimate and meaningful competitions in the spring. At the same time, he did note that there is value to the idea of having players working to win unsettled roster spots.
“I wish that the roster was extended through April so we could have real competition under the lights,” said Valentine. “I think it’s a misleading situation if they just think they’re competing on results. I don’t believe so much in results, but what we see and what there is, that’s how we’ll judge the competition. …
“[But] I think it’s always good for guys to feel like they have a chance to work and to make the team so that they work a little harder, because the more you work and practice, the better foundation you have to last the entire season.”
That, of course, is precisely where the 2012 Red Sox are looking to improve in comparison with their 2011 predecessor, a team that was as good as any team in baseball from May through August but whose season was sabotaged by its struggles at the beginning and end of the year.