Complete Boston Red Sox 2014 Season Preview

Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 27, 2014

Complete Boston Red Sox 2014 Season Preview

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    It feels like a lifetime ago when one of the big question marks of spring training was whether the Boston Red Sox had the goods to bounce back from a 93-loss campaign in 2012.

    A season that sees a team win 97 games, a division title and the World Series can have that sort of effect, you know.

    The question now heading into 2014 is if the Red Sox can do it all over again. To this end, there's a built-in shred of doubt courtesy how no team has repeated as World Series champions in over a decade. Also, nobody's ignoring the reality that Boston lost some good talent over the winter.

    All the same, Opening Day being just over the horizon is our excuse to look ahead to Boston's 2014 season. So let's get to it.

    Note: All regular season stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked. Spring training stats courtesy of MLB.com.

Spring Training Recap

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    Leon Halip/Getty Images

    Record-wise, the Red Sox haven't had a great spring. They're only 9-16 in Grapefruit League play, the worst record among American League clubs.

    There have been some disappointing performances, particularly on offense. The Red Sox only have a collective .661 OPS this spring, and it's notable that David Ortiz only has a .303 OPS in 12 games. It hasn't all been roses on the mound either, as John Lackey and Felix Doubront both own spring ERAs over 9.00.

    For the most part, however, the defending champs have had it pretty good this spring.

    As I noted a couple of weeks ago, the Red Sox have enjoyed a largely controversy- and injury-free camp. They've had a little bit of both (more on the injuries in a moment), but they haven't been bitten by the injury bug the way other teams have been. It also says a lot that the biggest controversy the Red Sox have found themselves was a silly spat with the Miami Marlins.

    Also notable is that the Red Sox have enjoyed one of the most pleasant surprises of the spring. After picking him up off the scrapheap following two years lost to injuries, Grady Sizemore has turned back the clock and played like his old All-Star self in a bid to win Boston's starting center field job.

    Barring any disasters in these last few days before Opening Day, here's thinking the Red Sox would gladly do this spring over again if given the opportunity.

Injury Updates Entering Opening Day

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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    When I did my Red Sox spring training preview back in early February, I noted that the team was entering camp with a decent-sized list of injury concerns.

    That list of injury concerns has since shrunk, as players like Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz, Edward Mujica and Andrew Miller have shown no ill effects from injuries suffered in 2013, and the oft-injured Sizemore has been able to remain in one piece. 

    As for injury concerns that are still outstanding...

     

    Shane Victorino

    Victorino entered camp recovering from offseason surgery on his right thumb, and Michael Silverman of the Boston Herald reported that he was still feeling soreness in it as recently as mid-March.

    More recently, as Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal reported, Victorino had to be scratched from a Tuesday exhibition against Tampa Bay because of soreness in his left side. The same soreness resulted in him being scratched again on Wednesday.

    For now, however, the Red Sox are optimistic. According to Ian Browne of MLB.com, John Farrell said on Wednesday that Victorino "is going to be our right fielder on Opening Day."

     

    Craig Breslow

    Breslow has been battling soreness in his left shoulder this spring, and has unfortunately been ticketed for a season-opening stint on the DL for a while now. Brian MacPherson reported in early March that Red Sox manager John Farrell had all but ruled Breslow out for Opening Day.

    That Breslow pitched in a minor league game on Monday could be a tell-tale sign that the DL is in his future, as Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe noted it means Boston can back-date Breslow's DL stint.

     

    Will Middlebrooks

    Here's where things lighten up a bit. Middlebrooks hyper-extended his right middle finger (via Peter Abraham) earlier this month, but the young third baseman was able to return to Boston's lineup last week. He's fine.

     

    Jake Peavy

    Peavy suffered a classic spring training injury when he cut his left index finger with a fishing knife earlier this month. But he throws with his right hand and has since returned to make a pair of solid starts. He's also fine.

