10 Keys to the Boston Red Sox Having Early Season Success

Evan Brunell@evanbrunellFeatured ColumnistApril 2, 2014

10 Keys to the Boston Red Sox Having Early Season Success

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    If the Boston Red Sox hope to repeat as world champions, it will all start with their play in the first couple months of the season.

    Lost in all the cliches that define the run to the pennant or a wild-card spot is the simple fact that a game won in April is just as good as a game won in September. As part of perhaps the most evenly matched division in all of baseball, a fast start will help Boston set the tone for the season.

    Plus, with key youngsters poised to make or break the hopes of the team, a fast start will help avoid the inevitable questions that surface once a team hits adversity.

    The club doesn't have one of the worst or best schedules early on, per Buster Olney of ESPN (subscription required). While it plays 28 of its first 37 games against opponents who finished 2013 with a .500 record or better, 21 of these first 37 games will be played in the cozy confines of Fenway Park, including 15 of 18 in mid-April.

    There are no excuses for a slow start—not in Boston.

    So, what are the top 10 keys to a successful early season start for the Red Sox? Let's find out.

Xander Bogaerts: Boston's Great Hope for the Future

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    Starting with his first award as a professional player—making the 2010 Dominican Summer League All-Star team—Xander Bogaerts has been viewed as the next great Red Sox hitter to come through the system.

    Not since Hanley Ramirez has someone dripping with such offensive potential rocketed up the system. After collecting a World Series ring and being honored as USA Today's 2013 Minor League Player of the Year, Bogaerts takes over at shortstop for the departed Stephen Drew.

    What was immediately apparent when he got the call last season was how cool under pressure he was and how willing he was to take pitches. His 1-for-1 showing (a double plus two walks) in Game 6 of the 2013 ALCS against the Detroit Tigers was a big reason why there was no Game 7. (OK, Shane Victorino's grand slam was a pretty good reason too.)

    Bogaerts' 30-home run potential won't manifest itself just yet, but there's no reason why he can't have an impact as big as Manny Machado did for the Baltimore Orioles last season. He doesn't need to be a superstar—or even Rookie of the Year—for the Sox's decision to play him at short to look smart.

    If the 21-year-old shows he's not quite ready for the bigs, that could force Boston's hand into bringing Stephen Drew, still lurking as a free agent, back to the squad. If Drew's playing for another team by then, Boston doesn't have any viable options for the most important defensive position in the infield.

    No pressure, kid.

Will Middlebrooks: Feast or Famine?

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    Can Will Middlebrooks reward the faith that the Sox brass displayed by handing him the third base job despite a lackluster 2013 season that saw Kevin Youkilis' replacement demoted to Triple-A?

    Middlebrooks has power oozing out of him. The problem is that his lack of plate discipline compromises that power. After all, the ball can't go over the fence if it's constantly being swung at and missed.

    A rededicated Middlebrooks showed up to spring training on a mission, impressing many with his stated intention to improve plate discipline.

    "I was over-aggressive," Middlebrooks told Alex Speier WEEI of his approach last season. "I don’t know if I was trying to hit home runs but I was just trying to hit the ball hard. There wasn’t much thought process that went into my approach, I don’t think I was consistent with my approach so it was more or less going up there and trying to hit the ball hard, seeing it hitting it, and you can’t do that at this level, you have to have a plan because the pitcher’s going to have a plan."

    Middlebrooks is on a quest this season, as it could very well determine his future in town. If he comes through, he could be a linchpin in the middle of the Sox lineup for years to come. If not, well, he has top prospect Garin Cecchini in Triple-A breathing down his neck. Cecchini is the antithesis of Middlebrooks: He can draw a walk with the best of them, but his power production is lacking.

    A big question early on will be just how much Middlebrooks can contribute to the team. If he fails, will the Sox bring Stephen Drew to Fenway Park by police car, a la Doug Mirabelli?

    And if both Middlebrooks and Xander Bogaerts struggle...uh oh.

Clay Buchholz: Now or Never

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    Clay Buchholz has a no-hitter on his resume. He also has a 17-win season under his belt and two World Series rings. Last season, through 12 starts, he was arguably the best pitcher in the league. At 11-1 with a 1.71 ERA, the Cy Young Award looked to be his for the taking.

    Then injuries struck. Buchholz landed on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation, an injury that kept him out until Sept. 10th. But after a postseason in which he proved to himself he could pitch through injury and still keep the team in the game, Buchholz's confidence should be sky-high this season.

    The right-hander has always had Cy Young Award talent, but his mental mistakes and hesitation have held him back. Now 29, Buchholz has run out of excuses and the Fenway faithful is expecting to see a full season of starts out of him, which he has yet to accomplish despite seven years of major league action.

    If Buchholz can get out of the gate early, it could create a snowball effect and give the Red Sox their first Cy Young Award winner since Pedro Martinez in 2000. But if he stumbles out of the gate, it's fair to wonder what that would do to his psyche and, by extension, to Boston's playoff hopes.

