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Roster decisions loom

Boston Herald

March 21. 2018 10:31PM
Brock Holt scores on an RBI single by J.D. Martinez in the first inning of the Red Sox' 8-3 win over the Tampa Bay Rays at Charlotte Sports Park on Wednesday. See photo, Page D3. (USA TODAY Sports)

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Brock Holt made his second start at shortstop Tuesday, which might not mean much to the casual observer, but it could mean a whole lot to a major league team in need of a shortstop.

With one week left before the Red Sox season opener on the road against Tampa next Thursday, there isn’t much time for manager Alex Cora to decide whom he wants to keep on his 25-man roster and whom he doesn’t have room for.

Will Dave Dombrowski make one final trade before Opening Day?

Only six exhibition games separate the meaningless results from the meaningful ones, and there’s still plenty of information the Red Sox can gather before their time in Fort Myers is up.

With that, here’s our questions the Sox have to answer before they head to Tampa Bay next week:

1. What do they do with Blake Swihart?

Early in spring training, Swihart could usually be found with the catchers. And because of that, it was looking more and more like he’d be the odd man out. He’s out of options and lacks the experience or pedigree of the Sox’ two established catchers, Christian Vazquez and Sandy Leon.

But finally the club began giving him some reps at first base, then left field and third base. It finally looked like the Red Sox were serious about keeping him as a super-utility player.

When he was drafted 26th overall in 2011, the Sox front office came to the conclusion that his bat would almost assuredly play in the big leagues. Defensively, he might not make it as a catcher. What he’s shown this spring is that he can handle the duties anywhere. And while it might not look fluid yet — he’s hardly had enough practice — he’s doing the utility job well enough to earn a spot on the roster, lest the Sox decide to sell low on a player once considered a unanimous top-20 prospect in the big leagues.

“Blake is a different story,” Cora said. “He gives you something that other utilities don’t do and don’t have, is catching, and a switch hitter, that helps too.”

2. Brock Holt or Deven Marrero?

After multiple concussions and a case of vertigo nudged Holt out of regular playing time the last few years, the results haven’t been there. He remains solid on defense, though it might be a stretch for a team to now consider the bulked-up 29-year-old as an everyday shortstop. He’s hanging in there at the plate this spring, hitting .308 with an .823 OPS this spring, but he’s hit just .237 with a .653 OPS since the start of 2016.

Marrero is still an elite defender at shortstop who proved he could also play third base well during his stint with the big league club last year. He crushed lefties in a brief stint. And while he hasn’t shown much with the bat this spring, he’s got a shot as the 25th man given that he’s out of options, is a premier shortstop and could be the only true right-handed hitter on the bench (Swihart and Leon switch-hit while Mitch Moreland and Holt hit left-handed).

Holt still has options.

Cora said he’s still evaluating the competition. He said shortstop defense would be a priority.

3. When will Dustin Pedroia be ready?

Coming off substantial knee surgery last fall, Pedroia is now full-go to take ground balls and move around the infield freely. He’s also taking batting practice on the field.

Everything points to Pedroia returning to full health soon, but the Sox clearly aren’t going to let him get back in a game until he’s passed every test two or three times. May 1 still seems like a logical date, though expect the antsy veteran to push for playing time even sooner.

4. How much can they get out of Eduardo Nunez?

For the first few weeks of camp, Nunez wasn’t moving all that much at second base. But over the last week or two, the 30-year-old utility man is starting to look unrestricted. He’s making clean pivots on his balky knee during double play turns. And he’s had no trouble making solid contact at the plate.

Cora said he intends to give Nunez regular rest — he won’t play all four of the games in that first Tampa series — but it looks like Nunez should be able to get the lion’s share of the at-bats at second base until Pedroia returns.

5. What’s the deal in center field?

Andrew Benintendi made his fifth start of the spring at center field Tuesday. Mookie Betts has yet to make one.

Jackie Bradley Jr. is the clear starter at center field, but Cora said he intends to shake things up for some road games this year in order to get J.D. Martinez in the outfield. Betts was supposed to be the guy who replaces Bradley, but it’s looking more and more like Cora is preferring to see Benintendi in center. With multiple options at the corner outfield positions, it’ll be interesting to see how Cora handles Bradley’s playing time.

6. Who will round out the starting rotation to start the season?

Chris Sale, David Price and Rick Porcello will start the first few games next week. Brian Johnson is likely to get the fourth or fifth game, Cora said. Eduardo Rodriguez is an option for one of those, too. Steven Wright and Drew Pomeranz are also trying to recover from injuries and should press the envelope sometime in April.

7. Who will round out the bullpen?

Craig Kimbrel is the closer and Carson Smith, Joe Kelly, Matt Barnes and Brandon Workman should give Cora some options in the late innings. Heath Hembree is out of options and is a reliable right-hander who can pitch multiple innings. With a pair of starters due back soon, whoever gets the final bullpen spots might not keep their jobs too long. But look for Austin Maddox and Robby Scott to be the favorites, with Roenis Elias and Bobby Poyner to compete as well as camp finishes up. Tyler Thornburg has yet to appear in a game, but could return sometime in April.

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