Sox take step back in 2014, but future is bright
The Red Sox were in the process of building a bridge when they decided to make it a launch pad. The shocking World Series title that followed brought the joy back to Boston baseball after two years of relentless negativity. What it didn’t do was change “The Plan.” General manager Ben Cherington intends to construct a homegrown powerhouse, which is why the Red Sox likely will take a step back in 2014 in service of a better tomorrow. Rather than bob blindly for apples in free agency — previous attempts left them soaked and sputtering — they watched their starting center fielder, catcher and shortstop hit the market. Within a month, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jarrod Saltalamacchia were gone, while Stephen Drew remains adrift in draft-compensation limbo. No matter. The Red Sox view turnover as a necessary step in the process of great teams staying that way, and rookies Xander Bogaerts and, perhaps Jackie Bradley Jr., will step right into the lineup as the roster makeover begins. If they deliver, that bridge may just lead into orbit once again.
If there’s a hangover from the title, this is where you’ll find it. Red Sox pitchers tossed an extra 142.1 high-stress innings in the playoffs, and most of those innings fell on the shoulders of their stout starters. Ace Jon Lester, for instance, saw his season total jump from 213 innings to 248, while John Lackey climbed from 189.1 to 215.1. Prior World Series winners have watched their starters suffer in ensuing seasons, and with a shortened winter of rest, the Red Sox will be jumping right back into the fire. The most fascinating hurler to watch will be Lester, whose regular season was workmanlike (15–8, 3.75) but whose postseason was otherworldly (4–1, 1.56). In the second half, he regained a 97 mph fastball and 93 mph cutter pretty much out of nowhere, and he looked like a Cy Young contender. If he maintains that form while seeking a contract extension, watch out. The rest of the rotation could go either way. Righthander Clay Buchholz led the Cy Young race until a June shoulder injury shelved him for three months. He survived on guts thereafter, but the Sox want to see more than 16 starts. Lackey, meanwhile, will need to be monitored after throwing so many innings in his return from Tommy John. Veterans Jake Peavy and Ryan Dempster are vying with lefthanders Felix Doubront and Chris Capuano for the final two spots, with Dempster and Capuano likely the odd men out.
Koji Uehara: Greatest closer of all time? For half a season, anyway, it’s hard to argue anyone’s ever been better. The trick for the 39-year-old (on April 3) will be even roughly approximating his 2013 season for the ages, when he went 4–1 with a 1.09 ERA and 21 saves before allowing just one run and no walks in 13 lockdown postseason appearances. He’s far from alone. The Red Sox boast one of the deepest bullpens in the game, and there’s no secret to its success — throwing strikes. Uehara, righthander Junichi Tazawa and free-agent acquisition Edward Mujica combined to whiff 219 and walk only 26 last year. The return from a broken foot of lefthander Andrew Miller (14.1 K/9) should bolster a solid group that also includes lefty Craig Breslow and rookie righty Brandon Workman. There’s plenty of depth, too, with offseason acquisition Burke Badenhop — who’s tough on righthanders — and Dempster and Capuano also in the mix.
Rookie of the Year and MVP of the past, meet Rookie of the Year and MVP of the future. In second baseman Dustin Pedroia and Bogaerts, a shortstop, the Red Sox boast a pair of homegrown talents who could turn double plays for the next eight years. Pedroia is anxious to retake the field after playing all of last season with a torn thumb ligament that required November surgery. Bogaerts, meanwhile, proved wise beyond his years at age 21 in the playoffs and is a franchise-caliber talent. The Red Sox can only hope this pair is magic.
As the Red Sox watched free agents depart over the winter, they steadfastly maintained that they wanted Mike Napoli back, and the feeling was mutual. The slugging first baseman turned down at least one three-year offer to re-sign for two years and $32 million, bringing the beard back to Boston. Napoli set a franchise record for strikeouts (187) but more than compensated with homers (23), RBIs (a career-high 92), and a penchant for drama, living up to his reputation as a star on the brightest stage. The other side is murky, thanks to a sophomore slump out of third baseman Will Middlebrooks, who looked like a lineup anchor before becoming unmoored. If Middlebrooks struggles, prospect Garin Cecchini could get the call.
With Ellsbury gone, this group will have a new look. Bradley is a ball-hawking center fielder who struggled in his introduction to big-league pitching, batting just .189. However, his minor-league numbers track very closely to Ellsbury’s at a similar age, and the Red Sox believe in his on-base ability. But just as the Red Sox were prepared to hand him the job in center, along came the long lost Grady Sizemore. That's right. The once promising megastar for the Cleveland Indians, Sizemore is in camp with Boston and making believers everyday that he can be the center fielder. Right fielder Shane Victorino will be looking to defend his Gold Glove and once again come up clutch. The left field tandem of Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava, meanwhile, brings tough at-bats and the ability to win a game with one swing. Gomes, in particular, is an underrated defender, while Nava merely finished fifth in the American League in on-base percentage.
