John Tomase

Five make-or-break Red Sox players to watch in spring training

Who can be a difference-maker on a Red Sox team with low expectations?

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Red Sox spring training games start for real(ish) on Friday against Northeastern, and for the next month we can turn our attention to actual baseball if we need a break from the soap opera. (Note: We still plan on bringing you lots of soap opera).

With that in mind, here are five players to watch closely, since the team is going to be playing 162 games this year, whether we like it or not.

1. Trevor Story

Story has looked and sounded the part this spring, now we need to see him play it. From organizing offseason workouts to being the lone player willing to say with conviction that the team could surprise us, Story isn't taking the inevitable last-place finish as gospel.

He'll have a huge say in determining whether the Red Sox can hang in the race. There's little doubt he'll make a difference defensively at shortstop, where everything looks smooth and effortless; a presumed increase in arm strength more than a year removed from elbow surgery could legitimately put him in Gold Glove contention.

The question is his bat. Story looked lost offensively last year, hitting just .203 and striking out in a third of his at-bats. The days of him hitting .290 in Colorado may be over, but he can still do serious damage at .250 with power.

What will be the breaking point for Red Sox ownership? John Tomase gives an inside look at Spring Training, and how Trevor Story is the one guy saying, 'we can do it.'

2. Ceddanne Rafaela

Alex Cora is basically begging Rafaela to win the centerfield job, which would do as much to remake the team's awful defense as a healthy Story at short. While spring training numbers can be incredibly misleading – Jackie Bradley Jr. used to routinely murder March fastballs – the evaluation of Rafaela will be made less by results than approach.

He swings at everything, and it's the only issue keeping him from being an everyday big leaguer and competing for a Gold Glove. The Red Sox aren't interested in rote patience, because anyone can keep the bat on their shoulder. They want to see Rafaela put himself in hitter's counts and then punish his pitch. That requires a more advanced approach, and it should be obvious if he's employing it.

3. Lucas Giolito

Of all the "if this happens …" hopes for the season, the most impactful easily would be Giolito returning to All-Star form and giving the Red Sox a legitimate No. 1 starter.

It's not beyond the realm of possibility. From 2019 to 2021, he went 29-21 with a 3.47 ERA, earned Cy Young votes in all three seasons, and threw a no-hitter.

Last year was a mess for a lot of reasons, not least of which was pitching for three teams. Giolito made a lot of mistakes in the middle of the plate and they were hammered for a league-leading 41 homers. With new pitching coach Andrew Bailey emphasizing the first three pitches of every sequence, Giolito hopes to avoid the lopsided counts that killed him last year. His OPS allowed soared when behind in the count (1.032) vs. ahead (.644).

Most of the damage he surrendered came on his four-seam fastball, but his slider and changeup remained effective. It will be worth watching how frequently he misses in the middle of the zone this spring.

4. Vaughn Grissom

Grissom is the reverse of Story and Rafaela. The Red Sox are confident he'll hit, a confidence that's justified by a lifetime .320 average in the minors. The question is his glove. Grissom didn't field well enough to justify the starting shortstop job in Atlanta, and the Red Sox hope that he'll be at least league average at second base.

Listed at a rangy 6-foot-2 but looking taller, Grissom is built like former Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts. He'll need to show he can turn the double play and make the routine play. He knows what everyone will be watching this spring.

As he noted earlier this winter, "If I let five balls go through my legs, I'm not the guy."

5. Justin Slaten

The Rule 5 right-hander acquired from the Rangers has a big arm and a big build (6-foot-4, 222). He touched 98 mph last year and impressed with a hard slider in the early days of spring. Right-hander Garrett Whitlock is the team's obvious success story from the Rule 5, and Slaten hopes to follow in his footsteps.

He'll be given every opportunity to make the team, since he'll need to be offered back to the Rangers if he doesn't spend the season on the roster. There's already an opening in the bullpen, thanks to the trade of right-hander John Schreiber to the Royals.

"He's somebody who is opening eyes right away," manager Alex Cora said last week. "If we can harness the stuff in the zone, then great things are going to happen."

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