When the Boston Red Sox take the field for workouts in Ft. Myers, Florida, don't expect to see a 40-man roster of World Series champions. After an offseason of free-agent defections and difficult team-building decisions, Boston is poised to head into 2014 as a different, lesser version of last year's outfit.
Yet, as of this moment, the silent Red Sox are still the American League's best team.
Jacoby Ellsbury is gone, off to help rejuvenate what was a dormant offense in the Bronx. Jarrod Saltalamacchia left for a contract with the Miami Marlins. Stephen Drew, while still available on the open market, could end up with either team in New York.
While every World Series champion forfeits contributors in the ensuing offseason, the defending champs didn't make predictable headlines to replace Ellsbury, Drew or Saltalamacchia.
Instead, small, low-risk transactions continued to be part of Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington's arsenal, leaving the Red Sox as one of the few teams atop the AL hierarchy to stay out of the headlines this winter.
The quintet of Grady Sizemore, Jonathan Herrera, Edward Mujica, Burke Badenhop and A.J. Pierzynski won't sell jerseys in Boston, but they'll do enough to supplement a core that will enter February with less questions than every other serious AL contender.
To be fair, there should be concerns in Boston. For example:
Unless Boston receives a significant jump in performance from young, ascending players like Xander Bogaerts or Jackie Bradley, it's fair to expect the offense to score less in 2014 than the juggernaut that produced a league-leading 853 runs last summer.
Barring another all-world season from Koji Uehara, the bullpen won't be quite as dominant, possibly leaving close games in the balance.
Without full, healthy seasons from Jake Peavy and Clay Buchholz, the rotation will need to use the depth assembled in the farm system, per Alex Speier of WEEI.com, to survive the AL East schedule.
Projecting another 97-win season and league-leading run differential takes some faith in the Red Sox manager John Farrell and the seemingly ageless David Ortiz.
It can also involve an introspective look at the other serious American League contenders, all of whom have questions marks even greater than the defending champs. For the sake of this exercise, the Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays—all with the potential to crash the AL postseason party—are not included right now.
When looking at the AL's best—Detroit, Texas, Tampa Bay, New York, Oakland and Cleveland—all six have bigger concerns, question marks and reasons for pessimism than the quiet version of the Boston Red Sox.
In New York, the Yankees are putting the finishing touches on a $500 million offseason spending spree that netted Brian McCann, the aforementioned Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Masahiro Tanaka, ex-Red Sox reliever Matt Thornton, Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts.
For all the positive headlines emanating out of the Bronx, the new additions will have to cover up for the losses of Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera.
Undoubtedly, the Yankees are better than their 2013 form, but it's hard to project them as a 95-win team in 2014, regardless of the cash spent to achieve that form.
Detroit, a franchise on the precipice of World Series glory for years, solidified the bullpen with Joe Nathan, replaced Omar Infante with Ian Kinsler, added the underrated Rajai Davis and will transition Miguel Cabrera back across the diamond to the less demanding position of first base.
Yet, it's hard to look at the Tigers as a dominant outfit without three familiar faces: Prince Fielder, Doug Fister and Jim Leyland.
While Fielder and Fister, respectively, were moved for the greater good of long-term payroll and roster flexibility, their talent will be missed over the 162-game season. In Leyland, new manager Brad Ausmus has gigantic shoes to fill.
Prior to Derek Holland's dog causing a slip and fall in Texas, per Richard Durrett of ESPN Dallas, the AL West powerhouse, buoyed by the additions of Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo, could have staked a claim as the league's best. It's not a stretch to expect 900-run production out of this lineup, but pitching could be an issue.
With Holland gone until mid-season or later, Texas' rotation behind Yu Darvish is, well, suspect. Matt Harrison (Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery), Colby Lewis (hip surgery) and Martin Perez (age-22 season) combined to throw a grand total of 135 innings last year.
Tampa, an AL East foe of Boston, is always competitive and dangerous, but can't be properly evaluated for 2014 until trade rumors around David Price are resolved. If the 28-year-old lefty is on board for the full season, the Rays are for real. If not, Joe Maddon will have to pull another rabbit out of his managerial cap in order to achieve excellence.
Cleveland—one of baseball's surprise stories in 2013 but lost Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir from their starting staff—is attempting to transition Carlos Santana from catcher to third base and seems unlikely to duplicate their startling success (30-17) in one-run contests.
Oddly, the Oakland Athletics, one of the teams outspending and making more headlines than the Red Sox this winter, stand the best chance to overtake them atop the AL regular-season standings. By assembling a deep, talented bullpen, adding Scott Kazmir to the rotation and returning impact bats from an offense that hit 186 home runs last year, good for third-best in baseball, per ESPN, the A's are set for a big season in 2014.
Yet, of Oakland's five projected starters, per MLB Depth Charts, only one (A.J. Griffin) threw at least 200 innings last season.
|Projected 2014 Athletics Rotation|
|Starter||2013 IP (Major and Minor Leagues)||Age|
|MLB Depth Charts|
For American League contenders, questions are in abundance. Until we begin to derive the answers, it's unfair to say that the Boston Red Sox, despite a virtually silent offseason, are anything less than the best team in the league.
The gap has been narrowed by the active Athletics, loaded Tigers, powerful Rangers and steady Rays, but the nucleus of a champion remains in Boston.
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