Photo Credit: Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images
Can someone go and dust off that Don Henley CD? Because, even though we’re just entering the month of March, the boys of summer are already back at work.
It seems like baseball season just ended (perhaps the Thanksgiving decorations at the ALCS were a bit much), but for three weeks, our heroes have been preparing for the 2014 season at a breakneck pace, all plotting to dethrone the Boston Red Sox as current champions.
However, the Sox don’t intend on relinquishing their bragging rights any time soon. And, even though a few faces have come and gone, they may not have to. Here’s why:
10 John Farrell is the Real Deal
At the beginning of the 2013 season, Boston fans only expected the Red Sox to do well enough to prove Bobby Valentine was the sole cause of the team’s epic collapse the previous Fall, if not the devil himself. Likewise, they tempered expectations for new manager John Farrell, and quietly accepted it might be a few years before the team contended again.
Instead, the entire league got a striking reminder of just how important a good manager can be. In one short Spring, Farrell immediately washed away any lingering aftertaste from the previous regime, and turned a collection of odds and ends into arguably the best team in the American League.
Taking a healthy dose of Terry Francona’s approach, Farrell let his boys be themselves, beards and all, leading them to a well-earned 93-win season. Coming into 2014, with some notable faces gone from the lineup, most teams would struggle to maintain. Instead, Boston fans are expecting another title under Farrell’s tutelage.
Considering his effectiveness in 2013, there’s no reason to think he won’t do it again.
9 John Lackey is Even “Realer”
Never mind the 10-13 record. In 2013, John Lackey went from being a bad contract punchline to an effective piece of a complex pitching puzzle. More importantly, he overcame the stigma of being overpriced, underwhelming and always injured, and earned back the trust of the most demanding fans in sports.
In 190 solid innings, Lackey had his best year at Fenway, giving up his lowest totals of runs, earned runs and walks since coming to Boston. His control and velocity returned, alongside the confidence that made him a star in Anaheim just a few years earlier.
If Lackey approaches these numbers again, you can expect the Sox to be right in the mix come September, if not well ahead of the pack.
8 Koji Uehara May be the “Realest” of All
At 39, Koji Uehara isn’t expected to be as sprightly as he was during his breakout 2013. But then again, no one expected him to emerge as the team’s closer, much less be as dominant as he was.
Now that the revolving door bullpen has closed, Boston’s late-inning strategy is no longer a point of concern. And, with a better cast of characters leading up the ninth inning, including Mujica, Breslow, Tazawa, Miller, Badenhop and Workman, Uehara’s role will be much clearer moving forward.
7 The Rise of Jackie Bradley Jr.
Of all the question marks facing the Red Sox in 2014, center field will be the most significant. No one in Boston is downplaying the loss of Jacoby Ellsbury, nor are they expecting his replacement to be as impactful at the top of the lineup, or in the field.
But Jackie Bradley Jr. brings a tremendous amount of upside to Fenway’s geometric nightmare of an outfield. During his underwhelming debut a year ago, Bradley still flashed brilliant leather throughout, and occasionally shined with the bat, as well.
While not an OBP and base stealing threat like his predecessor, his patient plate approach (and increased durability) should help offset the loss of Ellsbury. Speaking of which…
6 Nava + Victorino > Ellsbury
Make no mistake, losing Jacoby Ellsbury hurts. Losing him to the Yankees hurts more. But, Ellsbury was not a primary reason the Red Sox were champions in 2013. Yes, his base running and run scoring abilities are a plus in any lineup, but the Red Sox brought home that trophy for one reason only – depth.
With an outfield of Daniel Nava, Shane Victorino and Jackie Bradley Jr., the Red Sox won’t be giving up nearly as many runs as other teams in the division. These guys are excellent fielders, durable players, and not likely to hurt the team with the bat, either.
Once the Red Sox get a few clutch wins under their belts, it’s unlikely any fans will be mentioning Jacoby’s name ... at least until the Yanks come to town.
5 74 Years of Catching Experience and Counting
Nine times out of 10, if you tell me about the viability of replacing a young catcher with a 37-year-old veteran, I’ll always argue in favor of youth. If you tell me a team is carrying TWO 37-year-old catchers, I’d mock you and your family for even entertaining it.
This is the exception. The Red Sox made a significant upgrade by letting Jarrod Saltalamacchia head to Miami and replacing him with A.J. Pierzynski. A more consistent hitter, with less of a propensity for strikeouts, Pierzynski also brings a solid glove, savvy game-calling skills and a fiery persona that belies his age.
The same can be said for long-time backup David Ross, who has proven to be a valuable chip for some time. Expect this to be a smooth transition for even the most ardent Saltalamacchia loyalists – both of them.
4 Shortstop, Thy Name is Xander Bogaerts
Can we get one thing out of the way? Stephen Drew is not an A-level shortstop. Nor is he a premier hitter. However, a thin market has magically transformed Drew into a highly discussed free agent throughout the offseason.
While Drew certainly won’t hurt any team he joins, he’s not worth a multi-year investment for tremendous money, especially when a perfectly good, YOUNG replacement is right there.
Many have called for Xander Bogaerts to take over third base from the disappointing Will Middlebrooks. His arm, range and quick feet make him a natural shortstop, even if management is reluctant.
This is one area where the Sox can roll the dice and save themselves from another poor contract headache.
3 Mike Carp, Please Meet Grady Sizemore
When it comes to low-risk, high-reward signings, few teams can compete with the savvy Sox. Last season, a powerful, but unproven journeyman named Mike Carp came into his own on Fenway’s bench, offering strong hitting and spot fielding well above the average utility player.
This year, the Sox took a flyer on ever-injured Grady Sizemore, who, at just 31 years of age, is still capable of regaining his pristine mid-2000s form, should he stay out of the trainer’s room.
If he doesn’t, it likely won’t matter much to the deep Sox bench. If he does, Boston fans could see a historic career resurgence within very friendly field dimensions for hitters.
2 Will … will
To say Will Middlebrooks had a disappointing 2013 is like saying Boston Harbor is “slightly damp.”
The highly touted kid with the sugar-sweet swing hit bottom last season, less than a year after he displaced Kevin Youkilis at third base. While he improved following a lengthy stint in the minors, Middlebrooks’ white hot debut was proving to be a fluke, rather than a foundation.
With Xander Bogaerts likely to start the season at shortstop, Middlebrooks needs to rediscover the stroke that fast-tracked Youkilis to an MLB retirement tour, and quickly. Prospects are looming at AA and AAA, which is probably the motivation Middlebrooks needs to overcome 2013 and start fresh.
1 The Prospect of Spoiling Derek Jeter’s Farewell Tour
I know, I know. We all love Derek Jeter. Even those that hate Derek Jeter secretly love Derek Jeter. And most of his detractors secretly want to be Derek Jeter.
Except the Boston Red Sox.
Now that the Sox have won three championships in less than a decade, there’s considerably less excitement about the Yankees-Sox rivalry. But, given the expected slew of Jeter parades and tribute videos, what better way to end an era of rivalry than by winning the World Series and cutting short a classic Hollywood ending?
Of course, no team should ever base its motivation on such petty things. But, if you think raining on the Yankees’ parade isn’t a strong motivational tool for the Sox, think again.
Back-to-back titles would be a perfect footnote to a highly competitive era, and a great way to shift the focus away from Broadway.
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