Buster Olney: Boston Red Sox

In Jon Lester’s past 10 starts, he has a 1.54 ERA, with 66 strikeouts and 11 walks over 70 innings. He has been a completely different pitcher since last August, since Red Sox catcher David Ross convinced him to work to both sides of the plate. He was dominant down the stretch, dominant in the postseason and now he figures
Jon LesterJared Wickerham/Getty ImagesJon Lester was scratched from his scheduled start Wednesday, indicating he could be traded soon.
Memo to John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino:
I hope you have a Plan B. In fact, make sure you have a Plan B.

Because if there is no Plan B to Jon Lester for next season, you could have a whole lot of angry fans and players by Opening Day, and the narrative won't be about your team's farm system and promise or past glories. Fairly or not, the narrative in New England will be about cheap ownership. Fairly or not, the narrative will be about you.

If there is no Plan B, 2015 might make everybody pine for the warm and fuzzy days of the Bobby Valentine era.

Lester was scratched from today's scheduled start in anticipation of a possible deal, and trading Lester today or Thursday makes sense considering where you and the Boston Red Sox stand with the left-hander. He doesn't want to talk about a contract extension until the season is over, which is a polite way of saying he's going to become a free agent to solicit the highest possible offers, which is happening because it seems as if your organization has taken a semi-rigid stand against giving really long-term deals to pitchers. Trading Lester now will get the organization more value than what you would get in a compensatory draft pick. Given that you are closer to having the No. 1 pick in next year's draft than to the teams at the top of the American League East, sure, trading Lester now is the logical move.

But there cannot be any doubt: An opportunity to sign Lester was missed.

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Mookie BettsRich Schultz/Getty ImagesMookie Betts may well be an essential part of Boston's lineup for the rest of the season.
NEW YORK -- One evaluator not paid by Boston offered this take on Mookie Betts, who will make his major league debut tonight, when the Red Sox try to take their three-game series against the Yankees on "Sunday Night Baseball" (8 p.m. ET, ESPN and WatchESPN):

“Tremendous feel for the strike zone,” the evaluator wrote. “Handles bat and is not a slap type. There is strength in the swing. Strong running ability. Defense really strong at second base. Limited time in center field, but early indications are that he is really solid.”

Another evaluator said: “He belongs in the major leagues. He’s a good player.”

Betts has almost as many extra-base hits (88) as strikeouts (90) over the past season and a half in the minors, with 132 walks and 67 stolen bases. He is 21 years old and slender and does not hit a lot of homers, yet. But his promotion, and the entrenchment of Brock Holt as an every-day player, seems to signal a change in direction for the Red Sox front office, a shift in lineup building. This is the Summer of the Improv.

Boston has an incredible history of power hitting, from Ted Williams to Carl Yastrzemski to Jim Rice to the 3-4 combination of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. In the midst of the 1977 season, the Red Sox slammed homers in 33 consecutive games. Home runs have always been the foundation of the Red Sox offense, including in 2013, when Boston clubbed 178 homers -- sixth-most in the majors -- on the way to winning the World Series.

The front office waited for the Red Sox to hit homers again in the first half, after signing A.J. Pierzynski to replace Jarrod Saltalamacchia and believing in Grady Sizemore enough to give him an every-day job.

But it just hasn’t happened; Boston is 24th in home runs, with 61, and incredibly, the Red Sox are 27th in runs. They have looked around for power hitters in the trade market, just like a lot of other teams, and have identified few options.

So now Boston is changing. Instead of waiting for bigger, slower hitters to start mashing homers, the working philosophy now seems to be: If you hit -- no matter how you hit -- you are going to play.

Holt opened the season in the minor leagues, and now he is Boston’s leadoff man, hitting .321. Along comes Betts, who could play right field or center, depending on the needs of the day. Pierzynski probably needs to show something soon or else he will be the next to go, to be replaced by Christian Vazquez, a strong defensive catcher who also doesn’t hit for a lot of power; he has three home runs in Triple-A this season, along with a .325 on-base percentage.

