Spring Training Countdown: Did Red Sox make up ground in AL East?

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Spring Training Countdown: Did Red Sox make up ground in AL East?

From 1998 through 2011, a period of 14 years, the Red Sox finished either first or second in the American League East on 11 occasions.

Then came last year, when the Sox bottomed out and finished with their worst record since 1965, landing them in last place in the division.

Not since 1932 had the Red Sox finished last in a division or league.

Their descent comes at a time when the A.L. East is more competitive than ever. In addition to the Yankees (who have qualifed for the post-season in every season but one since 1995) and the Tampa Bay Rays (who've won the division twice and reached the playoffs three times in the last five seasons), the Baltimore Orioles last season enjoyed their best year in
more than a decade, snapping a string of 14 consecutive losing seasons and pushing the Yankees to six games in the ALDS.

Finally, there are the Toronto Blue Jays, who haven't qualified for the post-season since 1993, but engineered the biggest trade of the off-season in an attempt to compete in the East.

Where does all of this leave the Red Sox? A look at the rest of a division that's grown more competitive than ever:

Even with all question marks -- Will Derek Jeter make a successful return from a broken ankle? Can Alex Rodriguez overcome hip surgery and another PED link? Does the veteran rotation stay healthy? -- the Yankees must be considered formidable.

The lineup isn't as fierce as it once was, with Jeter and Rodriguez hobbled and Mark Teixeira in decline. But the Yanks still boast Robinson Cano -- more motivated than ever as he approaches free agency -- and Curtis Granderson, who has hit 84 homers in the last two seasons.

The rotation has workhorses in CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda, while Andy Pettitte proved that, when healthy, he can still win at 41.

Less certain is the bullpen, where ageless Mariano Rivera returns from a major knee injury. Worse, Rivera and the Yankees don't have Rafael Soriano as an insurance policy anymore. But David Robertson has emerged as one of the game's most reliable set-up options.

The Yankees may not be a powerhouse anymore, but they're still very much a threat.

Tampa Bay narrowly missed out on qualifying for the playoffs last fall, then dealt off its most seasoned starter, James Shields, in return for, among others, Wil Myers. Myers profiles as an All-Star and should give some additional thump to a lineup which has sputtered beyond Evan Longoria.

The Rays' strength, even with the departure of Shields, remains the starting rotation, now led by David Price, Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore. The bullpen, as always under Joe Madden, is formidable.

Even a modest improvement offensively should enable the Rays to ride their young arms into October.

Toronto is something of a mystery, having changed managers -- John Gibbons returns to replace John Farrell -- and pulled off a massive 12-player trade with the Miami Marlins.

That deal gave the Blue Jays two established starters -- Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle -- and an All-Star shortstop. Later in the winter, the Jays added outfielder Melkie Cabrera and knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.

That makeover will help the Jays compete. But what impact will the roster shuffling have? The last two seasons, the team that "won the winter'' -- the Red Sox after 2010 and the Marlins themselves after 2011 -- fizzled in the following seasons.

Perhaps too much change isn't good. Expect the Jays to improve, but probably not as much as they should on paper.

After more than a decade spent as an also-ran, the Orioles dramatically reintroduced themselves to the division last year, in the running for the division title on the final weekend before bowing out in the the Division Series.

The Orioles' resurgence rekindled interest in Baltimore. But the Orioles did almost nothing to improve last year and their success in both one-run games (29-9) and extra-inning contests (16 straight wins at one point) suggest that they're perhaps due for a market correction.

The rotation remains a giant question mark -- Wei-Yin Chen was the only starter with double-figure wins -- and the bullpen may have been overworked. Look for the O's to take a step backward.

As for the Sox themsleves, much will depend on the rotation. If Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz rebound and John Lackey can be closer to his 2010 performance (14 wins), the Red Sox will show significant improvement and could climb into the middle of the division.

The lineup, so inept in the second half last season, will be better, thanks to the addition of Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes and Shane Victorino. The bullpen, a strength most of last season, has been bolstered by the addition of Joel Hanrahan.

Fresh off a 69-win season, a return to contention would be too much to ask. But the Red Sox should be more respectable, with an eye toward the arriving class of prospects (Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Rubby De La Rosa, Matt Barnes) expected to contribute in 2014.

