Spring Training Preview: Ranking the Most Important Red Sox Heading into 2014

Matt Appel@@mattappelContributor IIFebruary 8, 2014

Spring Training Preview: Ranking the Most Important Red Sox Heading into 2014

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    Associated Press/Charlie Riedel

    At this point last year, the Boston Red Sox were coming off a last-place finish, had a new manager, and were picked by practically no one to compete for the AL East crown. Now, they're baseball's reigning champion, and fully equipped to make another strong October push. 

    The last time the Red Sox repeated as World Series champions, Woodrow Wilson was running for re-election under the promise that the United States would not get involved in World War I. Boston's chase for another title consists of a roster mostly unchanged from last year, save for Jacoby Ellsbury's departure for the Bronx. Strong performances will once again be needed from key players such as David Ortiz, Koji Uehara and Clay Buchholz

    However, the team's ultimate success will come down to much more than the play of those three. Young players, including Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr., will be asked to take on a larger role. In an effort to rank the order of Red Sox Nation's most important members, there are a number of criteria to consider:

    • What is the depth at that player's position? If that player goes down, does it create severe turmoil, or can the team survive?
    • Did the player's performance last year help put the team over the top? More so, if that player repeats that performance or regresses, how much will that impact wins and losses?
    • Could a breakout season from this player mean a better chance of getting back to the Fall Classic? This player has some question marks, but certainly has the capability of doing big things.

    As pitchers and catchers get ready to report to Fort Myers on Feb. 15, let's take a look at the most important Red Sox for the upcoming season.  

     

    All statistics used are from Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. 

Honorable Mentions

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    Mike Napoli will be counted on to re-create his 2013 success this upcoming year
    Mike Napoli will be counted on to re-create his 2013 success this upcoming yearAssociated Press/Paul Sancya

    The 2013 Red Sox had so many players come out of nowhere to either have bounce-back or career years. With the team still mostly intact, one could make an argument that practically half the roster could fit the criteria of "most important." That group includes Will Middlebrooks, Mike Napoli and John Lackey

    Middlebrooks is looking to get back on the path to realizing his potential after a tough 2013. In 19 more games, the third baseman had fewer RBI's and only two more home runs than he did in his rookie campaign the previous year. There was also a 45-game stint at Triple-A Pawtucket for him last summer. However, things seemed to click upon his recall, as he blasted six long balls in September. ESPN.com's David Schoenfield said of Middlebrooks, "[he] may never hit for a high average but he should improve upon his .227 overall mark and could hit 30 home runs if he plays 150 games."

    The most incredible aspect of Napoli's very successful 2013 was the fact he almost didn't sign with the team after hip concerns flared up during the offseason. It wound up being one of Napoli's best years to date, with countless big hits and a career-high 92 runs driven in. He was rewarded with a two-year, $32 million deal and will be relied upon to re-create that production in 2014. With a lineup that is far from solidified, Boston will certainly sign up for another set of 38 doubles from Napoli, the team's everyday first baseman. 

    The Red Sox finally saw a return last season on their $82.5 million investment on John Lackey. After two sub-par seasons and a campaign totally erased thanks to Tommy John surgery, the right-hander was the team's best starter not named Jon Lester that was healthy for the whole year. His 3.52 ERA was his lowest since 2007 and he continued that success over to the postseason. Between the ALCS win over Detroit and the World Series against the Cardinals, Lackey went 2-1 with a 1.78 ERA, which included the championship-clinching win in Game 6. The rotation for the Sox is deep, and in a contract year, another strong campaign from Lackey could push them back into October. 

    (Note the omissions of Jon Lester and Dustin Pedroia. Year in and year out, their performances are very predictable for the most part. Two players in their prime aren't exactly "X-factors," but clearly Boston will need them to contribute to win big.)

5. Xander Bogaerts

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    Xander Bogaerts is a star in the making, but is 2014 his breakout year?
    Xander Bogaerts is a star in the making, but is 2014 his breakout year?Associated Press

    Bogaerts is an interesting case, as he's not an absolute sure thing to be the team's Opening Day shortstop, as the return of Stephen Drew is still a possibility. However, big things will be expected of the 21-year-old if he's in the lineup on Opening Day. Between the minors and Boston, Bogaerts hit .297, but a .388 on-base percentage and .865 OPS are numbers that really stand out. 

    ESPN.com's Keith Law rated Bogaerts as the No. 2 prospect in all of baseball coming into this season, behind only Byron Buxton. According to Law, the Aruba native's potential is high enough for him to be one of the league's best players. 

    "Although his frame could allow him to get too big for the position, he's maintained his conditioning well enough to stay at short for the near future, and the possibility of a 25- to 30-homer bat with strong on-base skills at that position gives Boston strong incentive to leave him there. He could be Troy Tulowitzki with a little less arm, and that's an MVP-caliber player."

    While the Red Sox shouldn't reasonably expect that sort of production at this stage, there's no doubt Bogaerts can be more than a league-average shortstop in 2014. His ZiPS projections of .267/16 HR/65 RBI/.331 OBP for this upcoming season from Fangraphs would qualify him as an upgrade from Stephen Drew's 2013. 

    There is always the possibility that it takes longer than expected for Bogaerts to adjust to major league pitching on an everyday basis. He will undoubtedly be a part of the long-term plans for the organization, and if he is able to make the leap in 2014, he immediately becomes a key contributor on a team with championship aspirations. 

4. Jackie Bradley Jr.

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    With no Jacoby Ellsbury, Jackie Bradley Jr. will need to improve at the plate
    With no Jacoby Ellsbury, Jackie Bradley Jr. will need to improve at the plateUSA Today Sports/Anthony Grupusso

    Many thought that 2013 would be the year that Jackie Bradley Jr. emerged as a factor for the Red Sox. After a great spring training, Bradley Jr. struggled mightily out of the gate, and finished the year with a paltry .189 average in 95 at-bats.

