Things were not supposed to go as well as they did for the Boston Red Sox in 2013. Coming off a 69-93 record and last place finish in 2012, not many people expected the Sox to compete. The players they had signed that offseason were viewed as placeholders until a robust farm system could graduate players to the big league level. Instead, Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino put up big numbers while the pitching staff weathered a slew of injuries to keep the league's best offense within striking distance often enough to win 97 games. Timely hitting and an untouchable bullpen were the recipe for success in the playoffs, as the Red Sox cruised to their third championship in the last 10 years. This year, the farm system starts to take center stage as the Sox try to do something they have not done in nearly 100 years: repeat as champions.
Manager: John Farrell (2nd year)
2013 record: 97-65, 1st in AL East
SB Nation blog: Over the Monster
First series vs. Tigers: May 16-18 @ Fenway Park
There is a fair amount of turnover happening elsewhere in the Red Sox lineup, but the driving force behind this offense is still ageless wonder David Ortiz. Aside from hitting the biggest home run of the 2013 season, Big Papi also dropped an f-bomb in front of a sold-out Fenway Park hit .309/.395/.564 with 30 home runs and 103 RBI. He made his ninth All-Star team and finished in the top 10 of AL MVP voting for the first time since 2007. On the rare occasion Papi makes a start at first base, he will displace Mike Napoli, who signed a two-year extension with the Sox in December. Napoli convinced doubters that the hip "issue" that costed him $34 million last offseason was anything but, hitting 38 doubles and 23 home runs in 578 plate appearances. Mike Carp will also get starts at first after last year's breakout .885 OPS in 243 plate appearances.
Moving around the infield, Dustin Pedroia will finally be recognized as the best second baseman in his division now that Robinson Cano is a member of the Seattle Mariners. Pedroia made the All-Star team and won a Gold Glove last season, presumably because voters thought Cano was loafing around. This is not to take anything away from Pedroia, who finished with 10+ defensive runs saved and a UZR of +8 or higher for the fifth time in the past six seasons. Rookie of the Year favorite Xander Bogaerts will be the team's starting shortstop, unless Stephen Drew and the Sox agree on an 11th hour deal. Bogaerts' numbers were not impressive during his September call-up, but his performance during the first two series of the postseason earned him a starting job in the team's final eight games of the year. With Bogaerts at short, Will Middlebrooks' job is safe at third base. Middlebrooks may have earned his job anyway, hitting .276/.329/.476 in 158 second half plate appearances.
With Jarrod Saltalamacchia off to greener pastures in Miami -- no, seriously, the walls are green in Marlins Park -- the Red Sox will rely on a pair of 37 year old backstops: lefty A.J. Pierzynski and righty David Ross. Pierzynski did not show much in the way of platoon splits last season with the Texas Rangers, but Ross mashed left-handed pitchers to the tune of an .804 OPS in 61 plate appearances. Emergency catcher Ryan Lavarnway is still around for the moment, but the Red Sox are reportedly looking to trade the 26 year old, much to the chagrin of everyone in that thread.
In the outfield, the Red Sox are still convinced that Grady Sizemore will not break at the first chance he gets. Considering he did this yesterday and is still alive, they are already playing with house money.
Jokes aside, the decision to give Sizemore a major league contract was puzzling, considering he has not played in the big leagues since 2011 and last played a full season in 2008. The amazing part? Sizemore is still only 31 years old, making a miracle -- i.e. a return to his All-Star caliber days from 2005 to 2008 -- slightly less impossible than if he were a few years older. Sizemore's strong play this spring has forced John Farrell to renege on his earlier decision to make Jackie Bradley Jr. the starting center fielder. While Sizemore still has minor league option(s) remaining, he would need to consent to a demotion. Given the glut of outfielders in the organization -- Sizemore, Bradley, Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino, and Daniel Nava are all on the 40 man roster -- someone will need to be sent down before the end of March.
Speaking of the rest of the outfield, strong performances from Nava and Victorino (along with some guy named Jacoby Ellsbury) allowed the Sox to let Bradley spend another year in the minor leagues after a horrific showing in April. Bradley put up a .392 OPS in 12 games before getting a quick hook back to the minor leagues. Meanwhile, Nava hit .303/.385/.445 with 41 extra base hits in 536 plate appearances. Already 31 years old, Nava answers the "name someone who didn't hit Double-A until he turned 26" question that Tigers fans have fielded about Jordan Lennerton. Victorino is only two years older, but has nearly 4,000 more career plate appearances than Nava. A slew of injuries forced Victorino to start hitting right-handed full-time, a move he probably should have made 10 years ago. The former center fielder also transitioned seamlessly to right, playing Gold Glove defense along the way.
