With spring training coming to a close, the Boston Red Sox stand poised to defend their World Series title as they head towards the 2014 regular season.
It has been a tumultuous offseason for the Red Sox in some aspects. The team lost its perennial All-Star center fielder and leadoff hitter Jacoby Ellsbury to the rival New York Yankees via free agency.
Boston also had to replace its No. 1 catcher by adding veteran A.J. Pierzynski.
There were some bullpen additions, a key starting assignment for a top-ranked prospect and competition for the Red Sox's starting center field position.
So how well-prepared are the Red Sox when it comes to seeking out a back-to-back World Series championship? Is this team poised to repeat, or will Boston suffer a letdown—the proverbial postseason "hangover" that has often plagued teams in years prior?
As the regular season draws near, let us take a look at the various elements within the Red Sox organization and determine what likes and dislikes this author has entering 2014.
We shall consider some of the offseason changes as well as the ongoing nature and development of both aging veterans and young players.
In addition, we shall not overlook Boston's deep and talented pool of prospects poised to break into major league camp in coming seasons.
Repeating as World Series champions will be a difficult task for the Red Sox to master in 2014.
Regardless of how talented a team is, the prospects for a repeat are tough at best. It is no mistake that the last team to accomplish this feat was 14 years ago when the New York Yankees won three titles in a row.
The best, most recent example is that of the San Francisco Giants—winners of the 2010 and 2012 World Series. In each season following their respective fall crowns, the Giants suffered the aforementioned hangover, enduring relatively lackluster seasons in the wake of securing the World Series trophy.
Even in Boston's previous two championships, the team fell short of a repeat—losing out in the ALDS and ALCS in 2005 and 2008, respectively.
We all know the simple story.
Playing deep into October taxes every player and coach within a championship organization. Yes, some teams can overcome this obstacle and remain perennial contenders—the St. Louis Cardinals are a prime example.
Yet we cannot underestimate the problems associated with World Series repeats. They are difficult in any description or evaluation.
So how will this affect the Red Sox in 2014?
First, we can pay attention to Boston's rotation. Veterans like John Lackey and Jake Peavy are reaching the twilight of their careers. In addition, Clay Buchholz's apparent frailty is always a concern. Will these factors weigh in come the regular season?
And as far as pitching is concerned, will 38-year-old closer Koji Uehara be able to retain the same dominance he enjoyed last year when considering his age?
Then there is the offense.
Last season, Boston led the league in runs scored (853) and ranked second in team batting average (.277). Should we expect any sort of falloff in these categories, especially considering some of the changes to Boston's lineup?
Yes, repeating will be tough. We have established that. Yet the Red Sox are certainly not content with laying down and relinquishing their championship crown.
With that in mind, let us turn to what we should like and dislike about this team moving forward.
This author follows a simple phrase—good news can wait, bad news cannot. With that in mind, let us get the dislikes out of the way.
I would love to be a homer and tell you all the things I like about Boston's chances. Yet that would be ignoring some significant facts and facets.
There are more than just a couple of concerns facing the Red Sox in 2014. To what extent these dislikes and concerns come to fruition is yet to be determined, but let us take a closer look at what problems may hinder Boston this season.
Age as a whole has to be a concern here. Players like Pierzynski, David Ross, David Ortiz and Uehara are all in their late 30s.
Remember, father time always wins.
The Pitching—Age and Health
First, let us look at the starting rotation. Fortunately, we can all but forget about No. 1 ace Jon Lester being a problem in 2014. He'll be fine. Behind him is slated Lackey, Felix Doubront, Peavy and Buchholz per Ricky Doyle of NESN.com.
Lackey is 35 years old and Peavy, slightly younger, will turn 33 years old this May. While he was the feel-good story of the Red Sox rotation last year, can Lackey come close to replicating the success he enjoyed in 2013?
Matt Snyder of CBS Sports predicts that Lackey could be headed to an All-Star game in 2014, although this author is not so sure. Call it a gut feeling, but I could see a drop off from his 2013 3.52 ERA and 1.157 WHIP last year as his age starts to show itself.
Peavy is another pitcher in similar mold and has similar questions regarding his age.
Then there is 26-year-old Doubront. At this point in his four-year career, the Red Sox are likely entering that make-it, or break-it phase with the talented, yet inconsistent lefty.
An inconsistent spring training has opened up more of the same questions about Doubront and his velocity—elements described further by Doyle.