It’s possible that by the time Aug. 1 rolls around, the bulk of the Boston lineup might look like this:

1. Brock Holt
2. Mookie Betts
3. Dustin Pedroia
4. David Ortiz
5. Mike Napoli
6. Xander Bogaerts
9. Christian Vazquez

The rest of the lineup will be determined by who hits. Daniel Nava has improved his batting average from .130 to .216 since he was promoted; if he hits, he will play. Stephen Drew has one hit in 32 at-bats and quite simply looks terrible at the plate, completely off-balance. Bogaerts was moved from shortstop to third base and stopped hitting, but he will probably continue to play while he continues to develop.

The player who probably has the most to lose with the promotion of Betts is Jackie Bradley Jr., who knows Betts better than anyone, having roomed with him in instructional ball in the fall of 2011. Bradley’s defense has been exceptional, but at some point, the Red Sox will need better production from his spot; he is hitting .206 with a staggering 76 strikeouts and just 23 walks. The Red Sox could play Holt in center and Betts in right field, which is incredible, given that both were regarded as infielders just a month ago.

Whatever alignment evolves for the Red Sox, they won’t hit a lot of homers. But they should be pretty good defensively, they should put the ball in play more, and they will be more athletic, with almost half of their every-day lineup made up of players either in their first or second season.

They have waited for the old guard to hit, and it didn’t happen. Now the Red Sox will go with what they hope is basically a lineup of badgers -- not big, not powerful, but aggressive and relentless -- during a season in which the American League East is more mediocre than it has been in years and is there for the taking.

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John LackeyAP Photo/Steve NesiusRed Sox starter John Lackey is set to make only $500,000 next season.
Let’s be 100 percent clear about this: To date, the only noise about John Lackey’s very unusual contract situation is coming from the media, including me. I’ve never spoken to Lackey about this, and as far as I can tell, the pitcher hasn’t really expressed his views on a matter that isn’t close to being a front-burner issue. For all I know, he might view it as a nonissue.

But it’s a really interesting set of circumstances that will be resolved in the months ahead. Lackey’s $82.5 million deal with the Red Sox calls for him to make $500,000 next season, at a time when the 35-year-old right-hander is throwing as well as he has in any season in his career: a 3.18 ERA in 13 starts.

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There are 119 days remaining in the Major League Baseball season, and depending on whether the Boston Red Sox make the playoffs, perhaps 119 days until Jon Lester throws his last pitch of the year.

But the Red Sox may have much less time than that to negotiate a new long-term deal with Lester, who is the unquestioned anchor of the staff and is off to the best start of his career, with a 3.15 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP. Lester gave the Red Sox their seventh straight win Sunday with a 12-strikeout gem against the Rays, matching his season high for fastball velocity, at 92.6 mph with the pitch (according to ESPN Stats & Information). Rays hitters were 1-for-13 with six strikeouts and a walk against that pitch.

He is averaging almost seven innings per start, and has 22 walks and 95 strikeouts in 80 innings.

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BOSTON -- In the midst of a year in which almost everything went right for the Boston Red Sox, there was a game last season when everything went wrong. Cliff Lee went into Fenway Park and stuck it to the Red Sox on May 28, needing just 95 pitches to complete eight innings, and afterward the Boston players went into problem-solving mode. The hitters could've focused better, they agreed; the at-bats could've been better. They never really put any pressure on Lee. They resolved that they would be better, that they would do better. And they were better.

That was a conversation that wouldn't have even happened if the players hadn't believed there was room to grow with the group in the clubhouse, and in 2014, a season in which very little is going right for the Red Sox -- other than the collective struggles of their division opponents -- it would be interesting to know for sure if the Boston players believe this group can improve quickly enough. It would be interesting to know if the players believe this roster has the ability to solve the immediate problem of run production.

Jacoby Ellsbury is gone, and to paraphrase Rick Pitino, he's not coming through Boston's clubhouse door anytime soon.

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Anibal SanchezJesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsAnibal Sanchez allowed 25 stolen bases in 26 attempts during the 2013 season.
BOSTON -- From the first day of spring training, the Detroit Tigers players say, Brad Ausmus talked about the running game.

But not only the running game of the Detroit baserunners, who were told to look for opportunities to take a base when they see it. Ausmus also wanted his pitchers to think more about the running game.

