FORT MYERS, Fla. -- A year ago, the biggest question surrounding the Boston Red Sox was their lack of a proven No. 1 starter. After a second consecutive last-place finish, the answer finally came in the form of a $217 million purchase of free-agent ace David Price.
Now, though, everyone's wondering if the Sox have a viable No. 2.
It's only spring training, of course, a time when pitchers are more concerned with conditioning their arms and sharpening their stuff rather than achieving positive results. But neither Clay Buchholz (6.75 ERA in two starts) nor Rick Porcello (12.00 ERA in three starts) has inspired much confidence, and promising young left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez will open the season on the disabled list after being slowed by a dislocated right kneecap.
"I'd have some concerns in the immediate," said one AL talent evaluator, who nevertheless said the best indicator of how the Sox starters are throwing won't come until the final week of spring training. "Look for that crispness in their last outings. If it's lacking then there can be the danger of a slow start."
But there is one Red Sox starter behind Price who is trending in the right direction. Right-hander Joe Kelly was sharp over 4 2/3 innings Saturday, allowing one run on five hits, striking out five and walking only one in a 3-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals that was shortened to five innings by heavy rain at JetBlue Park. In four starts this spring, Kelly has a 1.38 ERA, not bad considering he missed the first week of camp for the birth of his first child.
"I'm pretty happy about it so far," Kelly said. "I showed up a week late and didn't feel really good at all in the beginning. From my first [start] to my second one, didn't feel good. But from my second to now, in that little amount of time, I feel like I've made the right adjustments mechanically with my rhythm and timing."
Indeed, there are signs that Kelly, regarded previously for his high-90s fastball, is becoming more of a pitcher and less of a thrower. After getting sent to Triple-A midway through last season, Kelly returned to the big leagues after the All-Star break and went 8-0 with a 3.00 ERA in his final nine starts.
One of the most valuable lessons Kelly learned came when he was batting. He got all of five at-bats during interleague play, including two in late August against New York Mets ace right-hander Jacob deGrom. After setting up righty-swinging Kelly with two fastballs and a curveball, deGrom struck him out on a down-and-in changeup.
"I think I swung 100 feet in front of it," Kelly recalled. "I just noticed that. That's a devastating pitch. Righties normally get balls that go away from them, curveballs and sliders. So the changeup is a good pitch when it's the right time and the right hitter."
Kelly remembered that in the fifth inning Saturday, when he struck out righty-hitting Cardinals third baseman Patrick Wisdom on a down-and-in changeup.
"You obviously don't want to get beat righty-[on]-righty [with a] changeup all the time, but there was a good time today," Kelly said. "It gives me the confidence to carry it over to the regular season."
Panda power: A few hours after manager John Farrell said he doesn't want to relegate Travis Shaw to compete for merely a utility role, third baseman Pablo Sandoval hit a two-run homer into a strong wind blowing out to center field. And it was vintage Sandoval, a notorious bad-ball hitter who golfed a low pitch from Cardinals starter Michael Wacha.
"There's no denying his work, the amount of work he's putting in, the intensity in which that work is being carried about," Farrell said. "As he's aware, the work has to translate to performance. He understands this about putting the best team on the field from Day 1, and games in April are equally important to every other time of the year. It's our job to get out of the gate with the best team on the field."
In other words, Farrell won't necessarily feel compelled to start Sandoval at third base simply because he's in the second season of a five-year, $95 million contract that will pay him $17 million this season. Asked if Sandoval understands that, Farrell said, "I think he's very well aware of it."
This and that: Mookie Betts hit his fourth homer of the spring, a solo shot that nearly hit the camera well in left-center field. ... After sitting out one game for precautionary reasons with stiffness in his right forearm, center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. returned to the lineup and went 0-for-2. ... Closer Craig Kimbrel threw a scoreless 15-pitch inning in a Triple-A game. ... Right-hander Sean O'Sullivan was reassigned to minor league camp. ... Outfielder/first baseman Allen Craig will miss a few days of camp for the birth of a child.
On deck: With rain in the forecast, ace lefty Price will remain in Fort Myers and start a camp game Sunday rather than travel across the state to face the New York Mets at 1:05 p.m. ET in Port St. Lucie, Florida. Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts and Rusney Castillo are among the regulars expected to make the trip.