Fresh off title, Red Sox set sights on repeating
Ellsbury, Salty depart, but core remains, along with a few key additions
The challenge of winning a World Series is topped only by the quest of repeating.
Nobody has done it since the Yankees from 1998-2000, and the Red Sox will be on the clock in '14, trying to show that it can be done.
However, manager John Farrell is hopeful his team will attack this challenge in incremental steps, rather than trying to do it all at once.
"I don't think our focus should ever change," said Farrell. "That is to make tonight's game the most important thing regardless of what's happened in the past. We've talked so many times about this team's ability to put yesterday behind them. I would hope and expect that last year would be put behind us as well as we start camp."
Though the Red Sox lost Jacoby Ellsbury to the Yankees, they re-signed Mike Napoli while adding catcher A.J. Pierzynski and reliever Edward Mujica.
David Ortiz is back for his 12th season in Boston. Dustin Pedroia remains an anchor at second base. The entire rotation is under contract for at least one more year.
In other words, the Red Sox should have pretty good stability and a familiar core as they chase another ring.
But as with any team, there are question marks. Here are nine that stand out as the calendar flips to 2014.
How will the lineup look without Ellsbury?
Though hardly anyone criticized the Red Sox from a business standpoint for not matching the mammoth offer the Yankees made to land Ellsbury, his productivity at the top of the order is going to be tough to duplicate. For years, when healthy, Ellsbury has been a force with his bat and his legs. The Red Sox aren't going to replace his speed. But can someone like Daniel Nava or Shane Victorino -- or perhaps a combination of both -- come close to replicating his other attributes at the top of the order?
Can Koji do it again?
Here Koji Uehara is, coming off a season for the ages as Boston's closer. But he will be 39 on April 3, and it's fair to wonder if the righty can maintain his high level of performance.
Credit general manager Ben Cherington for signing Mujica in the event that Uehara struggles with his health or his performance. But Boston's best chance at another championship is with Uehara pitching the ninth.
Will Buchholz stay healthy?
The Red Sox have seen some sheer brilliance from Clay Buchholz through the years, but not enough durability. En route to a possible Cy Young Award last season, Buchholz lost his shoulder strength in June and never got it back. By the World Series, his fastball could barely hit 90.
After a winter of strengthening and rehab, Buchholz should be back to himself by Spring Training. The question is whether he can maintain it throughout a 200-inning season, something he's never done before.
Can Bradley hit in the Majors?
There is no question about Jackie Bradley Jr.'s fielding ability. Already, he is a top-caliber center fielder. But he's yet to prove he can consistently hit Major League pitching, in large part because he's only had small opportunities.
Bradley has the patient approach the Red Sox love. If he can get his bat on the ball and come up with some extra-base capability, Boston could have a true successor to Ellsbury in center. If not, this will be an area Cherington will have to address during the season.
Who's at short?
There hardly ever seems to be a winter when the Red Sox know exactly which direction they are headed at shortstop. This is again the case, as Stephen Drew, a key member form the World Series-winning team, remains a free agent. There hasn't been a lot of noise about teams pursuing Drew, so perhaps he winds up back in Boston at the end of the day. If not, top prospect Xander Bogaerts will probably be the shortstop.
Can Middlebrooks bounce back?
Will Middlebrooks was one of the only bright spots for the Red Sox in 2012, and one of the only disappointments of '13. Can he bounce back in the coming year? If Middlebrooks can regain his groove, the Red Sox will have another legitimate power threat behind Ortiz and Napoli. He showed flashes of brilliance last season, but could never sustain it. Health problems might have played a role. Middlebrooks is way too young to count out.
Will the aging catching duo hold up?
The Red Sox opted to let Jarrod Saltalamacchia go in the middle of his prime and take a one-year rental behind the plate in Pierzynski. Nobody questions Pierzynski's resume, which is impressive. However, the catcher is 37, an age where players at that position can start to go into decline. Backup David Ross, widely respected for his leadership and work ethic, will also be 37 by the time the season starts.
If something happens to Pierzynski or Ross, the Red Sox might have to tap into their strong organizational depth behind the plate. Christian Vazquez is knocking on the door. Ryan Lavarnway is also still around, but the jury is out on whether he can take his game to the next level.
Which young pitchers can take the leap?
Coming off a championship season, the Red Sox have to be mindful of the fact some veteran pitchers might feel the wear and tear. That is one of the biggest reasons no team has repeated since the 2000 Yankees. In other words, the Sox might have to rely on their farm system. They have some young pitchers who have a chance to create some excitement, including Anthony Ranaudo, Henry Owens, Allen Webster and Matt Barnes.
Can Mujica regain form?
If Mujica can pitch like he did the first four months of the 2013 season with the Cardinals, the Red Sox might have gotten one of the best finds of the offseason. But what if he struggles mightily like did in September and loses more confidence? That would be a worst-case scenario in which the Sox again have shaky results with a bullpen acquisition, as was the case with Bobby Jenks, Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey. In his conference call with reporters, Mujica certainly sounded confident that he would bounce back, and that health and fatigue were the only things that stood in his way late in '13.