2014 AL East Preview: Boston Red SoxDo the defending World Series champs have the firepower to repeat?
2013 Record: 97-65, first in AL East, No. 1 seed in AL; won World Series (defeated Rays in ALDS, Tigers in ALCS, Cardinals in World Series)
Manager: John Farrell (2nd season)
Key Additions: C A.J. Pierzynski, RP Edward Mujica, OF Grady Sizemore
Key Losses: OF Jacoby Ellsbury, SS Stephen Drew, C Jarrod Saltalamacchia, SP Ryan Dempster (restricted)
Offense: Here's the good news: Boston re-signed Mike Napoli and inked Pierzynski to replace Saltalamacchia, David Ortiz remains the heart and soul of the lineup, Dustin Pedroia could be even better with a healthy thumb, Shane Victorino is a known quantity, and the Sox could still end up re-upping Drew. Now, here's the bad news: nothing else is a given. With Ellsbury (and as of now, Drew) gone, uber-prospects Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts should step in - but are they ready for prime time, and what happens if they're not? Can Sizemore be a contributor (and maybe even pull a 2008 Gabe Kapler) after missing the last two-plus years? Can Will Middlebrooks hit better than .227 and hold the third base job all year? Does switch-hitter Daniel Nava become the everyday left fielder, or does he become the strong side of a platoon with Jonny Gomes? It's a lot more turmoil than you'd expect a defending champion to have, but if any team thrives off adversity, it's the Red Sox.
Rotation: In addition to freeing up more than $13 million, Ryan Dempster's decision to sit out 2014 pretty much squashed Boston's most interesting pitching concern: how to squeeze six quality starters into five rotation spots. Barring either a long-term injury or a huge spring by a prospect, the Sox will run with Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Jake Peavy, and Felix Doubront as their starting staff, and while all have potential issues, anyone in that top four is capable of being an "ace" on any given week. The Sox signed Chris Capuano last week to have a veteran fallback option on hand, and they also have a handful of Minor League starters in camp, with Allen Webster or Rubby De La Rosa likely the top options beyond Capuano if a replacement is needed in the Majors.
Bullpen: Koji Uehara was John Farrell's fourth choice for a closer, but the 38-year-old proved the fourth time was the charm by posting a 1.09 ERA, 21 saves, and a ridiculous 0.565 WHIP. He's back in that role, and with Andrew Bailey, Joel Hanrahan and Matt Thornton all gone, the Sox signed Mujica - who had 37 saves and a 2.78 ERA for the Cardinals before losing his closing job late in the year - as a setup man/fallback option if Uehara regresses. The rest of the 'pen is strong, too, with emerging righty Junichi Tazawa is back as the other main set-up man, lefty Craig Breslow coming off a career year, and fellow southpaw Andrew Miller - who had a 2.64 ERA and struck out 48 in 30.1 innings before a broken foot ended his year - back and healthy. Brandon Workman and Burke Badenhop seem to have the inside track on the final two spots, but Capuano will likely have to fit in somewhere and there are a handful of veteran non-roster invitees, like lefties Rich Hill or Jose Mijares, who could make a challenge.
Player to Watch: Middlebrooks. You could pick Bogaerts or Bradley or numerous others, but remember this: Jose Iglesias, playing out of position, outshined Middlebrooks while he struggled with inconsistency and injuries last year, and the Red Sox had Bogaerts play out of position in the World Series over him. Middlebrooks has plenty of power, but if he struggles everywhere else again, the Sox could use that rotation depth to make a move - or they could even give top prospect Garin Cecchini a cameo to see if he can do what Bogaerts did last year and what Ellsbury did way back when.
Why they will win: Everything goes right again. From replacing the most dominant pitcher of the first half with a trade for Peavy to fourth-string closer Uehara posting a 1.09 ERA, from Bogaerts' highly-successful out-of-position cameo to Nava and Mike Carp hitting .300 between them, John Farrell and the brass found a way to push the right button every time in 2013. Do it again, and with the talent they have, there's no reason they can't repeat.
Why they will lose: Bogaerts and Bradley struggle mightily, the rotation "lives up" to its past history of injury or inconsistency, and the rest of the AL East has improved too much to be overcome.