Even more lingering concerns surround Buchholz—his health being a primary question.
Buchholz has pitched in 20-plus games only twice in his seven-year career. When he is healty, Buchholz has ace-like stuff. The problem is Buchholz rarely stays healthy over the course of a season.
Buchholz has stated he feels healthy entering the season via Jason Mastrodonato of MassLive.com, but the regular season will be the ultimate test and the past numbers are hard to ignore.
If Buchholz misses significant time, the Red Sox will likely turn to a spot starter like Chris Capuano—an offseason acquisition I like—or rookie Brandon Workman who has struggled thus far in spring training.
Four of five of Boston's slated starters draw some questions from this author. Given the importance of starting pitching, having so many concerns at such a vital aspect of the team should raise question marks.
While I also think Uehara will be just as effective, it is hard to overlook the fact that he will be 39 years old this season—again begging the question when age becomes a factor.
Lack of a True Leadoff Hitter
The loss of Ellsbury hurts this team more than we would like to admit.
In an ideal world, the Red Sox probably would have liked to have Ellsbury under contract for at least one more season. This would have given his probable replacement, Jackie Bradley Jr., one more season to develop in the minors before assuming the role.
But things do not always happen ideally and this situation is no different.
With a .189 batting average in a limited 2013 campaign, and subsequent struggles in spring training, the question remains the same—can Bradley hit at the major league level?
Even if he could, the Red Sox would likely not place him in Ellsbury's leadoff role. They also probably won't tab offseason acquisition Grady Sizemore as the team's No. 1 hitter given his injury history.
The competition for Boston's leadoff hitter comes down to Shane Victorino and Daniel Nava per Doyle.
Based on experience alone, Victorino would have the edge—he has 1,010 career plate appearances in the 1-slot compared to Nava's 170.
Yet Victorino's career splits are not particularly awe-inspiring when it comes to getting on base. He has a career .249 batting average and .317 on-base percentage.
Ellsbury was critical as the table setter in the Red Sox's lineup last year. While nobody can truly fill his shoes, Boston will need to get some sort of significant production out of the 1-slot in 2014.
Howard Ulman of Yahoo! Sports summed this up by writing:
Still, the lineup is based on getting runners on base before the best hitters start batting in the third, fourth and fifth spots. So that ability to reach base is critical. Last year those spots were filled most of the time by [Dustin] Pedroia, Ortiz and Mike Napoli.
Can Victorino assume the role effectively? Perhaps, but the splits make me wonder.
With Boston unlikely to carry six outfielders on their 25-man roster, the final outfield spot is probably going to come between Bradley and Sizemore with Victorino, Nava, Jonny Gomes and Mike Carp assuming the remaining four slots.
We've discussed Bradley's problems at the plate thus far. We also touched on Sizemore's injury-riddled career.
Pick your poison.
I am also not convinced that third baseman Will Middlebrooks will have a bouce-back season in 2014. While he has indicated that he expects a rebound per Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe, his approach at the plate is still something that worries me.
In reality, the Red Sox are likely looking at Middlebrooks' future beyond 2014 and seeing how he performs given that another young prospect—Garin Cecchini—is waiting in the folds.
Enough of the concerns. Let us focus on what the Red Sox have going for them.
One thing that gives Boston plenty of confidence is their clubhouse—a group that comprises both characters and character.
This was a big element in the team's World Series run last year and figures to be just as vital heading into 2014. While the beards may not be the focus again, one cannot overlook how tight-knit this clubhouse is. That sort of chemistry is critical to any championship team
Manager John Farrell proved his worth in 2013 and there is no reason to assume against the Red Sox having full confidence in his abilities moving forward.
Heart of the Lineup
The combination of Pedroia, Ortiz and Napoli will once again be potent in 2014.
We have touched on Ortiz's age a bit, but the 38-year-old has not showed any signs of slowing down and until that happens, he will continue to be the force in Boston's lineup.
In addition, Pedroia could bounce back from the lowly power numbers he displayed last season—nine home runs, which was the lowest in his career since 2007. Chad Finn of Boston.com feels that Pedroia is due for a power surge in 2014 now that he is fully recovered from the thumb injury that hindered his 2013 campaign.
Bringing back Napoli's RBI capabilities were also an offseason necessity.