Grady Sizemore: Reality or Fantasy?

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    Once, Grady Sizemore was one of the best players in the game. He was a big reason why the Indians advanced all the way to Game 7 of the 2007 ALCS against Boston, but it was all downhill after that.

    After two full seasons away from the game due to knee problems, Grady Sizemore signed a minor league contract with Boston and went to spring training just hoping to stay on the field.

    He did that and more.

    Anointed the team's starting center fielder after a stellar spring training, the big question is this: How long can he last? Can Sizemore make it through a full season's worth of baseball games? Will his knees hold up for his bat to become a potent force again?

    Sizemore will never sniff 40 stolen bases again, but he's still capable of hitting 20-plus home runs and providing strong defense in center field. He unleashed that power on Opening Day, going yard for his first home run in a whopping 990 days. The Red Sox are certainly doing what they can to keep him healthy, per Peter Abraham of The Boston Globemapping out a plan for the first six weeks of the season to ensure he adjusts back to the major league grind.

    A healthy Sizemore would dramatically lengthen the lineup and give the club another power threat for pitchers to contend with once they get past David Ortiz and Mike Napoli. But if he's constantly in and out of the lineup, that won't do Boston any favors, especially with fellow outfielder Shane Victorino already on the disabled list.

    Having two chronically banged-up outfielders in Sizemore and Victorino could be a recipe for disaster. But if they stay on the field, it could pay off in a big way.

David Ortiz: When Will Age Catch Up?

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    At age 37 in 2013, David Ortiz did what a lot of major leaguers can't do at any age: hit 30 home runs, drive in over 100 RBI and finish with a batting average north of .300.

    The team is relying on that kind of production from Big Papi again after returning a lineup that lost Jacoby Ellsbury and is leaning on youth to get the job done at the bottom of the lineup. Ortiz is the best complete hitter on the team right now, and if this is the year when Father Time catches up to him, there will be a gaping hole in the 3-spot of the lineup.

    Before Ortiz's renaissance, he struggled in the early going from 2008 to 2010, only getting hot once the weather started to turn to the summer days. If he gets off to a slow start again, questions will start to crop up as to whether or not he's lost his edge. The Red Sox can't afford early controversy both on the field and in print.

    The DH hasn't done himself any favors with his spring training work. Just two hits in 37 at bats with two extra-base hits and 13 strikeouts is worrisome, even though spring training has never usually been his forte.

    A fast start will get these ever-watchful eyes off him, while a slow start could make things miserable real fast for him. And he knows everybody's watching.

Jackie Bradley Jr: Can He Step into the Breach?

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    As mentioned back in the Sizemore slide, the Sox have two outfielders with injury issues: Sizemore and right fielder Victorino.

    Well, these issues have already flared up, as Victorino opened the season on the disabled list with a hamstring strain. Boston recalled Jackie Bradley Jr. from Triple-A in a corresponding move. The 2011 first-round pick lost the center field job to Sizemore in spring training but now gets an opportunity to make his case again.

    Bradley won't play full time in lieu of Victorino—that job will go primarily to the platoon of Mike Carp and Jonny Gomes—but he'll replace Sizemore in center field plenty of times before Victorino is able to return. Since this is not likely to be the only time Bradley Jr. is needed to fill in for Sizemore or Victorino, it's quite possible the rookie could end up with more at-bats on the season than either incumbent outfielder.

    One problem: Bradley hit just .189 with a .280 on-base percentage and .337 slugging percentage last season in 95 at-bats. He followed that up by slashing just .158/.213/.263 in spring training. No wonder he lost the center field battle to Sizemore.

    Bradley's Gold Glove-caliber defense can't hide that type of production with the bat, even though he's the best choice to play center field on days Sizemore can't go. He profiles to be a leadoff hitter once he's more established in the game, but he might not have time to get established given the injury questions surrounding the Sox outfield.

    For someone who was slated to begin the season at Triple-A, Bradley's the biggest wild card on the Sox. The team will either boast tremendous depth in the outfield with Bradley ready to step in at a moment's notice...or it could end up to be an Achilles' heel that plagues Boston all season long.

Jon Lester: Is He an Ace?

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    Jon Lester has already accomplished much in the game. He fought off cancer, threw a no-hitter, clinched the 2007 World Series against the Colorado Rockies and added another ring to his hand with last season's victory.

    Entering 2013 as the unquestioned ace following the exorcism of Josh Beckett to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Lester has long straddled the line between being a quality starting pitcher and being a Cy Young contender. He looked to be headed for big things after finishing fourth in the Cy Young Award race back in 2006, but he hasn't placed on the ballot since.

    Lester may simply be who he is at this point in his career. There's nothing wrong with being a legitimate No. 2 starter, especially one as durable as he is, working on six straight seasons with at least 30 starts. Further, five of these six seasons have seen him climb over 200 innings pitched, so he's been a reliable workhorse.

