Red Sox preview: For better or worse

Red Sox preview: For better or worse
March 26, 2014, 2:00 pm
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The 2014 Red Sox will look a lot like the 2013 Red Sox except behind the plate, at short and in center. The rotation is the same, as are the mainstays in the bullpen.
    
But it's unwise to expect that the same players will necessarily perform the same way. Players regress or improve, but seldom stay at the same level.
    
Here are three Red Sox players likely to be better and three who probably won't be as good as they were a year ago.

BETTER
Jake Peavy
Peavy saw his season interrupted by some minor injuries while with the White Sox, then, by the July 30 trade that sent him to the Red Sox. He'll have the luxury of spending the entire season with the Sox, including reaping the benefits of getting familiar with the staff and teammates. Reuniting with A.J. Pierzynski should help, too. But the biggest factor in expecting an uptick in performance from Peavy is health. More than once this spring, Peavy has spoken about being healthier than he's been since he left San Diego in 2009. He's also repeatedly joked that people think he's ancient, despite being just 32 years old. Better health, stability and a little motivation to prove he's still a top-flight starter should lead to a big season.

Dustin Pedroia
On the the very first day of last season, Pedroia suffered a ligament injury to his left thumb sliding into first base and saw it hamper him for the next seven months. Pedroia still had a strong season, which included a Gold Glove for his play at second. But his .415 slugging percentage was the lowest he's had in a full season, as the thumb injury robbed him of his ability to drive the ball. Pedroia underwent offseason surgery and has shown a return to form this spring, hitting the ball to the gaps. He won't suddenly become a 30-home run threat, but he's capable of 15-18 homers to go along with a boatload of doubles.
    
Will Middlebrooks
This one seems obvious, as Middlebrooks can't possibly have a season as poor as the one he experienced last year when he was 1) lost playing time to Jose Iglesias at third base, 2) lost the job outright and was demoted to Pawtucket for three months, only to return and 3) be supplanted in the post-season by rookie Xander Bogaerts. Middlebrooks is healthy, too, and determined to re-established himself. The Sox showed faith in him by not re-signing Stephen Drew, a move that would have left him the odd-man-out in the infield. He has tremendous power with 32 homers in 615 major league at-bats - now's the time to show it.

WORSE
Koji Uehara
From the end of June until the end of October, Uehara was the most dominant reliever the Red Sox have seen since...when? The prime of Dick Radatz? His strikeout-to-walk ratio (101-9) was comical and other than a hiccup in the ALDS, was just as dominant in the post-season, right down to the final out in the World Series. Now 39, expecting him to repeat his dominance is downright unreasonable. That's not to suggest that Uehara's 2013 aberration. There may be a few more blown saves, a few more walks and baserunners and no string where he retires 32 batters in succession. But if he's "merely'' say, 90 percent of what he was last year, the Red Sox will be plenty satisfied.
    
David Ortiz
Ortiz performed at historic levels for a player his age, compiling the fifth-best OPS in the game while finishing as just one of three players in the game to hit .300 with 30 homers and 100 RBI. Like Uehara, his performance won't drop off the table to the point where he's not valuable. Indeed, Ortiz remains, at 38, the most important hitter in the Red Sox lineup. But it's also not hard to see him hitting 25 homers instead of 30, and knocked in 90 runs instead of 103. Father Time catches up to everyone eventually and some regression from Ortiz is only natural.
    
John Lackey
In retrospect, Lackey's 2013 season was perhaps under-appreciated and lost among some more heralded seasons. He came back from Tommy John surgery to win 10 games while posting the lowest WHIP of his career (1.157). But 189 1/3 innings during the regular season and 26 more in the post-season are a lot to ask from anyone, much less a pitcher in his mid-30s, returning from elbow surgery. Given that Lackey no longer has put-away stuff and considering his age and workload a year ago, it wouldn't be shocking to see Lackey take something of a step backward in 2014.