FORT MYERS, Fla. — In the course of Boston Red Sox spring training, we’ve had Mookie Betts compared to Andrew McCutchen, seen Hanley Ramirez touted as an MVP candidate, debated the pros and cons of the rebuilt Red Sox starting rotation and confused Pablo Sandoval with Jenny Craig.
We’ve questioned whether Shane Victorino or Rusney Castillo should play right field, mourned the loss of catching prodigy Christian Vazquez to an elbow injury, marveled at the arrival of 19-year-old Cuban Yoan Moncada, fretted over the balky hamstring of 40-year-old Koji Uehara and followed the fluttering path of knuckleballer Steven Wright.
We’ve watched Allen Craig try to regain his form as an elite hitter, gauged the readiness of lefties Henry Owens, Brian Johnson and Eduardo Rodriguez, become acquainted with reliever Alexi Ogando, charted the improved defense of shortstop Xander Bogaerts and set our clocks ahead for top prospect Blake Swihart.
We’ve seen obstacle-course relay races, broken-bat home runs that landed on top of the Monster, and Pedro and Yaz, Rice and El Tiante, gliding among mere mortals. We’ve seen a guy who could be Crash Davis (Matt Spring), a local boy who made good (Ryan Hanigan) and one who didn’t (Bryan LaHair), even a West Pointer (minor-league catcher J.T. Watkins).
But with the Sox on the cusp of another season, the team’s ability to come back from its second last-place finish in the last three years, sandwiched around a World Series title in 2013, will still be predicated in good part on the performance of some old stand-bys, David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Mike Napoli.
“They’re our core," general manager Ben Cherington said the other day. “Those are guys who are in the lineup every day, guys who are in the middle of the lineup every day. They’re the guys who people mostly go to in the clubhouse. When something needs to be said or addressed, those are the guys doing it.
“Yeah, I think we’re leaning on them as much as we ever have. The regular season feels different from spring training. That’s when you become a team. That’s when you see how a team deals with adversity. That’s when you lean on your core veterans."
Ortiz’s entry in the Red Sox media guide runs as long as a Cheever short story, 15 pages, and is packed with more data than a presidential briefing. Everything he accomplishes at the plate from here on will require an alteration in the record book, although he already owns every line in the section marked “designated hitter:” hits (1,891), extra-base hits (906), doubles (474), home runs (415), RBIs (1,344), walks (1,019), runs (1,111), total bases (3,644), at-bats (6,559), and games (1,754).
He comes into the 2015 season 34 home runs shy of 500, a milestone he will reach if he duplicates the 35 home runs he hit last season. He caused a minor flap this spring when he needed to shut down because of dehydration and a bigger rumble when he decided to author a polemic against those who perpetuate the perception that he is a steroid cheat, which he denied [again] vehemently. Because he is 39, and the Sox have some veteran options in Craig and Daniel Nava, the occasional day off might come more frequently this season, but there is no greater sense of security for manager John Farrell than the ability to write Ortiz’s name into the No. 3 hole in the lineup.
The downward trend that inevitably shows itself when a player reaches the end stages of his career remain indiscernible for Ortiz; until it does, there is no reason to doubt he’ll keep putting up the numbers. And not even Marshawn Lynch has someone running interference for him the way Ortiz will for Ramirez and Sandoval in the Sox clubhouse, should issues arise.
"I said last offseason, people talk about losing pieces," Victorino said. "Let me ask you this. You say, ‘We don’t have this, this and this.’ But let’s go with what we have in this room and what will we have [in 2015] for sure. There’s David coming back, and if Pedey is past his injuries and Napoli is over his sleep problems, and I come back from my surgery. That’s four guys in this room, and if we return to form, and then you add the major pieces we’ve added, don’t tell me about what we’ve lost."
Pedroia is beginning his 10th season in a Sox uniform, his seventh since winning the American League MVP award in 2008. His defense has remained extraordinary; his offense has seen some slippage, mostly due to the thumb and wrist injuries that reduced his ability to turn on balls. How much better does he feel this spring?
“Just watch," he says.
Farrell has been, closely.
"The way he swung the bat, there’s no hesitation addressing pitches in any part of the strike zone," he said. "I know there is no added maintenance work or rehab work this spring. He’s free and clear."
The same can be said, Farrell added, about Napoli, who is ending camp with a prodigious show of power, including the broken-bat blast onto the Monster Monday night.
"For sure," Farrell said. “He’s gone through a lot in the last 12 months, whether it was his toe, finger, the offseason [sleep apnea] surgery, and yet he finds himself in a good place. Players are going to have bumps and bruises along the way, but he's in a good place."
Napoli hit just 17 home runs last season, his fewest since he hit 10 in 75 games for the Angels in 2006. “Last year was one of the toughest I’ve ever had," said the first baseman, who played with his dislocated left ringer taped to its neighbor all season, which is no way to play the game. “I feel a lot better."
Pedroia resists the suggestion that he and Ortiz and Napoli will be carrying the load.
"Everybody, man," Pedroia said. “There's not pressure on one guy. It’s 25."
Farrell expressed a similar view.
"They’re equally important," he said. “It's going to take production from every one of our players. Not just the young guy [Betts] making a very strong impression in camp or two middle-of-the-order bats [Ramirez and Sandoval] that came to us in free agency, or three new starters in our rotation.
“It's going to take contributions not only from those names [Ortiz, Pedroia, Napoli] but Allen Craig and Daniel Nava coming off the bench in the roles they’re going to perform. If we can get to a point in the season where it’s someone new every night making the difference, that’s the goal."