Lineup Preview

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Here's where some things are still in flux, but Boston's Opening Day lineup could look like this:

    1. Daniel Nava, LF (S)
    2. Shane Victorino, RF (R)
    3. Dustin Pedroia, 2B (R)
    4. David Ortiz, DH (L)
    5. Mike Napoli, 1B (R)
    6. Xander Bogaerts, SS (R)
    7. A.J. Pierzynski, C (L)
    8. Will Middlebrooks, 3B (R)
    9. Jackie Bradley Jr., CF (L)

    With the following players riding the bench.

    • Jonny Gomes, OF (R)
    • Mike Carp, 1B/OF (R)
    • David Ross, C (R)
    • Jonathan Herrera, INF (S)

    It's possible that a healthy Victorino will be batting leadoff on Opening Day. But No. 2 is where he spent the bulk of 2013, and Nava projects as a fine leadoff man against right-handers after posing a .411 OBP against righties in 2013.

    The other question mark is who will be in center field on Opening Day. Sizemore would appear to be the favorite for the job by virtue of his solid .306/.342/.417 batting line and surprisingly good defense this spring, but it doesn't sound like the Red Sox are ready to commit to him just yet.

    According to Alex Speier of WEEI.com, Farrell said on Tuesday that either Sizemore or Jackie Bradley Jr. will be on the roster on Opening Day. Speier also noted that Farrell hinted Sizemore might still need 40-50 more plate appearances before the Red Sox are comfortable.

    There aren't many question marks elsewhere, though. Pedroia, Ortiz and Mike Napoli should occupy spots 3-5 most days, and Xander Bogaerts' upside and recent spring surge should elevate him to the No. 6 spot behind Napoli. And while they won't get on base much, A.J. Pierzynski and Middlebrooks look like a good left-right power combo at the bottom of the lineup.

    You can expect the Red Sox to switch things up quite a bit depending on matchups, however. Mike Carp will see plenty of action against righties, and Jonny Gomes and David Ross will see their share against lefties. Just as it was in 2013, lineup depth should be one of Boston's strengths in 2014.

Rotation Preview

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Boston's season-opening rotation should look like this:

    1. Jon Lester (L)
    2. John Lackey (R)
    3. Felix Doubront (L)
    4. Jake Peavy (R)
    5. Clay Buchholz (R)

    The only thing that doesn't quite fit here is Buchholz in the No. 5 spot, as his talent and excellent performance in early 2013 say he belongs at the top of Boston's rotation. But as Peter Abraham noted on Monday, this is how they're lined up and it's not an accident that Buchholz is at the back end. 

    Here's Rob Bradford of WEEI.com:

    Reasons why Buchholz slated to be slot in No. 5: Bit of built in rest at beg of season, matchup with No. 5 starters early on

    — Rob Bradford (@bradfo) March 10, 2014

    Given his history with nagging injuries, giving Buchholz the extra rest can't hurt.

    Elsewhere, the Red Sox are obviously (and rightfully) hoping that the 9.00-plus ERAs that Lackey and Doubront have this spring don't mean anything. Peavy and Lester, on the other hand, have looked fine. Each boasts a sub-3.00 spring ERA.

    Lester has looked particularly good with a 14/3 strikeout-to-walk ratio and only seven hits allowed in 12.2 innings. He looks poised to pick up where he left off in 2013, when he finished with a 2.89 ERA in his last 16 starts before dominating in October.

    In all, it's a solid rotation that should be able to live up to the 3.84 ERA Boston starters posted last year.

Bullpen Preview

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Since Craig Breslow seems ticketed for the DL, Boston's bullpen should look like this on Opening Day:

    • Closer: Koji Uehara (R)
    • Edward Mujica (R)
    • Junichi Tazawa (R)
    • Andrew Miller (L)
    • Chris Capuano (L)
    • Burke Badenhop (R)
    • Brandon Workman (R)

    The first five guys are no-brainers, and Maureen Mullen of The Boston Globe has Badenhop in Boston's pen despite a mediocre 4.50 spring ERA. His 120 ERA+ over the last two years says it's a good bet.

    The last spot would go to Breslow, but Farrell indicated his replacement could be a guy like Workman.

    “We wouldn’t look at just a left-for-left situation,” said Farrell about filling in for Breslow. “I think earlier in the year multiple innings are going to be key."

