2014 Season preview: Boston Red Sox

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY

Everything clicked perfectly for the 2013 World Champions, but the AL East is still a battleground and the 2014 team will be counting on several players who might be too young to grow a beard.

The 2013 World Series Champions went from worst to first thanks in part to a series of relatively minor additions aimed at supporting the talented core of players who had almost universally fallen flat in 2012. The transformation began with dropping manager Bobby Valentine in favor of former-Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell. Apart from exorcising the clubhouse chaos that was born in the last days of Terry Francona's reign and ran wild under Valentine, Farrell's main charge was fixing the pitch staff. Farrell succeeded in turning the rotation around and backed up by a strong bullpen anchored by the suddenly unhittable Koji Uehara and a re-focused and resurgent lineup, Boston ground their way to 97 wins and their third World Series title in the last ten years.

The strategy of buying low on players like Stephen Drew, Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino and Ryan Dempster was not necessarily designed to turn the Red Sox into Champions overnight. Boston GM Ben Cherington saw the damage that the massive commitments made to Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez did to the team's financial flexibility and changed course. By isolating players who could be signed for one-to-three seasons, he was hoping to give them the ability to make more in-season upgrades like the addition of Jake Peavy and avoid paying premiums for players in decline. The strategy worked better than anyone could have imagined in 2013, and the Red Sox began the offseason on top of the baseball world. While most of the core of the 2013 team will return for the coming season, Boston started the offseason with four key players headed for free agency. They eventually locked up first baseman Mike Napoli with a 2-year, $32 million deal, but chose to let the others walk away.

Loses: Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Ryan Dempster, Matt Thornton, Andrew Bailey, Joel Hanrahan (FA), Stephen Drew (FA)

Long before the 2013 season ended, the Red Sox had begun preparing for the seemingly-inevitable departure of star center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury. The Scott Boras-client declined to consider an extension throughout his arbitration seasons and the Red Sox clearly felt that his price on the open market was likely to outstrip his production on the field by a considerable amount. It was a sad day for Red Sox fans when the Yankees signed Ellsbury to a seven-year, $153 million deal, but it was not much of a shock. Knowing that Ellbury's departure was likely, the Red Sox took care to groom top prospect Jackie Bradley Jr. for the role and the addition of Shane Victorino prior to 2013 also gave them another viable alternative for 2014 if Bradley did not appear ready for to take over the role. The 23-year-old prospect is considered an elite defender in center and his on-base skills are a perfect fit for the lead-off role, but he lacks the power and speed that made Ellsbury such a force at the head of the Red Sox lineup. Most experts don't see the star potential in Bradley, but if he emerges as an impact defender and an on-base machine and he takes over the number-one spot in the lineup at some point, he could be a major part of the story in Boston this year.

The other significant loss for the Red Sox is catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. The 28-year-old backstop flew a bit under the radar even though he posted a strong 3.6 fWAR on the back of his second straight year of plus-hitting. That fWAR put him in a three-way tie for the eighth-best mark by a catcher last year, but that doesn't completely capture the total value of his contributions. Saltalamacchia has become an above-average pitch-framer behind the plate and that skill, combined with his delft handling of the pitching staff, makes him a plus player behind the plate despite weak caught stealing rates. Salty's three-year, $21 million deal with Miami could be a great value-signing for the Marlins, but with catching prospects Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart rapidly approaching the majors, the Red Sox did not want to make that kind of commitment.

Shortstop Stephen Drew remains a free agent, caught in qualifying offer-purgatory. Boston has placed a high value on draft picks under the Theo Epstein and Ben Cherington regimes and it appears they will let him walk away and take the pick at this point. Drew turned in a strong 3.4 fWAR performance last year, but with top prospect Xander Bogaerts ready to take over at short, the Red Sox don't have a pressing need for Drew and they seem content to let me go elsewhere.

Additions: A.J. Pierzynski, Grady Sizemore, Chris Capuano, Edward Mujica, Burke Badenhop

To address the hole left by Saltalamacchia, the Red Sox signed veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski. The longtime-White Sox backstop showed there was still some life left in his bat with a solid .272/.297/.425 line with the Rangers last year. His defense is a significant step down from Saltalamacchia when you include pitch-framing in the conversation, but his left-handed bat should be a suitable enough replacement for Salty's. His relationship with pitching coach Juan Nieves, who served as the bullpen coach in Chicago during Pierzynski's tenure there, could be the X-factor here. If he helps the Red Sox staff execute their plan well as a result of that relationship, his other shortcomings may not be so important.

While the Red Sox clearly view Jackie Bradley Jr. as the long-term answer to Jacoby Ellsbury's departure, they picked up bounce-back candidate Grady Sizemore to keep their options open in center. Injuries have kept the former-Indians star out of the majors for the last two seasons, but he appears to be healthy at last and he has a chance to win the center field job this spring. If he can stay healthy and be anything close to the player he was from 2005-2009, Bradley will have to fight hard to earn plate appearances at the major league level in 2014.

Ryan Dempster surprised everyone by walking away from the $13.1 million owed to him for the 2014 season and choosing to sit out the season. The veteran righty was slated to begin the year in the bullpen and serve as the first line of defense for the rotation, and the Red Sox moved quickly to fill that role in the wake of his announcement. Boston add lefty Chris Capuano to fit that role and give them a third left-handed option to support Craig Brelsow and Andrew Miller in the bullpen. Capuano will join two other new bullpen additions in ex-Cardinals closer Edward Mujica and Burke Badenhop. These additions help give Boston excellent depth for the late innings and the rotation.