When pitchers threw their bullpen sessions in the spring, about a third of their work was done from the stretch, Alex Avila recalled. They simulated situations in which there was a runner at first, or first and third. They worked on varying their delivery times to the plate and on throwing to first base.

Last year, opposing teams ran aggressively against the Tigers. Detroit allowed 128 steals in 157 attempts, a staggering rate of 81.5 percent, which ranked 29th in the majors. Only two teams allowed more stolen bases.

This season, the Tigers have allowed 27 steals in 42 attempts, and their 35.7 percent rate of nabbing runners ranks fifth in the majors.

The pitchers have bought in to slowing down opposing runners, said Ausmus. That includes Anibal Sanchez, particularly, after he's had a lot of trouble with stolen bases in the past. Last year, Sanchez allowed 25 steals in 26 attempts.

This year, Sanchez's numbers aren't much better (six steals allowed in seven attempts), but Avila feels he’s throwing better, and has put in the work to improve. “Throwing out runners is a two-way street,” said Avila.

The Tigers added Rajai Davis and Ian Kinsler during the offseason, and so it was inevitable that Detroit would run more and steal more bases. The Tigers’ baserunners generally have a green light to run, other than when they get a hold sign from the bench, and Torii Hunter believes the Detroit baserunners are assuming a natural aggressiveness.

Detroit leads the AL in steals with 36 -- one more than all of last season, when the Tigers finished last in MLB.

More on the Red Sox, Tigers

• The Boston Red Sox players have a strong sense of what it takes to win, after going from worst to first last season, and there is deep unhappiness with the team’s situational play right now. They feel like they should be taking advantage of those opportunities to move runners in close games, given the team’s dip in power production this season, and given Boston’s own strong pitching. The Red Sox currently rank 15th in runs, after leading the majors -- by far -- in 2013.

• The sands in the hourglass continue to slide away in the time remaining for the Red Sox to sign Jon Lester to a long-term extension. Clayton Kershaw set the very top of the market when he got a $215 million deal in the offseason, but the fairer comparables for Lester might be Cole Hamels, who got $144 million from the Philadelphia Phillies a few months before he was set to hit the market as a free agent, or Matt Cain, who got a five-year, $112.5 million extension in the spring before his free-agent fall.

The Red Sox offered Lester $70 million over four years earlier this year, and while Lester has mentioned that he’d like to stay in Boston, there is typically a time in the baseball calendar when it makes more sense for a prospective free agent to simply wait until he can hit the market.

If Boston intends to make a stronger offer to the 30-year-old Lester, who is off to the best start of his career, then it makes absolutely no sense to wait before presenting the upgraded proposal.

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Scherzer & Sandoval & LesterUSA TODAY SportsMax Scherzer and Jon Lester are off to great starts in "prove it" years, while Pablo Sandoval has scuffled.
In the April leading up to CC Sabathia’s free agency in 2008, his ERA after four starts was 13.50. Months later, he got the biggest contract ever for a pitcher -- $161 million -- after he had bounced back, and then been traded to Milwaukee and led the Brewers into the postseason.

All of that is a long way of saying that it’s still very early, and there is plenty of time for the members of the prospective free-agent class of 2015 to place themselves on the road to really big dollars.

But the sample size is growing.

A rating of the first part of the season for free agents, on a scale of 1 to 10:

Max Scherzer: 10

Nobody bet more on himself than Scherzer

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MLB can fix a sticky situation 

April, 24, 2014
Apr 24
8:17
AM ET
Michael PinedaBob DeChiara/USA TODAY SportsMichael Pineda's plight -- an inability to grip a ball in the cold -- isn't unique. And everybody knows it.
BOSTON -- Michael Pineda ambled into the visitors clubhouse here at about 4:30 Wednesday afternoon wearing a polo shirt and jeans, white earplugs stuffed into each side of his head, and a smile on a face that was closer to the ceiling than any face in the room. The 6-foot-7 Pineda always seems cheerful, is always pleasant to talk to, to the degree that he reminds me of the main character in "The Story of Ferdinand."