    With no Jacoby Ellsbury, Boston can't afford another miserable start from Bradley Jr. As insurance, Grady Sizemore was brought on board, creating somewhat of a competition in center. Bradley Jr. still has the inside track, mainly because of what he provides defensively. The 23-year-old "could save 10 or more runs a year on defense", according to Keith Law. Law ranked Bradley Jr. as the 51st best overall prospect in baseball and says there is certainly reason to believe Bradley Jr. can make strides with the bat. 

    "His ideal game is plus-plus defense in center with a high OBP at the plate and fringy power, maybe 10 to 15 homers a year; when he tries to over-rotate to hit the ball out to right, he expands his zone and makes less contact as a result. Staying short to the ball and focusing on going line-to-line rather than trying to hit for power should make him an above-average regular, with OBPs in the .360 to .380 range."

    The length of the leash for Bradley Jr. depends on his start and if the organization thinks they can make the most of whatever is left of Sizemore. The spotlight will be shining very brightly on the young center fielder, as he will be expected to make the loss of Ellsbury as much as a non-factor as possible. 

3. Koji Uehara

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    How will Koji Uehara follow up his remarkable 2013?
    How will Koji Uehara follow up his remarkable 2013?Getty Images/Mike Ehrmann

    11.22. That was Koji Uehara's strikeout-to-walk ratio last year. He threw a "hidden" perfect game, retiring 37 straight hitters at one point. Despite not becoming the full-time closer until June, he still managed to place seventh in AL Cy Young voting. He was the ALCS MVP. It was, simply, one of the most impressive years ever by a reliever. 

    Can he replicate that in 2014? It isn't practical to expect another year like last year for Uehara, but his season will be judged mainly on how close he comes to those numbers. Boston has arguably one of the best bullpens in baseball with Craig Breslow, Junichi Tazawa and Andrew Miller returning. Edward Mujica was also brought on board as a free agent. 

    However, a bullpen is really only as good as its closer. Uehara's ERA could go up a full run and still be impressive, but Boston's advantage late in games would be lessened from where it was last year. The right-hander helped save a bullpen that seemed headed for disaster thanks to injuries to both Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan.

    This year, Uehara is being looked at as one of the best closers in the entire league. If the Japanese native can do his best to repeat his best year, which included a strikeouts per nine innings average of 12.2 (which would've ranked first in the league if he had enough innings), the ninth inning will be a relaxing one for John Farrell, and the Red Sox will have a shot at defending their crown. 

2. Clay Buchholz

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    Buchholz's health could be the biggest deterrent to a big 2014
    Buchholz's health could be the biggest deterrent to a big 2014USATSI

    Clay Buchholz might have been well on his way to a Cy Young last year before a neck strain sidelined him for the summer. Even with the frustration of missing a good deal of what could have been a truly special season, few pitchers were as dominant as Buchholz last year when on the mound.

    The right-hander finished 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA and his strong start was enough to earn him an All-Star nod, even with the injury. If Buchholz can stay healthy and even come close to putting up the numbers he did last year, the duo of him and Lester will be one of the most formidable combinations in the league.

    However, that is a big "if." Buchholz has never made 30 starts in a season, and has made less than 20 three times in the past five seasons. John Farrell said last month that there are "no more issues" with Buchholz in regard to last year's injuries, but there is certainly a strong case to be made that the 29-year-old is injury-prone. 

    The greatest strength for Boston is their starting pitching depth, which would imply that Buchholz isn't that valuable. Keep in mind, however, that going into last year, the Red Sox bullpen was heralded as extremely deep, a narrative that quickly disappeared for three months before Uehara's emergence. John Lackey could regress. Jake Peavy could get hurt. Ryan Dempster and Felix Doubront are far from sure things. 

    Buchholz has the potential to be on the short list of the best pitchers in baseball. Boston might have to rely more on its pitching than it did last year, and will be unable to do so without a healthy and effective Buchholz. 

     

1. David Ortiz

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    The face of the franchise, Ortiz remains the team's most important player
    The face of the franchise, Ortiz remains the team's most important playerREUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

    The Red Sox go as Big Papi goes. Ortiz further solidified himself as one of the best players in franchise history by winning the World Series MVP award following his seventh season of at least 30 homers and 100 RBI. He is the face of the team, and even at the age of 38, still terrorizes pitchers on a nightly basis.

    2014 will be a very important year for Ortiz and the Sox going forward. Ortiz wants a one-year, $15 million contract extension to his deal which is set to expire after this year ends. So far, the team has not appeared in any sort of rush to meet that request. 

    Sports Illustrated's Jay Jaffe says that even if the price tag for a player of his age, the Red Sox would be best off getting a deal done for the beloved designated hitter.

    "If all Ortiz is truly seeking is a one-year extension to his current deal, general manager Ben Cherington would be better off forgoing the hardball negotiations and taking care of business now rather than letting the issue linger, to say nothing of allowing him to depart to finish his career elsewhere — say, in pinstripes, taking aim at the short porch in Yankee Stadium’s rightfield. Even is the team has to overpay him by a few million, if anyone has earned the right to finish his career with the Red Sox, it’s the linchpin of their three titles."

    Ortiz's ranking of No. 1 on this list as a player at the tail end of his career indicates his true value to the team. Few players have meant as much to a team and a city as Ortiz. On the field, he is still the team's biggest producer on offense. With the Red Sox unlikely to match last season's run total of 863, it has never been more crucial for Ortiz to remain healthy and productive. 

    If Ortiz doesn't get his contract wishes granted, that will serve as all the motivation he needs to put up another stellar season.