Red Sox preview: Getting to know the 2014 Sox

Red Sox preview: Getting to know the 2014 Sox
March 31, 2014, 9:30 am
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BALTIMORE -- Here they go again.
With a roster tweaked some from last October, a few notable faces missing and a handful of newcomers introduced, the Red Sox will try to match -- if not  top -- one of their most surprisingly successful seasons.
In 2013, they operated undercover with few seeing them as a legitimate contenders following a forgettable 2012. This season, they'll have no such luxury.
Already, the talk is whether they can become the first team since the 2000 New York Yankees to repeat as champions. The Red Sox scoff at such, since focusing on October in March is the antithesis of the "win tonight" approach which served them so well last season.
As for expectations?
"The Red Sox never sneak up on anybody," shrugged Jonny Gomes. "Everyone knows when we're coming to town."
The cast is a largely familiar one. The starting rotation, in fact, is identical to last September, led by Jon Lester, whose looming free agency will be, like it or not, part of the subtext of his entire season.
Clay Buchholz will try for an uninterrupted season -- and perhaps 200 innings for the first time in his career. Felix Doubront may show more consistency. Veterans Jake Peavy and John Lackey also return, each trying to overcome the hangover that often comes with an extended post-season run.
It's doubtful that closer Koji Uehara can duplicate his astounding 2013, but the Red Sox will gladly take a reasonable fascimile. Just in case, they've brought in Edward Mujica to serve as his primary set-up man and, just maybe, heir apparent, since Uehara will turn 39 before the home opener.
Junichi Tazawa will be another late-inning option, with lefties Andrew Miller and, eventually, Craig Breslow offering manager John Farrell plenty of matchup flexibility.
Chris Capuano will serve as a valuable swingman -- able to spot start, or, come in for a lefty hitter in a high-leverage inning. Newcomer Burke Badenhop gives the bullpen a sinkerballer with multi-inning capabilty. Teams are loathe to identify "long men" in their bullpens these days, but Badenhop fits that description.
The lineup that led all of baseball in runs scored is largely unchanged, with one significant exception at the top. Jacoby Ellsbury is gone, and with  him, his on-base capability, penchant for disruption and base-stealing skills.
It appears as though Daniel Nava (and sometimes Jonny Gomes or Shane Victorino) will inherit the leadoff spot. Nava may duplicate -- or even surpass -- Ellsbury's on-base ability, but you couldn't find two players more unalike on the bases. While Ellsbury was swift and confident, Nava appears tentative and unsure. That will need to improve.
Beyond the issue at the top, the heart of the Red Sox batting order is again formidable.
The stretch of players from Victorino (second) to a healthy Dustin Pedroia (third) who played 161 1/2 games with a balky thumb to ageless David Ortiz and a more assured Mike Napoli can match almost any quartet in the game.
But where the Red Sox may really enjoy an edge is in the lower half of the order.
Prodigal outfielder Grady Sizemore, rookie Xander Bogaerts, newly-added A.J. Pierzynski and Will Middlebrooks all possess strong offensive skills.
Sizemore must prove that his miraculous comeback can extend past spring training and his workload will be carefully monitored. Bogaerts's future seems  limitless, and manageing expectations perhaps his toughest obstacle.
Pierzynski's integreation into the clubhouse fabric will be fascinating to watch, given his reputation as a sandpaper personality.
Middlebrooks has one the game's most sought-after skills -- raw righthanded power -- and could bring back memories of Butch Hobson's 30-homer seasons from the No. 9 spot. For now, the Red Sox will settle for a more consistent approach at the plate.
Off the bench come Gomes, who never mashed lefties as he was expected in his first season, and Mike Carp, who outstripped expectations and emerged as a terrific complimentary player.
Catcher David Ross, offers a steady presence, but must prove durable after two concussions cut short last season. Jonathan Herrera takes over as the utility infielder.
Defensively, the left side of the infield will be under the microscrope, as Bogaerts replaces the ever-steady Stephen Drew, and Middlebrooks returns  with a need to be more consistent at third.
Can they, indeed, repeat? Perhaps, as long as they have good health and some fortune along the way.
But the Red Sox will tell you that's missing the point. Following the journey, day by day, beginning Monday afternoon, is half the fun.