While it tends to spring eternal everywhere else, hope is in short supply in New England during what ordinarily is the most optimistic time of year. The benefit of the doubt has evaporated quickly among Boston Red Sox fans.
Manager John Farrell has acted with the urgency he promised, an indication that he believes a strong start is paramount to both his own job security and the health of the franchise.
Boston begins its season at Progressive Field in Cleveland on Monday afternoon. Opening Day gives Farrell and his team a chance to put behind them the spring of their discontent.
Even for a team coming off back-to-back last-place finishes, this spring had a chance to feel like a fresh start. Farrell himself was returning to the dugout after beating non-Hodgkin’s Burkitt’s lymphoma last fall.
The newly hired Dave Dombrowski is a potential Hall of Fame executive with a long history of building championship-caliber teams. Dombrowski brought with him David Price, the ace the Red Sox so desperately craved a year ago. Retiring slugger David Ortiz is poised for a yearlong celebration of his tremendous career. Youngsters Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts look like ascending stars.
But pessimism rippled from JetBlue Park this spring, right along with the first photographs of Pablo Sandoval showing that he reported to camp at least as supersized as he finished last season. The team’s protestations that Sandoval had measured out at 17-percent body fat were panned as either dishonest or delusional. By the end of spring training, Sandoval had been relieved of his duties as Boston’s starting third baseman, an unthinkable development even two months ago.
Sandoval and Rusney Castillo (who will earn $30 million between them this season) both have been relegated to the bench by Farrell. Travis Shaw and Brock Holt will start at third base and in left field, respectively, at least in the early going. Neither Holt nor Shaw offers tremendous upside, but both in different ways offer a reliability that Castillo and Sandoval do not. The moves suggest a desperation on Farrell’s part to avoid a bad start that could cost him his job.
Rick Porcello’s less-than-encouraging spring training only called further attention to the $20.125 million (for this year) he got from since-deposed general manager Ben Cherington.
One of the few silver linings in spring training was Hanley Ramirez’ play at first base, an indication that the $22.75 million he’ll make this season might not feel like quite the albatross it did last season.
The animosity of the fan base toward expensive disappointments like Sandoval have only pushed the remarkable run to a World Series title in 2013 deeper into the past. Whatever goodwill that team generated has long since expired.
What the Red Sox must hope now is that their young core captures the attention and imagination of its fans, much like the way Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia did, the way Nomar Garciaparra did, the way Mo Vaughn did.
Betts and Bogaerts are the headliners, but Blake Swihart has all of the tools to be a terrific all-around catcher — and the focus on Sandoval shouldn’t overshadow the way Shaw emerged to seize a job at third base. Behind them could come top prospects like Andrew Benintendi and Yoan Moncada, both of whom have at least a shot of playing at McCoy Stadium by the end of the year.
Perhaps the best news out of Fort Myers for the Red Sox was that spring training is over. The start of the regular season on Monday gives them an opportunity to reverse the narrative.