The slate has been wiped clean and, save for Friday’s pregame ceremony at Fenway Park that will celebrate Boston’s 2013 championship season one last time, the Red Sox must now focus on the task at hand, which is to navigate through another 162-game schedule in the hopes of making the postseason for a second consecutive season.
It was a relatively quiet off-season for the local nine. The one notable subtraction was the loss of Jacoby Ellsbury to free agency, who agreed to sign with Boston’s division rival, the New York Yankees. Also gone from the team are two other key cogs from last season’s machine: catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia (signed with the Miami Marlins) and shortstop Stephen Drew (currently unsigned). There were also a few notable additions, too, including catcher A.J. Pierzynski, outfielder Grady Sizemore, and reliever Edward Mujica, all of whom made the Opening Day roster.
Otherwise, the team taking the field this afternoon at Orioles Park at Camden Yards is for all intents and purposes the same one that we saw playing for postseason glory this past October. The starting rotation carries over from last season, as does the right side of the infield, the corner outfielders, and the key bullpen components.
Defending a championship is not easy and, in fact, nearly impossible: the last team to win back-to-back championships were the Yankees, who won three straight titles between 1998 and 2000. Only time will tell if the 2014 Red Sox can match the success of last season. With that, here are five thoughts on this year’s club as the season opens.
1. Will Middlebrooks will rebound from his sophomore slump.
After an eye-opening rookie campaign in 2012, cut short by a wrist injury, Middlebrooks got off to a poor start offensively last season and was optioned to Pawtucket in mid-June. He returned in early August and, over 41 games, had a BAbip of .320 and an OPS of .805 but factored little into Boston’s postseason run, batting .160 with one RBI over three playoff series. Bill James projects that he should bat .266 with 32 home runs, 104 RBI, and an .800 OPS, which if healthy should be attainable since they closely match what he was on pace to do in 2012. Signs were promising this spring, with four home runs and 1.056 OPS in 19 games this spring.
2. Koji Uehara will not repeat his performance from last season.
Uehara had an unbelievable season in 2013, posting a WHIP of 0.57 in 74.1 IP during the regular season. He was just a filthy during the postseason, combining for seven saves and a 0.51 WHIP in 13.2 IP and earned ALCS MVP honors. It would be hard for any closer, whether it’s Uehara, Mariano Rivera, Dick Radatz, or Dennis Eckersley, to match those totals in back-to-back seasons, but it’s going to be even more difficult given that he turns 39 years old this week. Farrell and pitching coach Juan Nieves will need to manage the bullpen more effectively this season and keep his innings down if he is to be effective as the team’s closer; Mujica, who had 37 saves for St. Louis last season, is the team’s backup plan.
3. Xander Bogaerts will make us forget the name “Stephen Drew.”
I mean no disrespect to Drew, who was a solid performer in the field and held his own at the bottom of the order, but Bogaerts, ranked second in the 2014 Baseball America Top 100 Prospects and eighth the previous year, is the real deal. His sample size at the major league level is small but he did prove himself in the 2013 postseason, taking over for Middlebrooks at third and posting an OPS of .893 while scoring nine runs in 34 plate appearances. In 2012, he was rated the best power hitter in the Boston farm system, so he and Middlebrooks should add some power to compliment Ortiz and Napoli in the middle of the lineup. It will be to no one’s surprise if he walks away with AL Rookie of the Year honors at the end of this season.
4. Jackie Bradley will be back in Boston sooner than later and to stay.
Grady Sizemore, who had been limited over the past four seasons due to injury and has not stepped on a baseball diamond since 2011, signed a contract with the Red Sox this January much like the one Mike Napoli signed last winter where his salary increases as performance goals are met. Then he played like a man possessed this spring, making some sensational outfield plays and posting an OPS of .784 in 13 games played. Meanwhile, Bradley, the supposed heir apparent to Ellsbury, struggled at the plate and finds himself starting the season in Pawtucket. However, part of the reason for this was because Boston has a glut of outfielders and Bradley has options to burn. With the health of Shane Victorino in question to begin the season and questions still lingering about Sizemore’s durability, do not be surprised to see the young prospect back with Boston before long.
5. Jon Lester will have the best season of his career.
This may not be a stretch since Lester will become a free agent at season’s end. After contract negotiations this spring failed to bring about an extension, his agents and the Red Sox agreed to revisit talks at season’s end. It’s a risk both sides are willing to take at this point and I believe that it will be more to Lester’s benefit. True, his last two seasons have seen a dip in his ERA+ (87 and 109 in 2012 and 2013, respectively) but he was solid in the stretch last season and was almost lights out in the 2013 playoffs, pitching into the eighth inning in three of his five starts and winning four of those starts. In three starts this spring — granted a relatively small sample size — he posted a WHIP of 0.79 and allowed just one run in 12.2 IP. With something to prove, he is geared to post big numbers this season.