The Red Sox will return largely the same rotation that ranked fourth in the AL with a 3.84 ERA last season. Jake Peavy only made 10 starts for the Sox, but his 3.79 FIP in a Sox uniform was a bit more promising than his 4.04 ERA. Like usual when he is healthy, Peavy ate plenty of innings. He averaged just over 6 1/3 innings per start, which helped keep the bullpen fresh down the stretch. He is a bit behind schedule this spring after injuring his finger in a fishing mishap, but should still be ready to go for the first week of the season. With Peavy taking a back seat in the rotation as he ages, young lefty Felix Doubront will be expected to step up. This will be Doubront's third full season in the big leagues, and it's safe to say that he has been somewhat disappointing thus far. His numbers as a starter were better than his overall line -- that's what happens when you give up 11 runs in 6 2/3 innings in relief -- but fans would like to see more than an ERA in the high-3's from him in 2014.
The last time we Tigers fans saw John Lackey, he was outdueling Justin Verlander in a series-changing Game 3 of the ALCS. Lackey was excellent throughout the postseason, allowing a 2.77 ERA and 4.17 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 26 innings. This was not a far cry from his improbable regular season, where he allowed a 3.52 ERA and 3.86 FIP in 189 1/3 innings. Things did not look so rosy at the start of the season, when Lackey suffered a biceps strain in his first start since 2011. He returned before the end of the month, however, and looked every bit of the pitcher that the Red Sox signed to an $82.5 million contract before the 2010 season.
As good as Lackey was in the postseason, staff ace Jon Lester was even better. He rebounded from a subpar first half to allow a 2.57 ERA and 2.77 FIP in 87 2/3 innings after the All-Star break, then only allowed six runs in five postseason starts. He only gave up one home run across four starts in the ALCS and World Series. One cause for concern: a 3.9% home-run-per-fly-ball rate in the second half resulting in a 3.79 xFIP. Clay Buchholz allowed a similar home run rate in his 108 1/3 regular season innings, holding opponents to a 1.74 ERA in the process. He missed half of the season with a bout of shoulder bursitis, but didn't miss a beat in four September starts. He was largely an afterthought in the postseason after allowing seven runs in 10 2/3 innings against the Tigers in the ALCS -- though his team won both games he started.
The 2013 Red Sox might be the only team in MLB history lucky enough to have two closers go down with season-ending injuries. Of course, this statement would not have been necessary had they put Koji Uehara into that role in the first place. Uehara has a career 0.84 WHIP and 8.74 strikeout-to-walk ratio, so his 0.57 WHIP and 11.2 K/BB rate last season were not a surprise to those who have been paying attention. The real surprise in the Red Sox bullpen was lefty Craig Breslow, who allowed a 1.81 ERA in 59 2/3 innings without Uehara's gaudy peripherals. Joining those two in the pen will be right-hander Junichi Tazawa, who allowed a 3.16 ERA and 3.22 FIP in 68 1/3 innings, and newcomer Edward Mujica, who made the first All-Star appearance of his career with the St. Louis Cardinals last year. Despite racking up 37 saves during the regular season, Mujica only made two appearances in the postseason, neither of which came against the Red Sox in the World Series.
Player to watch: Jackie Bradley Jr.
The last time the Red Sox had their center fielder and leadoff hitter purchased by the New York Yankees, they saw a major offensive dropoff and finished in third place. Johnny Damon had an .805 OPS and was worth 2.7 fWAR in his final season with the Red Sox, less than half of the 5.8 fWAR that Jacoby Ellsbury produced for the Sox last year. With Ellsbury donning pinstripes like Damon before him, the Red Sox are putting their faith in Jackie Bradley Jr. to improve upon last year's .280 on-base percentage in 107 plate appearances. He hit .275/.374/.469 for Triple-A Pawtucket last year, his first tour through the International League. Bradley's ability to reproduce Ellsbury's 2013 numbers -- both offensively and defensively -- will be a major factor in whether the Red Sox can defend their title.
The Red Sox had just about everything bounce their way in 2013, but that tends to happen when you have a roster as complete as theirs. I question whether the pitching will be as good as it was last year -- Koji Uehara definitely will not be doing that again -- and David Ortiz has to age at some point... we think. If young talents like Bogaerts, Bradley, and Middlebrooks can take a step forward, this is a scary good team. There may be a speed bump or two along the way, but expect the Red Sox to be among the best teams in the American League again this year.