The lineup is also stretched out by Pierzynski and rookie phenom Xander Bogaerts. While Pierzynski's age is a concern, one cannot overlook the fact that he is a career .283 hitter and owns a lifetime .300 batting average at Fenway Park.
In 2013, Boston's bullpen was a significant force in the Red Sox's World Series quest.
Uehara, Junichi Tazawa and Craig Breslow, among others, were key figures in the unit that helped ensure the Red Sox were able to carry over leads late in ballgames.
Offseason additions like Burke Badenhop, Edward Mujica and Capuano further bolster this already effective group.
Mujica has closing experience carrying over from last season in St. Louis, saving 37 games for the Cardinals last season. If for whatever reason Uehara cannot close games for Boston, expect Farrell to tab Mujica as the next in line to shut the door.
In a similar move emphasizing flexibility, the Red Sox added Capuano who can serve as Boston's long-relief man or as a spot starter.
Capuano has started 209 games over his nine-year career and would likely be the first in line if one of Boston's slated starters, like Buchholz, succumbs to injury.
Expect Boston's bullpen to again be a factor in the team's quest for a repeat.
Eveything Xander Bogaerts
Summarizing the total potential of Bogaerts would be an article in itself.
Ranked as the No. 1 prospect in baseball at shortstop by MLB.com, the Red Sox will be delighted to see what the young talent will do over the course of a full season.
Bogaerts is the primary beneficiary of Boston's choice not to re-sign shortstop Stephen Drew during the offseason. All but guaranteed to be an everyday player in 2014, Bogaerts will certainly have his growing pains, but there is too much to like about this budding star.
Snyder summed up his feelings about Bogaerts in his preview of the 2014 Red Sox by writing:
He may not meet expectations immediately and of course there's always the possibility that any prospect will be a bust, but Bogaerts' upside is huge. He's only 21 and hit .297/.388/.477 with 23 doubles and 15 homers in 116 games between Double-A and Triple-A last season. We know he won't be daunted by the big stage, either, considering he had a pair of two-hit games in St. Louis during the World Series.
All of this, and more, lend to the prediction that Bogaerts will be a special part of Red Sox teams in years to come. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
To start off the year, Bogaerts will probably be slotted deeper within Boston's lineup. Yet a strong start and showcasing his abilities to handle big league pitching may move him up in the order—thus lengthening the heart of the Red Sox's lineup.
We will have to see how Bogaerts' rookie season plays out, but all signs point to him being the real deal and we should expect nothing less.
If there are questions surrounding the age of a number of current Red Sox players on the major league roster, Boston fans can take comfort in knowing they have one of the deepest and most talented prospect pools in baseball.
Alex Speier of Baseball America summed up the nature of this prospect pool and highlighted why fans should be so excited about what the Red Sox have coming up.
We have discussed Bogaerts already and shall hopefully count on Bradley being a force in coming years.
There is also third baseman Garin Cecchini who may eventually take over duties at third base depending on what happens with Middlebrooks.
If Boston's current tandem of catchers—Pierzynski and Ross—are entering the twilight of their careers, the Red Sox can rest a bit knowing they have another tandem coming up. Blake Swihart and Christian Vazquez figure to be integral backstops for Boston in future years.
Second baseman Mookie Betts also is a player worth watching.
Then there is the plethora of pitching prospects the Red Sox have coming up. Prospects like Henry Owens, Anthony Ranaudo, Matt Barnes, Trey Ball and Allen Webster all figure to have major league potential.
Given the aforementioned questions surrounding an aging pitching staff, these reinforcements give the Red Sox plenty of flexibility over the coming years.
We may not see most of Boston's young talent this season or next, but it is worth noting that this deep pool of talent will unquestionably have an impact at some point in the near future.
In an overly negative viewpoint, the Red Sox will likely fall short of achieving a back-to-back championship in 2014. We are probably witnessing the first stages of a transition from an older cast of characters that have carried this team in recent seasons.
From the positive however, we can assume the Red Sox are transitioning to a younger group of players while ensuring they remain competitive enough to reach the playoffs and beyond.
Either way, Boston will be entering the 2014 season with expectations no short of again reaching the World Series.
There will be some obstacles and questions that arise and are solved during the season's duration, yet the Red Sox are in as good a position as any to meet those expectations.
Once the 2014 season comes to a close, we can see what elements emerged as the key factors in Boston.
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the Boston Red Sox. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.
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