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Friday, January 29, 2016

3 Questions Facing the 2016 Boston Red Sox

Mere weeks remain until players for the Boston Red Sox report to spring training in Florida as the kick off to the 2016 season. A flurry of high-profile offseason moves have the team presumably sitting in a much better space than last year, when they finished in the basement of the American League East. However, they are far from a finished product and still have some uncertainty facing them as they prepare for another season on the diamond. 

Here are three of the most looming questions:

Who will be the starting catcher?: Boston is blessed to have two highly regarded young receivers in Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart. Vazquez is a classic backstop with a cannon arm and an adequate bat. He is also coming back from Tommy John surgery.

Swihart is the superior athlete and a switch hitter. He was an intermittent starter during 2015, and finished with a .274 batting average in 84 games, but caught only a pedestrian 28 percent of base runners attempting to steal. On the plus side, he hit .303 with a .805 OPS over his final 44 games. The former first round pick has the higher upside but is no guarantee to get the lion’s share of playing time over Vazquez (who has played in all of four Puerto Rican Winter League games since 2014).

The best guess here is that Vazquez will take a little extra time shaking off some rust. Beyond that, Boston may give both players regular starts but ride the hot hand when it comes to deciding a favorite. A starter and a backup should emerge from the pair (with veteran Ryan Hanigan also on the roster with one year remaining on his contract), and if needed one could be used as a valuable trade chip.

Will anyone lock up the first base position: Last year, the Red Sox trotted out a number of players who put in time at first, with rookie Travis Shaw emerging as a solid player over the final two months of the season. Shaw will likely see some time there again in 2016 but does not figure to be the regular. That role should be handled by Hanley Ramirez, who is coming off an injury-plagued and defensively embarrassing 2015 campaign.

Having played shortstop and third base in the majors for a decade, Ramirez may not be the best defensive first baseman but he should be perfectly adequate, as opposed to his adventures in the outfield. A career .296 hitter with power, the 32 year-old doesn’t need to turn into a Gold Glover in order to make this newest transition work. He just needs to make sure he isn’t negating his lumber with his leather.

Can anyone step forward as the heir apparent of lineup anchor in place of the retiring David Ortiz?: The slugging Big Papi has been an offensive stalwart in Beantown for the past 13 seasons. He announced this offseason that 2016 will be his last year, and naturally his departure will create a huge void. Although the team may go after a trade target or free agent to ultimately replace him, there are also candidates already sitting on the roster.

At 23, outfielder Mookie Betts has already proven he can excel in all facets of the game. While he will likely only get better as he continues to get experience, shortstop Xander Bogaerts may be the most plausible internal pick to be Boston’s new face of the offense when their beloved DH leaves.

Also 23, Bogaerts finished second in the American League with a .320 batting average last season. The right-handed hitter has hit a combined 19 home runs combined over the past two years but many think a lot more power is yet to come. As proof, he saw his OPS rise nearly every month in 2015, culminating with a season-best .876 in September/October. With his youth, prior results and the way the ball jumps off his bat, he could be the superstar in waiting the team is looking for.

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