The Red Sox' season opener is just days away.
Over the course of a six-month season, there's plenty of twists and turns and general unpredictability to follow.
Nonetheless, here are five questions worth asking in advance of the opener:
1. Will there be a World Series hangover?
It's a reasonable question to ask, because something keeps getting in the way of team repeating at champions. No team has done so since the Yankees (1998-2000).
From a preparation standpoint, the Red Sox have been proactive. They delayed game appearances for their four veteran starters and deliberately held back their two most important relievers to account for the long postseason which had the Sox still playing almost into November last year.
But there are other issues of which they should be wary, not the least of which is a sense of complacency. After winning a franchise-record 108 games and rolling over (11-3) the three best teams in the game in October, it would be easy for this year's edition to be a little too satisfied.
Fortunately for the Red Sox, in Alex Cora, they may have the right manager to combat any feeling of entitlement. Cora has deftly navigated the issue of "turning the page'' -- celebrating what was accomplished, while turning his efforts and energy toward the new season.
It gets tricky when you considered that all but three players from their October roster will be on the third base line Thursday afternoon in Seattle. Returning all but a handful of players breeds familiarity and limits the number of new relationships that have to be formed. But it also could work against the club if a feeling of comfort sets in.
Again, Cora seems like the perfect antidote, with the ability to prod and motivate when necessary.
2. How much can be expected from Dustin Pedroia?
For this, there is no easy (or early) answer. Pedroia won't be on the Opening Day roster as he returns to extended spring training to continue building up endurance and strength in his surgically-repaired knee.
Here's the issue: a year ago at this time, the Sox expected Pedroia to be ready before the end of May...and he was. But not for long: after playing three games after being activated, he quickly returned to the DL and never played another inning the rest of the way.
So how Pedroia feels now, at the end of March, doesn't provide us with much of a roadmap. The real test will come when he plays three games in a row, or four over six days. How will the knee respond to bouncing back? To the travel? To the artificial surfaces in St. Petersburg and Toronto? To the daily grind?
The Sox would be ecstatic to get 120 or so games from Pedroia, while filling in with Eduardo Nunez, Brock Holt, and perhaps eventually Marco Hernandez.
But for now, no one -- not Pedroia, not Cora, not the training staff -- can guarantee that.
3. What's the bullpen plan? And will it work?
Up until now, Cora has treated his ideas about bullpen usage like some state secret, insisting that all will be revealed at the proper time -- namely, the first save situation of the regular season.
For now, it appears as though the team is content to utilize Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier to handle the ninth. But will it be more unconventional than that? Will Barnes and Brasier sometimes be brought in for the seventh, if that represents the highest-leverage spot? Will they simply split a more traditional closer's role?
For the Red Sox, the questions aren't limited to save situations. With Barnes and Brasier (in some combination) effectively replacing Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly, the issue becomes: who replaces Barnes and Brasier.
It would appear that the trio of Heath Hembree/Brandon Workman/Tyler Thornburg will settle into the set-up spots. But Hembree has a history of running out of gas, Workman's velocity tends to fluctuate and Thornburg, while healthier, had a rotten Grapefruit League season.
There are options down below, too, with Durbin Feltman still developing and Jenrry Mejia waiting in the wings.
A question I heard from more than a couple of evaluators this spring was: what happens if things begin poorly and the Sox, say, blow three late-inning leads in the first week? Does the team panic? Do they stay the course?
One way or another, that will be fascinating to watch unfold.
4. Will the number of pending free agents be a distraction at all?
Chris Sale got extended late last week, taking care of the most critical player entering the final year of his contract.
But Rick Porcello and Xander Bogaerts are also entering the final year of team control and it doesn't appear deals will be done by later this week, after which, Dave Dombrowski suggested last week, the team probably wouldn't want to continue negotiating.
Bogaerts, in particular, will bear watching. He's more sensitive than most and, as a younger player, tended to get down on himself when things weren't going well. Will that lead to him pressing some to impress either the Red Sox or rival teams? Will his uncertain future weigh on him as the season progresses?
There are other players (Mitch Moreland, Steve Pearce, Brock Holt) also headed to free agency in November, though, frankly, those are more easily replaced than a starting shortstop with big offensive upside and a proven starting pitcher with a history of gobbling up innings.
And finally, there's J.D. Martinez, who can opt-0ut of what could well be an undervalued contract.
All of these factors bear watching.
5. Who might contribute from the farm system?
There aren't any obvious holes in the everyday lineup or starting rotation as the season begins, but injuries have a way of changing that in a hurry. If, for example, Moreland has issues with his knee again, does that open the way for Michal Chavis at first? If Rafael Devers goes into a long funk, would the Sox turn to Bobby Dalbec by mid-summer? And would poor performance from, say, Eduardo Rodriguez, result in Darwinzon Hernandez being given a promotion?
A more likely scenario would have some minor league relief arms being in the mix, since bullpen arms are, by nature, ever evolving. Although the Sox see Hernandez as a future starter, he could contribute in relief in the second half of the season. Feltman, too, could be a candidate once he gains more development time in the upper levels of the minors.
Travis Lakins, who had a disappointing spring, could also work his way back into the picture if he starts the season well in Pawtucket.