Rumor has it that Pablo Sandoval might have an impact on the Red Sox this year. Likewise, Koji Uehara would probably help the Sox chances of being good if he's a lights-out closer again and it'd be helpful if Justin Masterson is more 2013 Masterson than 2014. That all being said, there are other story lines that might have a significant impact on the season but are far from the spotlight shone Xander Bogaerts development or if Christian Vazquez can be better than a liability at bat. Here are a few of those key players:
- Allen Craig - I don't think he will nor should he be traded any time soon. If you trade him now, you are selling low. Meanwhile, there is every reason to believe he'll bounce back. With Papi in the last year or two of his career, Napoli on the last year of his contract, and Hanley Ramirez a strong candidate to move to DH if Papi isn't there, Craig is a uniquely valuable investment in the future. In addition, I expect him to play at least 120 games this year for the Red Sox, especially if he can play a semi-serviceable 3B to allow him to spot Sandoval against tough lefty starters (then be replaced in the late innings). At each of the positions Craig can play, there is some question about that starter's ability to stay on the field: Hanley, Victorino, Napoli, and Papi. If he hits like Allen Craig, then Allen Craig will play quite a lot. Then, next year, he probably gets a starting spot maybe in a platoon with a lefty with equally big splits.
- Tommy Layne - Craig Breslow and Robbie Ross are the favorites to secure the two lefty spots presumed to be in the John Farrell's seven-man pen. They both have had considerable major league success. But neither is particularly strong against lefties. It's possible that new sinker baller Anthony Varvaro will actually be the lefty guy. In addition, Farrell isn't a huge fan of lefty specialists. But there will definitely be a temptation to let Layne, who profiles as just such a lefty, to beat our one of those two or at least see significant time in Boston. Youngster Edwin Escobar is the other candidate in the first half of the season.
- Humberto Quintero - The name that's been on the lips of everyone in Red Sox Nation: Humberto. Why in the world would this guy you've never heard of matter to the Sox this year? Because Quintero is a potentially important bridge at a very important position. This is a catcher who has played parts of 11 seasons in the majors and even been the starter at times (albeit likely by default). He has 1,423 career at bats in the majors (with minimal success). But why will he matter? Because there is a readiness chasm between the Red Sox major league catchers (Vazquez and newcomer Ryan Hanigan) and uber-prospect Blake Swihart. Swihart has played a total of 18 games above AA in his career. He is not close to ready especially at the most maturity/intellectually-demanding position in the game (not a knock on Swihart. He's just young). By comparison, Jason Varitek played 107 for the AAA teams of the Sox and Mariners. Vazquez had 67. What Quintero gives the Sox, especially assuming that they assign him to Pawtucket, is insurance if Vazquez or Hanigan get injured before Swihart is ready.
- Steven Wright - The knuckler seems ideally positioned to scub in as a spot starter for the Sox and as a long reliever. He might well be the most frequent traveler this year between Pawtucket and Boston. He showed last year that he can pitch in relief and he's a decent starter. Assuming they are still careful with his arm*, I could see the PawSox intentionally moving him back and forth from the pen to the rotation so as to give him that experience. Since converting to a knuckle ball pitcher in 2011 (he can throw 90mph still), his only relieve appearances in the majors or minors were his 5 bullpen appearances in Boston last year. He could benefit from learning to swing back and forth. Meanwhile, it helps that presumed Sox starting catcher Christian Vazquez likes catching knuckleballs. Wright told MassLive, "The first game I threw to Christian (Vazquez), he was on the left-field line before I was out there because he was so excited about catching it. He did a great job. I love throwing to Christian..." (*We underestimate the effort it takes to throw a knuckleball. These guys are still throwing a ball 60-70mph about 100 times in a game. That's not easy on an arm.)
- Heath Hembree - The Sox seem to be hoping that Brandon Workman and/or Alexei Ogando will be the power, strikeout righty in the pen. But neither is a sure thing on that front. Later in the season it seems likely that Matt Barnes and Eduardo Rodriguez (a lefty) could be young power arms that fill out the bullpen. Until then, Hembree - acquired in the Peavy trade with the Giants - seems like the best fit for a power late inning righty if Workman or Ogando falter, which isn't a long shot.