Bogaerts' "maturity is clearly taking hold"

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Bogaerts' "maturity is clearly taking hold"

NEW YORK -- Xander Bogaerts enjoyed a terrific 2015, his second full season in the big leagues.

He finished second in the American League batting race, established himself as a solid defender at short and generally showed immense promise.

The only thing he didn't do was show much home run power, limited to just seven homers.

This past spring, both manager John Farrell and Chili Davis expressed confidence that the home runs would come, and that they would come organically.

And so they have. In Thursday night's loss to the New York Yankees, a solo homer in the fifth by Bogaerts represented the only Red Sox run of the night in a 5-1 loss. It also gave Bogaerts 21 homers for the year, exactly triple his output from a year ago.

"The maturity is clearly taking hold," said John Farrell of Bogaerts' growth. "You start to get a couple thousand at-bats at the major league level, you're starting to understand your swing, you're picking out certain counts in which to leverage a little bit more. He's been able to do that.

"Home runs are up across the board. But with Xander in particular, he's physically maturing and he's maturing as a major league player as well."

Bogaerts took the advise of Davis and others and didn't set out to try to hit more homers this year. He knew they would come in time.

"Maybe not this quick," he said of the big increase, "but probably in the future, yeah. That's what I did in the minor leagues, so it's kind of something that I thought might translate to the big leagues, too."

Bogaerts is hard-pressed to put his finger on any on factor to explain the big uptick. After all, he didn't change his swing or his stance.

Rather, the homers came as a result of him understanding himself better as a hitter and consistently taking the right approach at the plate.

"It's just (a matter of) taking good swings in good counts," he offered. "Sometimes, you're looking for one. But overall, it's just being a more mature hitter and looking for the right spots to pick and choose."

It hasn't hurt that he's surrounded by quality hitters in the Red Sox lineup, with Mookie Betts and Dustin Pedroia ahead of him earlier in the year, and now Pedrioa ahead of him and David Ortiz behind him.

In addition to seeing better pitches because of who's surrounding him, Bogaerts has also benefitted from listening to Ortiz, who watches his at-bats and offers advice when called for.

Still, most of the credit belongs to Bogaerts himself, who has grown into his power naturally -- just as his manager and hitting coach forecast.

Quotes, notes and stars: "It seems like everybody was happy that I'm leaving"

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Quotes, notes and stars: "It seems like everybody was happy that I'm leaving"

NEW YORK -- Quotes, Notes and Stars from the Red Sox' 5-1 loss to the Yankees:

QUOTES

* "It seems like everybody was happy that I'm leaving." David Ortiz, unaccustomed to ovations and cheering at Yankee Stadium.

* "I thought he threw a high number of strikes. There was good swing-and-miss to his changeup and he took the opportunity and showed well." John Farrell on Henry Owens.

* "It's just taking good swings in good counts. It's just being a more mature hitter and looking for the right spots to pick and choose." Xander Bogaerts, who has tripled his homer output since last year.

NOTES:

* With his fourth-inning homer, Xander Bogaerts tripled his home run total from last year, improving from seven to 21.

* The season series between the Red Sox and Yankees ended with the Sox winning 11 of the 18 games.

* The Boston bullpen has given up eight runs in the last two nights after allowing only seven this month before Wednesday night.

* The Sox suffered only their second sweep of the season. They were also swept by the Tigers in July.

* Jackie Bradley Jr. has reached base safely in his last 13 games.

* Junichi Tazawa has contributed seven straight scoreless outings.

* Robbie Ross Jr. allowed a season-high three walks -- all in the same inning.

* Henry Owens has a career ERA of 8.53 against the Yankees.

* David Ortiz went hitless (0-for-11) in his final series at Yankee Stadium.

STARS:

1) CC Sabathia

Sabathia turned back the clock and looked like a far younger version of himself, pitching into the eighth and allowed just a run on four hits while striking out eighth.

2) Jacoby Ellsbury

Ellsbury had a hand in the first Yankee run -- walk, stolen base, run scored -- and doubled home the second run in the fifth inning.

3) Xander Bogaerts

The Sox had little offense on the night, but Bogaerts smoked a solo homer in the fourth to account for their only run.