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2015 team preview: Can the retooled Boston Red Sox go worst-to-first again?

After a disappointing 2014 season and a seismic offseason, the Red Sox are AL East contenders once again.

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

At first glance, it looks like the Boston Red Sox are going all-in in 2015. Their offseason, reminiscent of one four years ago when they acquired Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, was spent reshaping a roster that won 71 games in defense of its 2013 World Series title. The Sox signed Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, two of the premier players on the free agent market, coughing up a pair of 2015 draft picks in the process. They also re-signed slugger David Ortiz, and spent big money on Cuban prospects Rusney Castillo and Yoan Moncada. In total, that's $302.5 million committed to five players, not including numerous contract options or the $31 million in taxes the Sox committed to when they inked Moncada's deal.

This is nowhere close to 2011, though. The Ramirez and Sandoval deals are pricey, but nowhere near the payroll-crippling seven-year deals that Crawford and Gonzalez were signed to. Gonzalez, who was acquired via trade, cost the Red Sox a few of their best prospects, including All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo. No prospects were coughed up this year, only cash. In fact, the only player of note to be traded away was Yoenis Cespedes, a deal that helped alleviate an outfield logjam and fill a hole in the rotation.

Looking ahead, the Red Sox are set up for 2015 and several years beyond. Moncada, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and prospects Blake Swihart and Henry Owens comprise one of the best group of prospects in the game, and current stars Dustin Pedroia, Ramirez, and Sandoval should still be effective players in three or four years.

The Red Sox only have one question mark in 2015, but it's a big one: can they pitch? They failed to re-sign Jon Lester during the offseason after trading both Lester and John Lackey away at last year's trade deadline. Opening Day starter Clay Buchholz is coming off a 5.34 ERA season, and the rest of the rotation is no sure thing. If they can keep the offense within striking distance, the Sox should contend in a seemingly weak AL East.

Manager: John Farrell (3rd season)
2014 record: 71-91
SB Nation blog: Over the Monster
First series vs. Tigers: July 24-26 @ Fenway Park

Lineup

In a lineup this potent, the Red Sox don't need extraordinary offensive production out of their catchers. However, Red Sox Nation has turned its attention behind the plate, as presumed starter Christian Vazquez is heading down to Alabama to see Dr. James Andrews. An MRI of Vazquez's elbow turned up "something," which sounds ominous enough that prospect Blake Swihart is being penciled into lineups with the rest of the starters. Swihart has made a case for himself this spring, hitting .296/.345/.444 in 12 games. The 22-year-old has only played one season above A-ball, and struggled offensively in a brief stop at Triple-A Pawtucket. Ryan Hanigan will be on the roster no matter what, while Swihart's readiness -- and arbitration clock, potentially -- will determine the fate of journeyman Humberto Quintero. Hanigan, an excellent pitch framer, was acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays (via the San Diego Padres) this offseason.

The youth movement continues in the outfield, where Mookie Betts should begin the year as the team's starting centerfielder. Betts hit .291/.368/.444 in 213 plate appearances with the Red Sox last season and has been scalding hot this spring, hitting .452 with 11 extra base hits in 14 games. He's still getting used to the outfield, but is capable of covering plenty of ground. The Hanley Ramiez experiment in left field should be interesting, but it's hard to see him being completely awful out there. He has a solid arm, and playing in front of the Green Monster is more about positioning than range. If he can improve on last season's .283/.369/.448 performance at the plate in hitter-friendly Fenway Park, his contract should more than pay for itself. Shane Victorino is the odds-on favorite to start the year in right field, but Rusney Castillo is making a case for playing time with a monster spring of his own. Allen Craig, Daniel Nava, and Jackie Bradley Jr. are also involved in a very crowded outfield picture.

The infield is much less complicated, but just as talented. Third baseman Pablo Sandoval hit .279/.324/.415 with the San Francisco Giants last year, his worst offensive season since 2010. We might see a slight bump in production now that the Panda is away from spacious AT&T Park, but his career home/road splits don't suggest that the large home park was holding him down. A surprisingly adept defender, the 28-year-old Sandoval still has a few years left before the Red Sox need to anoint him the next David Ortiz. Shortstop Xander Bogaerts struggled for long stretches in 2014, proving that even the best prospects can run into trouble when making the jump to the majors. He hit .240/.297/.362 in 594 plate appearances, but finished the year with an .806 OPS in September. There are questions about his glove, but the Sox don't have anyone else coming through the pipeline -- looking at you. Yoan Moncada -- who projects to be much better.

Despite all the new faces in the lineup, the most important one still sits in the dugout when the Red Sox are playing defense. Designated hitter David Ortiz showed signs of mortality last season, hitting just .263 with his worst wRC+ since 2010. However, his walk rate, strikeout, rate, and ISO remained nearly identical to his stellar 2013 season, and he hit 35 home runs and drove in 104 RBI. Second baseman Dustin Pedroia is also a retread, and is coming off the worst offensive season of his career. The 31-year-old Pedroia is signed through 2021, and middle infielders have a history of aging extremely poorly. However, 2015 should not be much of a concern. Pedroia had offseason surgery to (hopefully) correct the hand injury that ailed him, and he was still worth 4.2 WAR last year. First baseman Mike Napoli also dealt with a hand ailment in 2014, which sapped his trademark power. He still hit 17 home runs, but his .171 ISO was over 50 points lower than 2013's .223.

