Why the Red Sox will repeat (and why they won't)

Why the Red Sox will repeat (and why they won't)
March 30, 2014, 2:00 pm
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It was a question the Red Sox didn't want to hear, right from the start of spring training:
     
Can you repeat as champions?
     
The topic ran counter to the team's determination to "turn the page'' on their magical 2013 run.
     
"I hear people talking about 'defending' the title,'' said Jonny Gomes. "But that was last year; this is a new season.''
     
Indeed it is, but that doesn't mean we can't have some fun speculating about their fortunes in 2014.
     
We offer three reasons why the Red Sox will repeat, and just to be balanced, three reasons why they won't.
     
YES, THEY CAN     
1) Pitching     
There may be a few teams with more front-of-the-rotation types (Detroit). There may be some with a younger rotation (Tampa). But few teams can offer a rotation as solid as the one the Red Sox boast, with five established veterans and a nice balance of two lefties (Jon Lester and Felix Doubront) and three righthanders (John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Clay Buchholz).
     
The Sox smartly brought their veterans along slowly this spring, in recognition of the heavy workload from a season ago. Only time will tell how the strategy pays off, but limiting the innings for a group that nearly pitched into November looks, from here, smart and sensible.
     
What's more, there's depth behind the Front Five for when those inevitable injuries -- nagging and otherwise -- hit. Chris Capuano is a valuable piece out of the bullpen and Brandon Workman -- who will start the season in the big  leagues, but only until Craig Breslow is ready to return -- will be a short 50-mile drive away in Pawtucket.
     
Beyond them, a crop of still-developing pitchers could help out, from Drake Britton to Allen Webster to Anthony Ranaudo. It's the kind of depth that most organizations would envy.

2) The lineup     
The Red Sox led the major league in runs scored last year and were the only team in either league to top the 800-run plateau.
    
The 2-3-4-5 combination of Shane Victorino-Dustin Pedroia-David Ortiz-Mike Napoli is a solid bunch, but what sets the Red Sox apart from most teams is the length of the lineup, which figures to have someone with 25-homer potential (Will Middlebrooks) hitting ninth most nights.
     
Pedroia will be healthier and presumably provide more extra-base power than he did a year ago when a thumb injury in the opener impacted his swing for the rest of the year.
     
True, the Red Sox will miss Jacoby Ellsbury's ability to disrupt at the top of the lineup, but Daniel Nava could match (or better) Ellsbury's on-base ability.
     
As with the pitching, the depth is critical. John Farrell will have Mike Carp and either Nava or Gomes from which to choose for some late-inning pinch-hitting responsibilities.
 
3) Flexibility
In a tight race, it's important to have the financial wiggle room or a deep inventory of prospects to deal and the Red Sox have both.
     
Having budgeted $13 million for Ryan Dempster (retired), the Sox used $2.5 million on Capuano, leaving them with $10.5 million to spend.     

So if, say, the Philadelphia Phillies think about dangling Cliff Lee in June or July, the Red Sox will be well-positioned to take on contract and have no shortage of prospects that could entice the Phils. Looking for young pitching? The Red Sox are stacked. Interested in power? The Sox could afford to move Middlebrooks by mid-season and go with Garin Cecchini at third. Is it catching you need? Teams could take their pick of Christian Vazquez or Blake Swihart.
    
That kind of organizational depth is rare. Couple it with the team's financial resources, and the Sox won't have to worry about being outbid by anyone if they truly want a player on the trade market.

NO, THEY WON'T
1) Odds are stacked against them
There's a reason it hasn't happened since 2000.

Parity is here to stay, thanks to the explosion of TV deals (both national and local) and the success of the revenue-sharing system.
     
Of the 15 teams in the American League, it would seem that only Toronto, Chicago, Minnesota, Seattle and Houston don't have a shot at the post-season. That means 10 teams do.
     
The margin for error has been smaller, too. The Red Sox could very well win another 97 games and run into tough pitching in the ALDS and go out in the first round in a five-game series.
     
Think back to last October. If David Ortiz doesn't hit that grand slam in Game 2, the Sox could very well have been swept by the Tigers in the ALCS. Instead, they went on to win seven of the next 11 games and won the Series.
     
Hunger won't be an issue with the Sox, but injuries and the randomness of post-season results could be their undoing.

2) Questions up the middle     
The 2014 Red Sox are rolling the dice somewhat, starting a rookie at shortstop, a 31-year-old who hasn't played in the big leagues since September 2011 in center and a pair of 37-year-olds at the most demanding and punishing position (catcher).
     
As promising as Xander Bogaerts is -- and good luck finding a scout who doesn't love the 21-year-old -- he has all of 44 at-bats in the big leagues. Chances are, there will be some valleys to go along with his peaks this season.
     
Grady Sizemore is a great story and he looked terrific in the spring. But even the Red Sox will admit they don't know how much they can get out of him over a 162-game season. And Sizemore's backup is untested Jackie Bradley Jr., who struggled mightily last season and didn't offer much competition for Sizemore this spring.
     
New No. 1 catcher A.J. Pierzynski has been remarkably durable over his career, with 13 straight seasons of 100 or more games played, a record. But the older a player gets, the more risk he's at for injury. And when the alternative is also 37 (David Ross), coming off two concussions, there's some reason to worry.

3) Koji can't be Koji again 
In late June, out of desperation as much as anything else, the Red Sox turned to their third (or was it fourth?) closer of the season -- and struck gold. Koji Uehara was almost literally unhittable, retiring 32 batters in a row at one point and fashioning a WHIP (.0565) that was almost cartoonish.
     
The Sox asked a lot of Uehara all the way through the ninth inning of Game 6 of the World Series, and with very, very few exceptions (three blown saves after July 1 and one more in the ALDS), he delivered.
     
But Uehara will be 39 by the home opener, and it's not realistic that he'll be that good again.
     
None of which suggests that Uehara was some sort of one-year wonder. He has an established track record both here and in Japan and figures to be among the top closers in the game again.
     
However, just one ill-timed slip -- in September or October -- could be the difference between repeating as champs and getting knocked out and it's not realistic to think Uehara will be that good a second straight year.