BOSTON (AP) — When David Ortiz took one final, hat-tipping trot around Fenway in October, with him went the franchise’s biggest personality and one of the last links to its most recent run of Word Series titles.
Boston is about to get its first full bite of life without Big Papi’s on-field heroics and clubhouse leadership.
But a franchise that has invested in youth and landed some big-name free agents over the past few years has reason to be looking forward to its next chapter.
“We’re excited about the group that’s here. David’s going to be missed — we know that,” manager John Farrell said. “But when you look at the overall athleticism, the overall depth to our lineup… I think one thing that our fans have grasped onto and identify with the past couple of years is that this a team that can score runs in many different ways.”
The Red Sox returned to the postseason in 2016 after back to back, last-place finishes in the AL East in 2014 and 2015. Though their playoff return ended in a swift exit via an AL Division sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Indians, the run to a division title revealed just how much potential the core of their roster has.
The 2016 season was a coming out party for Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts, who all earned their first All-Star selections.
Free agent pickup David Price had his struggles in the first year in Boston, including another disappointing playoff start. But he, too, showed flashes of why president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski gave him a seven-year $217 million contract.
That pressure should be lessened this season following the addition of five-time All-Star Chris Sale to a rotation led by reigning Cy Young winner Rick Porcello.
Sale said he expects to benefit from being in such a talented group.
“I think when you have guys of that caliber, it raises the intensity,” Sale said. “You see someone else going the extra mile, you’re going to follow. And vice versa. When you’re going the extra mile, people around you are more willing to go there, too.”
NEW LOOK: In addition to Sale, Boston added 1B Mitch Moreland from Texas and setup man Tyler Thornburg from Milwaukee. The Rex Sox are also hoping this year can be a resurgence for 3B Pablo Sandoval, who played just three games in 2016 before undergoing surgery to repair a labrum tear in his left shoulder.
ROOKIES TO WATCH: It begins with Andrew Benintendi. The 22-year-old outfielder was called up to the Red Sox last season, hitting .295 with two home runs and 14 RBIs in 34 games. Expectations are even higher for him as he prepares for his first full season. While there are questions about his power, his ability to consistently put the ball in play and drive the ball into the gaps of the defense has drawn comparisons to Betts. Like Benintendi, Betts got his first chance in the majors at age 21 in 2014, playing 52 games. He became an All-Star in his second full major league season in 2016.
A NEW DH: With Ortiz gone, one of the biggest things that Farrell will have to figure out is how to handle the designated hitter spot. Farrell said there won’t be one full-time guy taking on the job. Instead against righties, look for Hanley Ramirez to be the primary DH, with Moreland at first base. Ramirez would then start at first against lefties, with Moreland assuming DH duties. Moreland has no allusions about filling Big Papi’s cleats. “I think it’ll be a group effort picking up what will be missing,” he said. “There’s no replacing that guy.”
INJURY WATCH: While he’s eager to turn the page from how last season ended, Price will almost certainly start the season the disabled list with a sore left elbow. Thornburg is also working back from an issue in his throwing shoulder.
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