Much of the attention this offseason has so far (rightly) been focused on who will be in the lineup and rotation for the Red Sox. But what about who will be coming off the bench? These players, while their value is less than those of starters, will still play important roles with the Red Sox. They’re the first line of defense against injury and on the days they spell starters, will affect the team’s chances of winning. Last year, bench players played an important role in determining whether you groaned when you saw their name on the lineup, or whether or not you were excited to see what they could do.
The Red Sox’s bench isn’t quite settled yet. Of the four spots available (provided the team carries 12 pitchers, which they certainly will), two of them are essentially settled. The first of them, with his role locked in stone, is catcher David Ross. Ross signed with the Red Sox early in the offseason and will play frequently off the bench backing up Jarrod Saltalamacchia. You’ll be seeing his name often in the lineup card. Past Ross, the infield backup certainly appears to be Pedro Ciriaco. The 27-year-old came out of nowhere to add some pizzazz to the Sox lineup last season. With quality defense at all three major infield positions and the ability to make some contact, he’s a logical, low-cost option. The defense Ciriaco provides is significant off the bench and could play a role in the late innings if the team decides to lift Stephen Drew at those times.
Ciriaco also won’t serve as a major roadblock. If he under-performs, he can go pretty easily, and the club can bring up one of three players expected to start regularly in Pawtucket. Jose Iglesias is, of course, one of them. He should be up and down with the big-league club all year as the team tries to expose him to major-league pitching while giving him enough reps in the minors to try to make advances with his hitting. Flanking him in the Triple-A infield will be Drew Sutton and Ivan DeJesus, Jr. Sutton was a former Red Sox who saw some time with the club in 2011 before playing in the Braves and Pirates’ farm system last season but also seeing time in the bigs with Tampa Bay. DeJesus, meanwhile, was part of the Dodgers trade and will likely play second base. With those three in Pawtucket and Ciriaco in the majors, the team has enough depth that there’s no real need to address the position, unless there’s a significant, long-term injury to the club while still in contention.
The other two bench spots are in some doubt, though. The team is missing a backup first baseman and outfielder capable of playing right field and left field. To that end, it looks like Daniel Nava might be the odd man out at some point, losing his 40-man spot to future additions or waived during spring training. Nava is a quality player with great plate discipline and doesn’t embarrass himself in left. Unfortunately, he’s largely limited to left field, which really hampers his value. The only internal option capable of playing right field is Ryan Kalish, who does have a shot to make the bigs but is more likely ticketed for everyday at-bats in Triple A. Jerry Sands, meanwhile, can play first and left, but only right in a pinch. Given Shane Victorino will need days off in right field and will replace Jacoby Ellsbury in center on Jacoby’s day off, the ability to have someone who can play right extensively is paramount. That means the answer is probably coming outside of the organization.
One player that caught my eye that might be a fit is Ryan Raburn. Sure, he hit .171/.226/.254 in 222 plate appearances last year, but in the three years before that, he had a .274/.329/.473 line in 1,119 plate appearances playing often for the Tigers. He’s played most of his career in right field with ample experience in left as well. He also has infield experience with many games at second base, but shouldn’t be counted on to play the infield extensively. He has 13 career games at first and could be an option there as a backup. He seems like he could be had cheaply and as a bounce-back candidate. Past Raburn, the team could take a flier on Nyjer Morgan (unlikely, given his perceived negative clubhouse influence) or perhaps Rick Ankiel. But options are thin there.
As for the first-base backup, the team has Sands and Mauro Gomez internally. Sands could feasibly open the year with the big-league club and man first and left field. While Jonny Gomes is going to play frequently as the starter in left, it’s possible he’ll ride the pine frequently enough that Sands could collect some solid at-bats, enough to justify passing up every day at-bats in Triple-A, which he probably doesn’t need anymore, anyways. Gomez, meanwhile, showed some intriguing pop off the bench and could be a source of power. That said, he seems to be a candidate to lose his 40-man spot this offseason. If he does, that puts Sands in pole position (unless the team goes with David Ortiz as Napoli’s backup) for the job, although the team could also go the free-agent route. With just a four-man bench, acquiring someone who is limited to just first base is unlikely, but players like Jason Giambi and Aubrey Huff (who could also see some outfield time) could add value as a clubhouse presence and bench bat. Other free agents of note include Lyle Overbay, Casey McGehee (able to play third), former Sox Casey Kotchman and former Sox-killer Dan Johnson.
The bench likely won’t be settled for quite some time, but in the early going, I’d give Sands the best bet of landing one of the final two spots, with a player capable of playing right field coming in from outside of the organization.