    Workman's a starter by trade and pitched at least two innings in four of 17 relief appearances last year. And while he does have a 5.52 ERA this spring, that's hiding behind an impressive 15/2 K/BB ratio.

    Beyond these two slots, there's plenty to like about Boston's bullpen.

    Koji Uehara was a revelation as Boston's closer in the latter half of the summer. Edward Mujica is sort of an Uehara clone in how he survives off excellent command a fastball-splitter combo. Junichi Tazawa also has excellent control, and is coming off a strong 9.5 K/9 in 2013.

    Regarding the southpaws, the Red Sox missed Andrew Miller's 38.7 strikeout percentage against lefty batters after he got hurt last year, and Chris Capuano should fill the swingman void that was opened up by Ryan Dempster's sort-of retirement.

Prospects to Watch

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    The first two names here can be introduced with one word: Duh.

     

    Xander Bogaerts

    When he ranked Bogaerts as the No. 2 prospect in MLB in late January, ESPN's Keith Law (Insider article) wrote this:

    Bogaerts has explosive potential as a hitter, as the ball comes off his bat exceptionally well, and the fact he sees the ball so well and makes good decisions as a hitter bodes well for his ability to adjust to major league pitching if he's handed an everyday job in 2014.

    This should ring true for anyone who watched Bogaerts last October, as he looked poised beyond his 21 years and collected four extra-base hits between the ALCS and World Series. 

    And Bogaerts will indeed have an everyday job in 2014, taking over for Stephen Drew at shortstop. Given the lack of stability the Red Sox have had there since Nomar Garciaparra left town, it sure would be nice for the Sox if Bogaerts made good on his potential.

     

    Jackie Bradley Jr.

    The book on Bradley is that he's a plus defender in center field who projects as a top-of-the-lineup hitter. In other words: just the guy to replace Jacoby Ellsbury.

    But the jury's still out on Bradley's bat. He only posted a 69 OPS+ across 107 major league plate appearances last year and has managed just a .502 OPS this spring. Not exactly what the Red Sox were hoping for, to be sure.

    It's a fair bet that Bradley will be in center field on Opening Day, but Sizemore could quickly take his place if Bradley doesn't hit.

     

    Others

    I'm going with "Others" here because the Red Sox frankly have too many outstanding prospects to list them all individually.

    Joining Bogaerts and Bradley on Keith Law's top 100 were left-hander Henry Owens (42), right-hander Matt Barnes (89), third baseman Garin Cecchini (53), catcher Blake Swihart (56) and second baseman Mookie Betts (61). All of them are indeed worth watching.

    Also worth monitoring are two pitchers who could be called on to help in 2014: right-handers Allen Webster and Anthony Ranaudo. Elsewhere, keep an eye on lefty hurler Trey Ball, whom the Red Sox picked No. 7 overall in the 2013 draft.

    Long story short: Yeah, it's a deep farm system.

Breakout Candidates

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Bogaerts and Bradley are the two easy picks for breakout candidates, but I've already introduced them. After them, I don't see any reason to deviate from the two guys I picked when I did my spring preview.

     

    Will Middlebrooks

    What Middlebrooks has done this spring has to be taken with a grain of salt. In addition to it being, you know, spring training, Middlebrooks' .341/.383/.636 line has been compiled against less than MLB-level competition, according to Baseball-Reference.com's "OppQual" stat.

    Still, Middlebrooks does have the look of a good right-handed power source based on what he did in 2012 (15 homers and .221 ISO) and his last 41 games of 2013 (eight homers and .200 ISO). He may play only average defense at third with a low OBP, but the Red Sox will take it if it comes with 25 or so homers.

     

    Felix Doubront

    Doubront's 9.64 spring ERA looks ugly, but all the ugliness has come in his last two outings. He had pitched six scoreless innings with six strikeouts and no walks in his first two outings, and overall I'd say the outlook for Doubront in 2014 is still positive.

    He ended 2013 on a strong note with a 3.55 ERA in his last 22 starts. He also showed up to camp in better shape than he did in 2013, and he recently had pitching coach Juan Nieves singing his praises.