Ferdinand is a massive bull, and given his immense power, everybody else wants Ferdinand to fight. But Ferdinand wants to lie under a tree and smell the flowers. His is a simple outlook in a complicated world.

A few hours later, after Pineda had been ejected, he had told his teammates that he was sorry, and when reporters filed into the small visitors clubhouse, Pineda was waiting for the inquisition. He towered over the horseshoe of reporters, his smile gone, and gave simple explanations for why he had smeared pine tar on the right side of his neck before going out to pitch the bottom of the second inning against the Red Sox. "It was cold," he said. "I didn’t want to hit anybody. I didn’t feel the ball, and I don’t want to hit anybody."

Throughout the first inning, you could see at field level how much Pineda was struggling to get a feel for the baseball, on a night when wind ripped through Fenway Park. Between pitches, he dabbed at the back of his neck for some perspiration, at his forehead. He tried to blow on his hand, at one point seemingly spitting on it.

"I don’t think anybody can feel the ball when the weather is like this," said Yankees catcher Brian McCann, who said he was struggling to control the ball while throwing it back to the pitcher.

After a long first inning in which Pineda allowed a couple of runs and was badly missing the target, he returned to the dugout apparently intent on finding a solution to a problem that a lot of pitchers -- OK, probably most pitchers -- have long ago solved. Just about everybody uses something, as some of the Yankees and Red Sox have said in private conversation over the past week, as if they were talking about drivers who go beyond the speed limit. But as Pineda went out to the mound for the second inning, he became the guy who zooms past a state trooper in the left lane at 80 mph.
[+] EnlargeGaylord Perry
AP Photo/Rusty KennedyGaylord Perry had his neck checked more than once. He's also in the Hall of Fame.

He had a swipe of pine tar on the right side of his neck, and after Aaron Boone pointed it out on the ESPN broadcast -- immediately, as the inning began -- the phone of Yankees general manager Brian Cashman lit up as he sat in the stands by the visitors dugout, and Cashman got up to go to the clubhouse. Presumably, he was going to initiate the same sort of conversation that was had with Pineda on April 10, after he started a game against the Sox with pine tar apparent on his right hand.

But by the time Cashman got to the clubhouse

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Adam JonesOtto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesAdam Jones' prowess in center field is paramount to Baltimore's success.
BOSTON -- There was no batting practice for the Boston Red Sox or Baltimore Orioles here Saturday morning, despite the warm sunshine that enveloped Fenway Park. The warning track around the entire field was filled with fans waiting to take photographs of Red Sox players who slowly rotated toward them.

Meanwhile, the Orioles players lounged in the shoebox-sized visitors clubhouse. Adam Jones picked at some breakfast and chatted about Jack Murphy Stadium, while Chris Davis, Jonathan Schoop and others watched television.

This was a rare day when the Orioles would not go through their regular extensive defensive preparation with their infield work and with outfielders working on throwing to a particular spot. It's a practice which isn't always commonplace these days.

Like every other team in the AL East, the Orioles have their issues. Manny Machado is out, although he is making progress. Their starting rotation has been spotty. They've had a flu bug burrow into their ranks in recent days.

But day after day, this is a team that catches the ball. “That’s the key,” Jones said. “Don’t make mistakes.”

Shortstop J.J. Hardy is a Gold Glover, and so is Jones and catcher Matt Wieters. The Orioles acquired outfielder David Lough during the winter largely because they loved the defensive metrics attached to his play, and even as Ryan Flaherty struggled at the plate early this season, Buck Showalter has seen value in his work because of his steadiness in the field.

Going into Saturday’s game, the Orioles had -- remarkably -- made only three errors on the season, the fewest in the majors. They had allowed only two unearned runs. Somebody asked Showalter before Saturday’s game about the Orioles’ almost pristine error total, and Showalter jokingly gawked, in acknowledgment of a possible jinx situation, and asked the reporter where he would be during the game if Baltimore made an error, so he would know where to aim his death stare.

The Orioles made an error in the first inning: Schoop fumbled a grounder in the middle of a Boston rally, and a run scored. The rookie’s defensive skills are exceptional and he has played third base well by all accounts, but he has made three of the team’s four errors, and when Gold Glover Machado comes back, Schoop will play second base.