And here’s where the Red Sox rolled the dice. Once they benched Saltalamacchia in the World Series, it became clear they’d be in the market for a new backstop this winter. The only question was whether they’d open the purse strings for free agent Brian McCann. They didn’t, and then they missed out on Philadelphia’s Carlos Ruiz, too. That left them in scramble mode, and they settled on veteran A.J. Pierzynski, a 37-year-old who doesn’t exactly embody their ideals as a hitter (.297 OBP in 2013), but who was willing to sign for one year while prospects Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart develop.
No designated hitter has earned enshrinement in the Hall of Fame, but with all due respect to Edgar Martinez, David Ortiz is making the strongest case yet. When last we spied Big Papi, he was rampaging through the Cardinals to the tune of a .688 average and World Series MVP. Even at age 38, Ortiz remains by far the best designated hitter in baseball, which gives the Red Sox a huge advantage at a position that has strangely become a state of flux elsewhere. As for the bench, Jonathan Herrera comes aboard from Colorado to man second, third and short, while Mike Carp has the flexibility to play first or the outfield. Also returning is David Ross, widely considered the best backup catcher in baseball.
The Red Sox could not be in better hands. Cherington just won the Executive of the Year Award — a piece of hardware that somehow eluded predecessors Theo Epstein and Dan Duquette — and John Farrell finished second to good friend Terry Francona in the AL Manager of the Year race. Cherington and Farrell work in perfect harmony, with similar views on franchise building and lineup construction that reflect Farrell’s wealth of experience as a farm director and pitching coach. Also deserving credit is John Henry’s ownership group, which not only recognized the flaws in their over-reliance on free agency but also empowered Cherington to make the changes that resulted in a title.
The Red Sox need to be realistic about teams that come out of nowhere — they often return there. While the Sox could certainly contend for another World Series and will be right in the thick of the AL East race, they’re more likely to cede the stage. Last year they avoided major injuries (besides Buchholz) and got bounce-back years from virtually all of their 30-something free agents. Those players are now a year older, and an injury to Ortiz or Pedroia or even Victorino could be devastating. On the flip side, they’re beginning the process of getting younger with Bogaerts and Bradley, but entrusting two vital defensive positions to rookies generally isn’t a World Series-winning strategy, at least in Year 1. It’s Years 2 and beyond that have the Red Sox so excited.
LF Daniel Nava (S)
He may not be the leadoff prototype — he’s slow, and will platoon with Jonny Gomes — but he gets on base.
RF Shane Victorino (S)
The key for the Flyin’ Hawaiian will be staying healthy — back and hamstring troubles slowed him last year.
2B Dustin Pedroia (R)
The hope is that offseason thumb surgery allows Pedroia to regain the pop that made him an MVP.
DH David Ortiz (L)
The best DH in baseball history has shown no signs of slowing down but will be hard-pressed to top 2013.
1B Mike Napoli (R)
Strikeouts are just part of a package that thankfully includes homers and clutch hits.
SS Xander Bogaerts (R)
The rookie gets his first crack at a full-time job, and the expectation is that he’ll one day be a superstar.
C A.J. Pierzynski (L)
Free swinger doesn’t really fit the Sox mold offensively, but he was best one-year solution.
3B Will Middlebrooks (R)
The pressure will be on the youngster, who could lose his job to farmhand Garin Cecchini if he struggles again.
CF Jackie Bradley Jr. (L)
The plan all along had been to replace Jacoby Ellsbury with Bradley, who must prove he’s ready.
OF Jonny Gomes (R)
The spiritual and emotional leader of the team can also play a little, especially against lefthanders.
UT Mike Carp (L)
Carp knows his role — produce as a pinch-hitter and spot starter, even if it means sporadic at-bats.
INF Jonathan Herrera (S)
The Red Sox wanted protection around the infield, and Herrera provides it at three positions.
C David Ross (R)
Baseball’s best backup catcher is recovered from two concussions and will probably start around 60 games.
LH Jon Lester
Lester was a postseason monster (4–1, 1.56), and the Red Sox hope it carries over.
RH Clay Buchholz
Buchholz must prove he can stay healthy, because there’s no questioning his ability when he’s on the field.
RH John Lackey
Fans were chanting Lackey’s name by the end of 2013, when he looked like the ace he was with the Angels.