Players to watch

The Red Sox offense should remain one of the most productive groups in the game on the backs of stars like Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Mike Napoli, and Shane Victorino, but a few less well-known names could have an important impact, for better or worse. Xander Bogaerts is the consensus number-two prospect in all of baseball and he will be firmly in the spotlight for the 2014 season. He is slated to be the starting shortstop at this point and the expectations for him are set quite high. The Oliver projection system is the most bullish on the 21-year-old, calling for a 3.8 fWAR season right out of the gate. That isn't nearly as bullish as fans seem to be however. The fan projections at Fangraphs have him at 4.4 fWAR. As he showed during several high-pressure at-bats in the 2013 ALCS, the young Aruban has a unique ability to adapt at the plate and maturity beyond his years. His bat is going to be something special and his quick rise to the majors has eased concerns about his ability to handle short for the time being. He is still very young, however, and it would not be surprising to see him go through some growing pains at the highest level. Even so, there is a good reason the Red Sox are forsaking their standard, conservative development process and giving him the job to start the year.

Playing next to Bogaerts at third is another former top prospect in Will Middlebrooks. Middlebrooks excited the Fenway faithful in 2012 by flashing impressive power as soon as he arrived. He hit 288/.325/.509 and launched 15 home runs and 14 doubles in 267 plate appearances before landing on the DL to end the season. The league adapted to him in 2013 and he was not able to respond in kind, hitting just .227/.271/.425 over 348 plate appearances. The power is there, but it will take more consistent contact for Middlebrooks to hold down the job at third this season. One look at his slash lines will tell you that he is not one to draw many walks, but despite an aggressive approach, he does have a good feel for the strike zone and should generate enough loud contact to be a plus-hitter. If he can make the right adjustments a 30-home run season is very possible at some point.

While the rotation was huge strength for Boston last season- Boston starters posted the fourth lowest ERA in the American League- there are still significant questions there that need to be answered there. No question looms larger than that of Clay Buchholz's health. The 29-year-old was the best starter on the Sox when he could take the hill with an incredible 1.74 ERA and a 2.78 FIP, but he pitched just 108 1/3 innings. Buchholz has the stuff to be an ace, but he has been haunted by a vast array of back and neck injuries and he may never reach his full potential as a result. Farrell has pushed Buchholz to the fifth spot in the rotation in an attempt to keep him healthy and if the plan works well enough to keep him on the mound for 28-30 starts, it wouldn't be surprising to see him in the Cy Young conversation.

Best Case Scenario

Lead by Ortiz and Pedroia, the Red Sox offense is among the top in the game. Every little thing remains alright with Shane Victorino and he is once again a force on both sides of the ball. Rookies Bogaerts and Bradley arrive as major leaguers and battle each other for Rookie of the Year honors. Third baseman Will Middlebrooks shakes off his 2013 struggles and delivers 30 home run-power from the right side, making the Boston infield the best in baseball. Buchholz stays healthy and posts the same unreal numbers he did last season over a full 180 innings. With another division title under their belt, Jon Lester once again leads the way through October to another Duck Boat parade, signing an extension somewhere along the way that keeps him at the top of the Boston rotation for years to come.

How it could all go wrong

Although the Red Sox won more games than any other American League club and the bulk of the team will return, the 2014 team is not even a lock to win the AL East in 2014, let alone repeat as World Series Champions. This Red Sox team may have to depend on a pair of rookies to replace above-average offensive players at premium positions. Grady Sizemore is a high-risk backup plan and the odds of him playing the whole season are not great. Key pitchers like Clay Buchholz, Jake Peavy and Koji Uehara all have troublesome injury histories and it would not be shocking to see a number of the key arms on the team fall to injury. Will Middlebrooks could earn the quad-A tag this season, just as easily he could breakout.

Boston had incredible fortune in 2013. Apart from Buchholz and backup catcher David Ross, the team stayed very healthy. Players like Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino bounced back from down years to become key players on both sides of the ball. Koji Uehara was the third option the team tried in the closer's role and he turned out to be the most valuable reliever in the game last year. Role players like Mike Carp and Jonny Gomes delivered big production in minor roles. If several of these players take a step in the wrong direction, the Red Sox might be hard-pressed to beat out the Rays and Yankees for the AL East crown. Add an injury or two to the mix and Boston could easily find themselves fighting to stay in the playoff picture.

Final Thoughts

Hardly anyone expected the Red Sox to win it all in 2013. Cherington and company built the best team they could without over-extending their budget or selling out their farm system and everything clicked just right. Because the 2013 team was built with an eye to the future, the outlook for the Red Sox remains rosy even with Ellsbury and Saltalamacchia out of the picture. The Red Sox are talented enough and deep enough to roll through the AL East once again if they stay healthy and productive. Cherington has built the foundation for a perennial powerhouse in Boston. The AL East is still one of the toughest divisions in baseball, and it will take much of the same good fortune for them to repeat as division champions. Whatever happens in 2014, they will be a threat to win the East for years to come thanks to a productive farm system, a loaded big league roster and a front office that has shown it can keep both elements in balance.

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