It was just a one-day hiccup in three weeks of the regular season. No matter the alignment, the defense will continue to be at the core of whatever the Orioles accomplish.

We’ve got the Orioles and Red Sox on "Sunday Night Baseball" on ESPN and WatchESPN, with a special 7 ET start time. Ubaldo Jimenez will be pitching for the Orioles, looking to be more aggressive with his mechanics. Machado played in his first extended spring game.

MLB's new investigation

Last week, a document retention memo was issued to all 30 teams by Major League Baseball, as it began its investigation of the article posted here April 9, and positioned itself to examine the history of communication of the hundreds of folks employed by the clubs: text messages, phone records, etc. Here's a look at the situation from Jon Heyman of CBS Sports.

The investigation was prompted by a strongly worded statement from new union chief Tony Clark on April 11:

“I am angered that numerous, anonymous baseball executives have blatantly and intentionally violated our collective bargaining agreement by offering to ESPN comments about the free agent values of Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales. These statements undermine the free agent rights of the players and depress their market value. Today, I have called upon the Commissioner’s Office to investigate immediately and thoroughly the sources of these statements and to take appropriate action to enforce our agreement.”

It’s the responsibility of Clark and MLB to protect the integrity of the collective bargaining agreement, of course. But if this is really about the CBA -- which binds club employees and agents from leaking details of negotiations to reporters, or passing on imaginary offers -- then presumably the union will also begin a corollary investigation of the communications of agents and their text messages, emails and phone records to track the interaction with specific reporters, and cross-reference those documents with subsequent reports.

When an agent informs a reporter that a player has drawn interest from a team or teams when in fact there is none, as part of an effort to artificially bolster the player’s market value, that’s a CBA violation. When a report comes out that a player has offers from X number of teams, where is that almost certainly coming from? Yes, the agent. And this has been happening for years and years, and Clark knows it.

When an agent leaks the terms of a deal before the full deal is completed, that’s a violation of the player’s rights under the CBA. But it happens all the time, and MLB and the union know it. Some of the particular reporter-agent quid pro quo relationships are so ingrained and such a consistent stream of seeming disinformation that they've become Baghdad Bob punch lines within the industry.

Similarly, if Major League Baseball is devoted to protecting the sanctity of the CBA, then it will investigate the cases of when club-operated websites have reported news of a contractual agreement -- before the completion of a physical exam, in some cases -- which is a blatant violation of the agreement.

But in all likelihood, the ongoing investigation of the April 9 piece will be an isolated exercise, because in fact this isn’t really about a CBA violation.

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"Sunday Night Baseball" felt like a screenplay that would've been rejected because of implausibility, with all its elements and characters and plot twists crammed into one evening, in one of the most interesting regular-season games you will ever see.

Before the first pitch, a future Hall of Famer was held out of the lineup for the second straight day, and then word broke that Dustin Pedroia, who played almost the entire 2013 with a torn thumb ligament, has a bad left wrist that will be tested in Boston today.

After the first pitch, there was all of the incredible defensive play by superlative outfielders, with Jackie Bradley Jr. throwing out Jacoby Ellsbury to Brett Gardner throwing out Bradley to Daniel Nava's catch to Ichiro Suzuki's Spider-Man impersonation.

Because Francisco Cervelli got hurt, Carlos Beltran had to play first base for the first time in his career, and because Pedroia is hurt, Mike Carp had his first-ever game action at third. John Farrell became the first-ever manager ejected while challenging replay, after a call was overturned (more below).

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Matt WilliamsChuck Myers/MCT/Getty ImagesSaturday's game was not the first time Matt Williams was upset with a call this season.
As managers discussed instant replay prior to the season, they were generally circumspect, understated in their public comments. You got some eye rolls, and privately, some expressed concern, particularly with the challenge system.

But less than two weeks into the start of the regular season, frustration with the system is beginning to boil over, as it did with Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams on Saturday.