Pitchers

If things go south for the Red Sox in 2015, the starting rotation will be the reason why. The Sox enter the season without a true ace, a fact that became even more evident when Clay Buchholz was named the Opening Day starter. Buchholz allowed a 5.34 ERA and 1.39 WHIP in 170 1/3 innings last season, and has a career 3.91 ERA. His 4.01 FIP in 2014 was only slightly better than his career mark of 4.06. Buchholz has shown some ace-like tendencies in the past, though, such as his 1.74 ERA and 2.78 FIP in 108 1/3 innings in 2013. Rick Porcello was the most ace-like last season, throwing 204 2/3 innings with a 3.43 ERA for our beloved Tigers. Of course, now that he's gone we can talk trash about his declining strikeout rate and 22 percent line drive rate. Jokes aside, Porcello made major strides last season, resulting in the lowest home run and walk rates of his career. He still gave up over a hit per inning, but has been better about that over the past two years than earlier in his career.

Former divisional foe Justin Masterson, who broke into the big leagues with the Red Sox in 2008, re-signed with his former club on a one-year deal this offseason. Masterson was an All-Star in 2013, but collapsed in 2014, allowing a 5.88 ERA and 1.63 WHIP in 128 2/3 innings with the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Cardinals. His biggest issue was a walk rate that skyrocketed to 11.7 percent, a career-worst. He spent time on the disabled list with a knee injury, but it's unclear if that was the cause for a concerning drop in fastball velocity. The Red Sox continued their quest for ground ball outs when they traded for Arizona Diamondbacks lefthander Wade Miley in December, but the puzzling move was the three-year extension they gave him in February. It's a gamble with an eye towards future luxury tax considerations, but Miley allowed a 4.34 ERA and a 3.98 FIP in the desert last season. He's durable, which is a plus, but has allowed 44 home runs over the past two seasons.

They have some of the best young talent in the game in Betts, Bogaerts, and Swihart, and 2015 is only the beginning of what should be a long run near the top of the AL East.

Righthander Joe Kelly will be the team's fifth starter this season, but there's a chance that he could begin the season on the disabled list after leaving a start with biceps soreness two weeks ago. There isn't a backup option in place yet, but a favorable schedule pushes the need for a fifth starter back a few days. Plus, Kelly appeared in an intrasquad game over the weekend and could be eligible to come off the DL before he is needed. He allowed a 4.11 ERA in 10 starts with the Red Sox last year, but walked 32 batters in 61 1/3 innings. He has been more impressive this spring, striking out eight batters to just one walk in Grapefruit League action. Prospect Henry Owens may slide into the rotation at some point this season if he impresses at Triple-A, but Matt Barnes is more likely to make a spot start if Kelly suffers a setback.

The Red Sox said goodbye to a pair of former Tigers prospects last year. Lefthander Andrew Miller was shipped to Baltimore at the trade deadline, while righthander Burke Badenhop -- who had an excellent season in his own right -- signed with the Cincinnati Reds this offseason. Closer Koji Uehara is still around, and he was still nearly untouchable in 2014. Uehara allowed a 2.52 ERA and 3.09 FIP in part thanks to an elevated home run rate, but struck out 10 times as many batters as he walked. Uehara probably won't be ready for Opening Day due to a hamstring injury, leaving setup men Edward Mujica and Alexi Ogando to handle the ninth inning. Mujica will get the first shot at the closer's role because he was a proven closer once upon a time, but Ogando has had the more impressive spring. Anthony Varvaro, Junichi Tazawa, and Robbie Ross will see plenty of innings in middle relief, especially if the starters falter.

Down on the farm

Like the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Boston Red Sox are blessed with an embarrassing amount of talent at both the major and minor league levels. Boston's farm system is one of the top five or six in baseball, and just about everyone released their rankings before they made a splash for Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada. The debate on where Moncada ranks in their farm system and around baseball is on, but he is one of several talents that is on the cusp of the major leagues. Catcher Blake Swihart seems poised to be the team's starting catcher if Christian Vazquez misses significant time, while lefthander Henry Owens is biding his time in Triple-A. The Sox were also able to pluck lefty Eduardo Rodriguez from their division rival Baltimore Orioles at the trade deadline last year, and they simply don't have room for third baseman Garin Cecchini. They will add to their riches with the No. 7 overall pick in this June's amateur draft.

Player to watch: Rick Porcello

Come on, you know you're curious. After years of blaming Porcello's lofty ERA figures on poor infield defense, the 26-year-old righthander finds himself... in the exact same situation he dealt with last year. Porcello has a Gold Glove caliber second baseman behind him in Dustin Pedroia, but an average shortstop in Xander Bogaerts. Pablo Sandoval is a great deal better than Nick Castellanos at third base, but most of Porcello's 2014 success was due to the low BABIP he sustained on the right side of the infield. Porcello has a career 6.14 ERA in four starts at Fenway Park, but this time he won't be facing Boston's potent offense. How he fares in 2015 will not only determine how his team finishes, but also how large his contract of a contract he signs next offseason.

Outlook

I admire the Red Sox and their penchant for acquiring good players before worrying about where they will play -- it's how the Tigers netted Prince Fielder, after all -- but the starting rotation is a serious concern. Porcello is Boston's only starting pitcher coming off of a good season, and there are reasons to believe that his numbers weren't entirely sustainable. The bullpen is good, but still a bit thin for how shaky this rotation is.

The pitching staff doesn't have to be elite, though. The Red Sox have all sorts of offensive talent and should score runs in bunches, even with an injury or two. They have some of the best young talent in the game in Betts, Bogaerts, and Swihart, and 2015 is only the beginning of what should be a long run near the top of the AL East. Will they get there this season? That's far from guaranteed, but this isn't your father's AL East, where the New York Yankees ran things with a cash-laden iron fist. As flawed as they are, it's not hard to see the Red Sox going worst-to-first-to-worst-to-first, and return to the playoffs in 2015.