Tomase: Warning signs quickly piling up for undefeated Red Sox originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
The Red Sox are humming along as baseball's only undefeated team this spring, but beneath the surface, trouble already brews.
Three presumed members of the rotation -- James Paxton, Brayan Bello, and Garrett Whitlock -- probably won't be ready for Opening Day. Designated hitter Justin Turner, a key veteran import being counted on for leadership, is currently on the mend after being beaned in a scary scene on Monday. Catcher Connor Wong, internally considered a breakout candidate, strained a hamstring.
Get Boston local news, weather forecasts, lifestyle and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC Boston’s newsletters.
For a team that needs so much to go right, it's concerning we're already seeing things go wrong.
It starts with the rotation. While Chris Sale's re-emergence qualifies as a welcome development -- he hit 96 mph on Monday in his debut and has been all smiles in camp -- the rest of the starting staff is in flux.
How Chris Sale fared in encouraging first spring training start
In-depth news coverage of the Greater Boston Area.
If everyone stays on turn, veteran right-hander Corey Kluber would start the opener in three weeks against the Orioles, followed by Sale. Right-handers Nick Pivetta and Tanner Houck should join them, though Pivetta was slowed by a nasty case of COVID and Houck couldn't find the plate in his spring debut. Kutter Crawford looks like he has the inside track on the fifth spot.
Paxton was supposed to be part of the rotation, and he arrived at camp relieved to finally be focusing on baseball and not rehab. But much like his first minor-league start last year ended almost immediately with a lat strain, Paxton's spring debut on Friday lasted just 1.2 innings before a right hamstring strain sent him to the sidelines.
The risk of relying on pitchers like Paxton, Sale, and to a lesser extent Kluber is that their history of injuries always lurks. The same can be said of the middle infield combo of Christian Arroyo and Kiké Hernández, for that matter. The Red Sox have constructed a roster that will ask all of the above to stay healthy, and Paxton is already off to a rough start, though his strain is not considered serious. The worry with him is what will it be next?
The news on Bello was scarier to start and has trended more positively since, though he's far enough behind that it would be imprudent to rush him back, especially since the Red Sox will only need their fifth starter once in the season's first 11 days.
Bello strained his forearm on Feb. 17 and has only played catch or thrown bullpens since, though he said last week that he believes he's throwing at 80 or 90 percent.
"The first couple of days, obviously you worry a little bit," he said. "But after getting with the trainers and hearing what they had to say, it wasn't really a big deal."
The Red Sox are breathing a sigh of relief on Bello, who looked to be throwing hard in his last bullpen session. But no one ever wants to hear that a young pitcher is experiencing forearm pain, and in a perfect world, he'd be on the opening day roster.
The same goes for Whitlock, who underwent offseason hip surgery and has been held out of fielding drills. Manager Alex Cora has taken pains to note that if Whitlock misses a week or two at the start of the season, it's purely for precautionary reasons. "We've got a plan," Cora said.
That said, Whitlock is missing time that should be spent building arm strength, and anyone who watched him down the stretch last year saw how much difficulty he had fielding his position; he appeared to be in pain just walking through the clubhouse. Hip injuries have a tendency to linger, and today's optimism can easily become tomorrow's setback, despite the team's assurances.
Turner's situation was far unluckier. On Monday, a fastball from Detroit's Matt Manning ran inside and caught him flush in the face, requiring 16 stitches, according to his wife. Turner's reputation for toughness precedes him, but there's no way of knowing how a player will respond to such a terrifying incident until he steps back in the box. It's worth noting that Turner took a glancing 99 mph Tyler Glasnow fastball off his shoulder and chin in 2018 and not only stayed in the game, but singled in his next at-bat.
The Red Sox believe they have something in Wong, an athletic catcher with power, but his grade 1 hamstring strain has pushed him to the sidelines and opened the door for non-roster invitee Jorge Alfaro to make the team as Reese McGuire's backup.
Meanwhile, shortstop Adalberto Mondesi continues to rehab from surgery last May to repair a torn ACL and probably won't be ready to start the season, either, although the Red Sox expected he'd need a little time when they acquired him from the Royals for left-hander Josh Taylor in late January.
Injuries are part of the ebb and flow of spring training, especially in a World Baseball Classic year when many players ramp up early. The Red Sox, however, are not particularly well-equipped to withstand them, which makes their start to camp a legitimate concern.