FORT MYERS, Fla. — Last place.

In the world of sports, there is nothing scarier than finishing dead last. The Boston Red Sox have finished at the bottom of the American League East for the past two seasons and three of the last four. That’s why there is a sense of urgency around these final days of spring training.

The Red Sox know they have to do better in 2016. Much better. Manager John Farrell knows his job is on the line, and a bad start may lead the team to go in another direction before too long.

You would expect a big-market, big-money team like the Red Sox to have their starting lineup pretty well set with opening day less than a week away. Yet positional battles have lingered far longer than anyone expected.

The biggest battle is at third base. Pablo Sandoval has struggled mightily in the field, and spent the weekend dealing with lower-back pain. He has been criticized for being out of shape and for lacking range at third base.

Normally, a veteran like Sandoval – in the second year of a reported five-year, $95 million contract – would expect to see his name written into the lineup for the opener in Cleveland regardless of any struggles in Florida. That’s not the case this year. The Red Sox have an option in Travis Shaw, who burst on the scene with 13 home runs in just 65 games last year and is tearing up Grapefruit League pitching with a .367 batting average (and an eye-popping .571 slugging percentage) through Sunday.

Farrell has said that Sandoval “understands this is about putting the best team on the field from Day One.” In other words, a veteran isn’t guaranteed a chance to work things out when the season begins.

The same situation is developing in left field. Rusney Castillo, who signed a $72.5 million contract in late 2014, remains a mystery. He’s a 28-year old who has played just 90 games at the big-league level. He began the final week of spring hitting just .227.

That’s why we’ve been seeing more of Brock Holt in left field as the Grapefruit League rolls along. Holt and newcomer Chris Young could be a left-right platoon in left field, with Castillo the odd man out.

“There is a chance for (Holt) to get a good number of at-bats out in left field,” said Farrell.

That’s an unexpected development. The Sox finished last season with Castillo joining Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley, Jr. as the everyday outfield setup. It was expected to be the same trio playing for the majority of 2016, with Young getting opportunities against left-handed pitching.

Instead Holt – the only All-Star for Boston in 2015 – is getting a look out there. It’s another sign that Farrell is considering everything as he gets his team ready to head north.

This is urgency you don’t often see in spring training. Urgency that has come about because the organization can’t sit by idly if another last-place finish is even a remote possibility. The first month of the season is vitally important for this team to build confidence in itself, and for Dave Dombrowski, the new president of baseball operations, to have faith that Farrell is the right man to lead the Sox back to the playoffs.

To avoid finishing last, the Sox have to be at their best when the season starts on Monday.

Tom Caron is the studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on NESN. His column appears in the Portland Press Herald on Tuesdays.


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