    But if there's more in Lester, it's time for it to come through. Boston boasts enviable pitching depth, but the back three starters of the rotation, John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Felix Doubront, don't inspire confidence. It only takes one injury or disappointing performance before the Red Sox have to start dipping into their depth. While they have a collection of impressive arms marinating down on the farm, there aren't any Stephen Strasburgs lurking who can make an immediate impact.

    Whether Lester takes a step forward, stays who he is or even regresses, the ramifications of his performance will filter down to the rest of the staff, which could quickly become reliant on the offense to win games.

    If his Opening Day start against the Orioles is any indication, the Sox might have two pitchers battling for the Cy Young Award this year.

Koji Uehara: Can He Repeat?

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    In 2013, Koji Uehara had one of the most obscene seasons a relief pitcher has ever had. He punched out 101 batters in 74.1 innings and gave up a measly nine walks. He carried that dominance over into the postseason, appearing in 13 of Boston's 16 games.

    All he did in October was allow no runs or walks while punching 16 batters out in 13.2 innings and saving seven of the 11 victories the Sox needed to win the World Series crown.

    Uehara's 2013 season belongs at the top of the most dominant relief seasons in the modern era of closer usage, which dates back to the late 1980s.

    What's interesting is that he was fourth in line for saves entering 2013. The team turned to Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Bailey and Junichi Tazawa before opting for Uehara.

    But there's a reason why he was fourth in line: Prior to 2013, there were questions about his ability to close out late games, and he needed his innings managed. Skipper John Farrell addressed the latter concern by minimizing the amount of times Uehara warmed up in the bullpen and then did not enter the game. And his postseason performance addressed the former criticism.

    Can he repeat 2013? It seems almost impossible, but Uehara's career in the majors indicates that he may very well be able to do that. The Sox's bullpen isn't as deep as it once was, and if Uehara stumbles, there's no clear option to step in. The club did sign former St. Louis Cardinals closer Edward Mujica to help mitigate that, but a down season from Uehara will unquestionably thin out the bullpen.

    That means less games won in the early going. Even if the Red Sox end the season with an elite closer, whether Uehara or with someone else filling the role, a game lost early still counts, and the Sox have a thin margin for error when it comes to contending in the AL East.

A.J. Pierzynski: Will He Produce?

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    The team opted to take the short-term road at catcher, signing 37-year-old A.J. Pierzynski to platoon with 37-year-old David Ross.

    The Red Sox are lucky in that they have two backstops in Triple-A Pawtucket that could break into the majors at some point this year, and both could hold roles on the 2015 squad. However, top catching prospect Christian Vazquez isn't quite ready for the big time yet, while Dan Butler is no more than a backup catcher.

    That means there's a lot of pressure on both Pierzynski and Ross to stay healthy. That's no solid bet with Ross, who suffered two concussions last season and missed most of the year before ending the year as the team's starting catcher. Pierzynski, however, is incredibly durable and is working on a 12-year streak of playing in at least 128 games.

    It's no accident that the team signed Pierzynski as a good bet to stay healthy while the backstops in Pawtucket marinate. But what if Pierzynski draws a significant injury this season? Or what if his bat completely disappears? He's 37, after all, and his entire offensive value is derived from his home run power, which can vanish at a moment's notice.

    That wouldn't be good.

    While Boston could get by with the defensive talents of Vazquez or Butler's well-rounded game paired with Ross, losing the kind of offensive production Pierzynski brings to the team out of the catcher's spot would be significant.

Can the Red Sox Faithful Stay Patient?

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    Boston's fans and media are notorious around the game for the demands they place on their players. There's no room for slumps, no room for bad attitudes, no room for mistakes.

    If the Red Sox get off to a slow start due to any one of the keys discussed, it's not going to help matters if the fans and media jump on the issue and create a problem. Fans need to stay patient, and the media needs to refrain from manufacturing controversy.

    Playing for Red Sox fans can be one of the most rewarding experiences in the game—but once you get on their bad side, look out. Fans weren't shy about expressing their displeasure with the 2012 Red Sox, and the 2011 fried chicken and beer scandal effectively ended Josh Beckett's time as a fan favorite and tarnished Lester.

    Lackey can tell you firsthand about the fans. His role in the fried chicken and beer scandal didn't help matters, but he was already persona non grata after a lackluster 2010 season followed by a terrible 2011 showing. He missed all of 2012 due to Tommy John surgery but didn't forget about his experiences and refused to tip his hat to the crowd for all of 2013. He finally doffed his cap during Game 6 of the World Series, months after the fans had forgiven him.

    The takeaway? If fans want the team to play up to its potential, they have to recognize that things will inevitably go wrong at some point. They always do. Injuries will happen. Players won't perform up to expectations. Winning the World Series in 2013 will give the club some rope, but that won't last forever.

    What teams need in order to flourish is support, and the Red Sox fans would do well to remember that if there are bumps in the road early on. Last season, the Sox lost Hanrahan to Tommy John surgery in May, and backup closer Andrew Bailey followed not too far behind.

    And look where the Red Sox wound up.