    “Overall, the path of his delivery, the way that the arm is working, his body — he looks almost two months into the season,” Nieves told the Globe.

    Simply sustaining what he did in his final 22 starts of 2013 would do for a breakout for Doubront. If he takes the next step, the Red Sox could have one of the American League's top starting staffs.

Top Keys to Success

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    It all starts with the one thing every team needs: good health.

    The Red Sox didn't survive 2013 unscathed, but they were one of MLB's healthier teams. Per data compiled by Jeff Zimmerman for FanGraphs, Boston was in the middle of the pack in DL days last year.

    But the matter of good health is even more pressing for the Red Sox heading into 2014. It's not unheard of for teams to fall apart a year after winning the World Series. And while the Red Sox are a deep team with a deep farm system, there's surely a limit to how much they can take.

    Beyond health, there's no understating how important it is that the Red Sox find a way to replace the production Drew and Ellsbury gave them last year. According to FanGraphs, they combined for 9.2 WAR.

    Bogaerts could have a big hand in making up for that lost production, but the Red Sox will have issues if neither Bradley nor Sizemore proves to be the answer in center field. If that happens, don't be surprised if the Red Sox dip into their assets to find an answer on the trade market.

    If I had to pick one more big key, it's Big Papi's production in the middle of the lineup. He's been superb with a 161 OPS+ over the last three seasons, but there's still that nagging sense that Ortiz is getting too old to maintain such excellent production. That he hasn't had a good spring doesn't help.

    There's plenty else that needs to go right, of course. But if the Red Sox can stay healthy, offset the losses of Drew and Ellsbury and get more monster production out of Big Papi, they should be alright.

Previewing Red Sox's Opening Series

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    Greg Fiume/Getty Images

    The Red Sox will open their 2014 season in Baltimore. And because the Orioles officially tabbed Wei-Yin Chen as their third starter on Tuesday, the pitching matchups should be:

    • March 31: Jon Lester vs. Chris Tillman (R)
    • April 2: John Lackey vs. Ubaldo Jimenez (R)
    • April 3: Felix Doubront vs. Wei-Yin Chen (L)

    Tillman had a hand in crafting Baltimore's 11-8 record against the Red Sox in 2013, winning three games with a 2.65 ERA against them in six starts. Lester, on the other hand, only had a 4.70 ERA in four starts against Baltimore. Thus, the O's should like the sound of the first matchup.

    Better for the Red Sox is how Jimenez didn't fare so well in his only start against them in 2013, allowing seven earned runs in an inning and a third. Given that Lackey posted a 3.34 ERA against the O's in four starts, the matchup in the second game looks pretty good for the Red Sox.

    Doubront wasn't so good against Baltimore last year, posting a 7.11 ERA against them in three outings. But Chen was slightly worse against Boston, posting a 7.29 ERA in four starts with 33 hits in 21 innings.

    Boston beat up lefty starters in general last year, knocking them around to the tune of a .779 OPS that ranked second in MLB. Guys like Jonny Gomes and David Ross did their part, and you can expect to see them in the lineup for the first time this season against Chen.

    Another thing helping Boston's cause is Manny Machado's injury absence, as O's manager Buck Showalter confirmed this week that the young third baseman won't be ready for Opening Day. After he posted a .915 OPS against them in 2013, the Red Sox won't be missing Machado.

     

2014 Red Sox Season Outlook

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    Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

    FanGraphs' projections have the Red Sox winning the AL East again in 2014. Baseball Prospectus' projections, however, have them finishing second behind the Tampa Bay Rays.

    The latter sounds like the more plausible scenario to me.

    I don't question whether the Red Sox have the talent to win the division again. Even with their various question marks, they certainly do. Their offense has a strong core of veterans to lean on, and they have a good rotation backed by a deep bullpen.

    But call it a hunch that things just aren't going to go as swimmingly for the Red Sox as they did last year. Weird things tend to happen with World Series winners the following year, and the Red Sox don't play in a division where it'll be easy to survive a trend of weird things.

    Since the Red Sox will still be a good team, though, I'll call it...

    Record: 91-71

    Finish: 2nd in AL East

    Playoffs: Wild Card