Eduardo Rodriguez

Eduardo Rodriguez missed all of last season after testing positive for COVID-19 and being diagnosed with myocarditis. Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

In normal times, the words are so welcome. These days, we should include trumpets, fireworks and banners as we proclaim this week that … pitchers and catchers report!

In Fort Myers, Florida, Boston Red Sox pitchers and catchers will report for spring training on Wednesday. Their first workout is Thursday, and the remaining players join them on Feb. 22.

Celebrate baseball.

Now comes the questions: Will Red Sox fans be able to celebrate their team? And, closer to home, what can the Portland Sea Dogs, Boston’s Double-A affiliate, expect in 2021?

Here are five areas to keep an eye on:

• Pitchers on the mend: Statistics in exhibition games are rarely a barometer. Managers often use the cliché that the important thing is to get through the spring healthy. In Boston’s case, it is a legitimate concern.

Eduardo Rodriguez sat out last season with heart inflammation because of COVID-19. While Rodriguez has been throwing and said he is ready to go, the Red Sox will be rightly cautious with him.

Nathan Eovaldi may be the co-ace with Rodriguez. He also has an injury history, including two Tommy John surgeries, and another elbow procedure in 2019. Eovaldi, one of the heroes of the 2018 World Series, had a quietly successful 2020 – first on the team in wins (four), and second in starts (nine) and innings pitched (48 1/3).

Of course, Chris Sale is the real ace, and his progress from Tommy John surgery last March 30 will be monitored closely. There is hope that Sale is ready by June or July, but with his $145 million contract running through 2024 (with a club option for 2025), the Red Sox will be careful with Sale’s valuable arm.

Boston has been cautious with free agents, but one of its few eight-figure deals was a $10 million contract with right-hander Garrett Richards (with an option for 2022). Richards has a history of injuries, including Tommy John surgery in 2018. Richards, 32, pitched an injury-free season in 2020, and the veteran with a 3.62 career ERA could be quite a boost.

The Red Sox and pitcher Hirokazu Sawamura agreed last week to a two-year deal, according to media reports in Japan. Toru Takahashi/Associated Press

•  Patching the pen: Bullpens are often the great unknowns. Relievers have up-and-down years – sometimes depending on how they are used. Chief Baseball Officer Chaim Bloom has pieced together a pen that has potential (although no true closer).

Bloom’s big addition was trading for Yankees reliever Adam Ottavino (and his $8 million salary). Ottavino shined (1.90 ERA) in 2019, but then ballooned to 5.89. But be careful of deception with the shortened 2020 season. Half of Ottavino’s 12 earned runs came in one appearance. Minus that, his ERA was 2.95.

Other intriguing additions include Japan’s Hirokazu Sawamura, Garrett Whitlock (a Rule 5 pick from the Yankees) and veteran free agent swingman Matt Andriese. Add them to the likes of Matt Barnes, Darwinzon Hernandez, Josh Taylor and Ryan Brasier, and Boston’s pitching could be a pleasant surprise in the later innings.

•  Leadership: Dustin Pedroia, officially retired, has been out of the picture for a while. Shortstop Xander Bogaerts, that one-time 20-year-old kid in Portland, appears to be the de facto team captain at the ripe age of 28. Outfielder/designated hitter J.D. Martinez returns. His mentoring in the batting cage has been praised in previous years. Bloom has also brought in veterans with a winning pedigree – utility players Marwin Gonzalez and Kike Hernandez, and outfielder Hunter Renfroe.

There have been comparisons made to the over-achieving veteran Red Sox of 2013. That might be a stretch, but maybe not.

•  Young talent: First baseman Bobby Dalbec was called up last Aug. 30 and broke out with a .959 OPS and eight home runs in 23 games (80 at-bats). He also struck out 39 times. We bring that up because pitchers will be adjusting to Dalbec. He will need counter that – did we mention that J.D. Martinez is an excellent mentor? – if he is going to be a difference-maker for Boston. Watch him this spring.

Pitcher Tanner Houck and outfielder Jarren Duran figure to begin the season with Triple-A Worcester. But this spring may change that, especially if there are injuries. Houck turned heads in his late-season call-up (0.53 ERA in three starts), and Duran impressed observers both in alternate training site scrimmages and in winter ball.

Triston Casas was Boston’s first-round draft choice in 2018. and could be headed for Double-A Portland this summer. Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

•  Future Sea Dogs: A handful of those reporting to Fort Myers this week will end up in Portland when the minor league season begins.

Heading that group is young slugger Triston Casas, the 2018 first-round draft pick, who was invited to major league camp despite his lack of experience (if Casas was in college, he’d be in his junior season). Boston liked how Casas was pushed in Class A in 2019 and responded with an .830 OPS and 20 home runs. He also impressed with his workouts last year and received a late invitation to the alternative training site.

Infielder Jeter Downs (obtained from the Dodgers in the Mookie Betts trade) is much touted and could be headed for Triple-A, but he has only 12 games of Double-A experience.

Other potential Sea Dogs in the major league camp include pitcher Thad Ward and a group of prospects whom Bloom has traded for – pitchers Frank German (acquired in the Ottavino deal) and Josh Winckowski (from the Mets in the three-team deal involving Andrew Benintendi), catcher Connor Wong (Betts deal), third baseman Hudson Potts (from the Padres in the Mitch Moreland deal) and outfielder Jeisson Rosario (Moreland deal).

The most interesting invitation to the major league camp was made to second baseman Nick Yorke, 18, last year’s first-round draft pick out of high school. The Red Sox seem poised to push Yorke right away. Portland may not be far off.


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