2014 AL East Preview: Boston Red Sox

Rob Carr

The 2014 season is almost here. As we continue to wait for the real games to start, let's finish up our season previews of the AL East with the World Series champion Boston Red Sox.

Everything came together perfectly in 2013 for the Red Sox culminating in a World Series victory. After the huge trade they made with the Dodgers in 2012, they had the payroll flexibility to sign multiple free agents prior to the 2013 season which helped substantially in their World Series run. They ended up going 97-65, a fantastic record by any standard and winning the AL East. In the playoffs they beat the Rays and the Tigers, then took down the Cardinals in the World Series.

Many of their key components were brought in as free agents last offseason. Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, and Koji Uehara were all brought in on mid-range to smaller-end deals. They didn't sign any of the high profile free agents that were out there, instead choosing to pursue multiple mid-tier guys to improve the depth of the club rather than just the top of the roster. It worked out so well last season that the Red Sox chose to continued to eschew the upper class of free agents this offseason.

Key Losses and Additions

This offseason for the Red Sox is probably better known for the players they lost than the players they brought in. Here is the list of players they lost:

Obviously the big losses there are Jacoby Ellsbury, Stephen Drew and Jarrod Saltalamacchia (I can't believe I just spelled his name out twice!). The loss of Ellsbury is going to hurt the most; the Sox will attempt to replace him with a combination of Jackie Bradley Jr. and what remains of Grady Sizemore. Bradley Jr. struggled mightily in his first exposure to the major leagues last season, while Sizemore hasn't been healthy since 2009. If somehow Sizemore makes it through spring training healthy, he's probably the favorite to win the job. But it's only a matter of time before he lands on the DL so the Red Sox will need Bradley as well. He'll definitely need to cut down on his 29 percent strikeout rate if he hopes to add any value with the bat.

The front office has decided that Xander Bogaerts is ready to take the reins at shortstop full time, which led to the decision not to bring Drew back. He was offered a qualifying offer at the outset of the offseason, and has admitted that he regrets not taking it. The draft pick compensation attached to him has certainly been a major hindrance in his attempt to land a multi year contract. He's reportedly considering waiting until after opening day or even after the draft to sign.

The Red Sox also let Salty (I couldn't write it out again) leave to sign a deal with the Marlins. He ended up signing a pretty reasonable three year, $21 million contract and is now the Marlins highest paid player. It's possible the Red Sox didn't want to sign him to a multi-year deal and risk blocking their catching prospects Blake Swihart and Christian Vazquez.

The guys they brought in this offseason are not as interesting as the guys they lost. They brought in:

Pierzynski will take over catching duties for the Sox this season. He's 37 years old and had an OBP less than .300 last season for the Rangers. He's still got a little pop in his bat, but he walked a total of 11 times in 529 plate appearances last season. It'll be interesting to see if the Red Sox try to get him to be a little more patient. We discussed Sizemore's bid for the center field job earlier.

Mujica had a great season with the Cardinals before fading down the stretch and hardly being used in the playoffs. It was reported that his arm was tired after a long season where he mostly served as the Cardinals closer. Badenhop and Capuano should both serve the club in middle relief. Capuano could be called upon to start should the club suffer injuries to its rotation.

Injury Concerns

The largest injury concern for the Red Sox is Grady Sizemore. Sizemore has had a myriad of injuries over the years, mostly to his knees and his back. It would be a minor miracle if he is able to stay healthy for the Red Sox this season. I wouldn't count on it.

Prior to last season, the Red Sox adjusted Mike Napoli's contract from a three year, $39 million deal to a one year, $5 million deal with incentives because of a condition called avascular necrosis he has in both hips. While he made it through last season healthy, the condition is a degenerative disorder that kills bone tissue. The club chose to reward him for his 2013 performance and sign him to a two year extension, but if his condition worsens they could come to regret that deal.

Shane Victorino had surgery to release a nerve in his thumb in December. He's still not quite at full strength and it will be a race for him to get healthy by opening day. He's admitted to not being 100% this spring.

Clay Buchholz has also had his own injury problems throughout his career, including missing three months of 2013 with a shoulder injury. He pitched in the playoffs but was far from full strength so we'll see how he bounces back in 2014.

Strengths

The Red Sox have a strong team all the way around so I could really just say the whole team and move on. But what fun would that be? For years, the strength of the Red Sox has been the offense and I wouldn't expect that to change this season. A middle of the lineup of Victorino, Pedroia, Ortiz, and Napoli is still quite formidable even with the loss of Ellsbury. They should still have one of the best offenses in the league.

I'd also consider their bullpen to be a strength of the team. Former Oriole Koji Uehara returns in the closers role and will be set up by free agent acquisition Edward Mujica. Koji can't possibly be as good as he was last season, can he? I'd be slightly concerned over the number of innings he threw last season, which was a career high even not including the playoffs. Mujica throws a ton of split fingers and is a solid setup man. Behind them Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow, and Andrew Miller are all quality relievers.

Weaknesses

This is a team without a lot of weaknesses. I guess center field could be considered a weakness if Jackie Bradley Jr.'s bat is not ready for the big leagues. By all accounts, his defense is superb. I wouldn't consider third base to be a strength with Will Middlebrooks set to man the position, but I wouldn't consider it a weakness either. Middlebrooks struggles to get on base, putting up just a .271 OBP last year. But he also hit 17 home runs in only 374 plate appearances. Projected to bat ninth, he possesses much more power than your typical ninth place hitter.

Prediction

The Red Sox are still a very good team, but I think the loss of Ellsbury will hurt more than they expect. He was almost a six WAR player last season, and the tandem they plan to replace him with will be lucky to put up two WAR. The other big X factor is the play of Xander Bogaerts at shortstop. No one doubts the talent, but at 21 years old he's the youngest shortstop to start for the Red Sox on opening day in 100 years. If he's ready to fulfill his promise, this team could be scary.

If I were to make a prediction on the win total for the Red Sox this season, I'd predict them to go 92-70. They still have a very good club, just maybe not quite as good as last season.

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