RH Jake Peavy
Peavy is trade bait and may not make it through the season, but as far as No. 4 starters go, he’s rock solid.
LH Felix Doubront
Veteran Chris Capuano will also be in the running for this spot, but Doubront has far more dynamic stuff.
RH Koji Uehara (Closer)
Attempting to duplicate one of the best seasons by any reliever, ever. He pounds the strike zone relentlessly.
LH Andrew Miller
Assuming his broken foot is healed, Miller is a weapon as a power arm who can dominate lefties and righties.
RH Junichi Tazawa
Had moments last year when it appeared he’d fall out of favor, but he rallied in the playoffs (1–0, 1.23).
LH Craig Breslow
Emerged as one of the team’s most dependable setup men and is a legitimate eighth-inning option.
RH Edward Mujica
Under-the-radar signing of the Cardinals’ deposed All-Star closer provides insurance if Uehara falters.
RH Burke Badenhop
Acquired from the Brewers because of his right-on-right ability (.574 OPS against in 2013).
LH Chris Capuano
The veteran lefty can get tough lefthanders as well as take sporadic spot starts.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Trey Ball, LHP
For all the excitement over arms like Henry Owens, Brandon Workman, Matt Barnes, and Anthony Ranaudo, the highest ceiling may just belong to this former two-way standout. Scouted as a pitcher and center fielder, the 6'6" Ball went No. 7 overall to the Red Sox, who loved his mix of low-90s fastball, plus changeup and improving curveball. They signed him away from a scholarship to the University of Texas with a $2.75 million bonus. As is often the case with first-year pitchers, the Red Sox took things slowly with Ball, who made just five starts in the Gulf Coast League totaling seven innings (0–1, 6.43). He projects to open the season at Class A Greenville, and the Red Sox are in no rush to get him to the big leagues. Rival executives believe the 19-year-old could be posting numbers as eye-opening as Owens’ once he gets a couple of years under his belt.
RHP Matt Barnes (23)
Power pitcher with some command issues could join back of rotation in 2015 or maybe become a closer.
LHP Henry Owens (21)
The 6'6" southpaw is one of the best prospects in the game. Led minors in opponents’ average (.177), second in Ks (169).
RHP Allen Webster (24)
Has tremendous pure stuff, with a sinker that has approached 100 mph, but confidence is a major issue.
3B Garin Cecchini (22)
The minor-league leader in OBP (.443) could be here quickly if Will Middlebrooks struggles.
C Blake Swihart (21)
The athletic switch-hitter has a Buster Posey-like build (6'1", 175) and 20-homer potential.
2B Mookie Betts (21)
He may be a man without a position, thanks to Dustin Pedroia, but he’s got surprising power and speed.
Beyond the Box Score
Rich enough Think Dustin Pedroia is upset about Robinson Cano getting $240 million from the Mariners just months after Pedroia signed an extension that will earn him $109 million in that time? Guess again. Pedroia has a pet response when told he’s underpaid: “Are you kidding? I’m as rich as (expletive).”
Souvenir The Red Sox had one goal from the start of spring training — to ride Boston’s famous duck boats, which is how the city fetes its champions. Jake Peavy took that desire one step further, cutting a check for $75,000 and transporting one of the amphibious World War II era vehicles to his ranch in Alabama, where he intends to paint it Red Sox colors.
Magic Mike Mike Napoli put his money where his mouth is. The slugging first baseman — last seen wandering the streets of Boston shirtless following the World Series title — maintained all along he didn’t want to leave, and he proved it by leaving a three-year offer on the table from another club to re-sign for two years and $32 million. “This is where I want to be,” Napoli says.
Switching back Leg injuries forced postseason hero Shane Victorino to bat only right-handed from August on, and he excelled. This season, however, he plans to resume switch-hitting. “I worked so hard to be a switch-hitter,” he says. “I don’t want to stop.”
Shagadelic Rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. is considered a potential Gold Glover in center, and it traces back to a unique practice he calls “power shagging.” Rather than just catch lazy fly balls during batting practice, Bradley turns every swing into a game situation, sprinting from gap to gap and watching the hitter in the box intently. “I’m always trying to work on something,” he says. “You might see the same ball in a game.”
Closing strong Closer Koji Uehara’s teammates have grown to love him not just because of his indomitable stuff, but his sense of humor. The 38-year-old constantly complained about his age and would jokingly answer calls to warm up with, “No thank you.” After one comeback against the Yankees paced by the offense, Uehara burst into the clubhouse screaming, “Save for Koji!” Notes outfielder Daniel Nava: “If you can’t embrace Koji, you can’t embrace anybody.”