Williams challenged an out call of Nate McLouth on a throw to first base, and the replay on the Nats’ broadcast appeared to indicate that the ball wasn’t quite in Freddie Freeman's glove when McLouth’s foot hit the base; in other words, McLouth appeared to be safe. You can see it here, over and over, because the challenge decision lasted four minutes. And McLouth was called out.

Williams was befuddled, as James Wagner of the Washington Post reported. From his story:

“I’m extremely frustrated by the process at this point,” Williams said. “Because if they’re seeing the same feed that we’re seeing, I don’t know how he’s out. I don’t know how Nate is out if they have the same feed that we have, so that’s frustrating because I thought he was safe. We’ve looked at it 100 times since then, and we believe he was safe. And if that is a safe call, then we maintain our challenge. … Again, I’m frustrated by the first one, though, because I see him as safe. And we have the same technology and the same video. I don’t know about that one. That frustrates me.”


Earlier in the day, in New York, the Red Sox challenged a call on Dean Anna, and while Boston appeared to be right, the Sox's challenge was rejected. MLB acknowledged later that the call was wrong.

Boston manager John Farrell was perplexed. “We had probably five angles that confirmed his foot was off the base, and when the safe call came back, it certainly raises questions on if they're getting the same feeds we are, the consistency of the system," Farrell said. "Yeah, it makes you scratch your head a little bit on why he was called safe."

What the managers want, above all else, is reliability, some degree of predictability. They don’t want to feel as though there is a roll of the dice when they’re issuing a challenge, and that they have no idea what the replay officials are looking at. They want to know that each challenge will be treated in the same way, with an expected outcome.

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John FarrellAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarJohn Farrell didn't make any issue of questions about a substance on Michael Pineda's hand.

The Red Sox have been there and done that with the accusations of pitchers using foreign substances, from Clay Buchholz's shiny forearm and game-day wet look to the green stuff seemingly wedged into the leather of Jon Lester's glove last October. They were probably disinclined to cast any stones at Michael Pineda Thursday night, as Pineda pitched the first innings with his right palm covered by something that looked an awful lot like leftovers from George Brett's bat three decades ago.

Pineda wasn’t alone in substance scrutiny Thursday: An Astros pitcher sprayed his arms before his start Thursday, as Evan Drellich writes. At the very least, pitchers should and probably do know that they are being watched in high definition in the way that golfers are being scrutinized for rules violations. This is a pitchers' version of jaywalking in 2014, and while a whole lot of folks may cross the line, they might want to strive for subtlety.

But another reason the Red Sox may have not said much is

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DodgersStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesHanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig serve as spark plugs for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
LOS ANGELES -- Hanley Ramirez attends the meetings that the Dodgers hold for the hitters at the outset of every series to go over scouting reports, but he does this to be respectful and polite of the process and not because he actually gleans information. He does not study video, either.

“None,” he said Saturday as he waited his turn in batting practice.

He does not care to know the identity of the opponent's starting pitcher, Ramirez said, until he is preparing for his first at-bat -- and even then, as he watches the pitcher throw to the first batters of the game, what Ramirez only wants to know is how hard the pitcher is throwing, and how much his fastball moves.

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Jackie Bradley Jr.Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty ImagesJackie Bradley Jr. has had Grady Sizemore breathing down his neck all spring.
Compared with the choices of desperation being made in the camps of the Texas Rangers and Atlanta Braves, the Red Sox's outfield quandary is like picking between Hawaii and the Bahamas for a vacation spot. Texas would love to have Boston's troubles.

But Boston's decision about what to do with Grady Sizemore and Jackie Bradley Jr. has been complicated, presenting competing sets of priorities.

Sizemore has looked great this spring, after having just 435 plate appearances over the last five years. If the question was only about who is Boston's best center fielder today, Sizemore would be the choice, given the way he has looked this spring. It appears that may be the way the Red Sox are leaning, based on what manager John Farrell said Tuesday.

But Bradley, who turns 24 next month, is clearly the center fielder of the future for the Red Sox, having demonstrated his superlative defensive skills in the minors, having shown his knack for getting on base year after year (career .404 OBP in the minors). If the decision was only about the long-term plans for the Red Sox, Bradley would be the center fielder.

So Red Sox evaluators have been weighing the various options they have at their disposal.

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