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Adam Kaufman

Red Sox will repeat as AL East champs in 2014

Red Sox WS celebration 2.jpg

The Red Sox open their 114th season in Baltimore this afternoon against the improved Orioles following a drama-free spring - unless you include contract talks and a battle for center field - and now the focus is on repeating.

As World Series champs? Sure, that’d be nice, though it’s rare. Since 1979, only the Blue Jays (1992-93) and Yankees (1998-2000) have achieved the feat. Though I’ve already weighed in on the possibly, we’re truly months away from actually considering that reality.

But, how about another East crown? While teams like the Yanks, Braves, and Cardinals have made capturing division titles look relatively easy over the last two decades, that’s never been the case for Boston. The Sox have won their region (in the spirit of March Madness) only three times since 1995, they have seven first-place division finishes since the East was formed in 1969, and they’ve never ranked first in consecutive years.

Guess fans should just hope for the Wild Card this season, right?

Wrong! History will be made in 2014. Boy, perspective can change a lot in a calendar year, huh?

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By now, you’re probably well aware of how I feel about this incarnation of the Red Sox. In short, I’m very confident in the pitching, and apprehensive about the offense. With depth in arms, and youth and health concerns at the plate, questions in some areas and a lack thereof in others is only logical.

For now, though, this isn’t entirely about manager John Farrell’s squad or how general manager Ben Cherington constructed his team, but rather a question of how the Sox stack up against their competition.

My colleague Eric Wilbur took his annual collection of expert picks, and only one thing is certain: The Blue Jays will stink. Beyond that, any of the Red Sox, Rays, Yankees, and Orioles has a shot at regular season greatness.

Each team – other than that one north of the border – has strengths worthy of merit in the conversation.

The slim-spending Rays – ranked 28th in the game with a $77 million Opening Day payroll, up considerably from $57.9 million in 2013 – are consistent and frustratingly relentless under Joe Maddon. Their youth and deep rotation of David Price, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, and Chris Archer before an already injured Jeremy Hellickson, and bolstered bullpen with Grant Balfour on the back-end, overshadows a flawed lineup with as many holes or questions as it has talent.

Rising star Wil Myers, coveted not long ago by Boston brass, shined in his rookie year with a .293 average, .831 OPS, 13 homers, and 53 RBI in only 88 games to win the American League’s Rookie of the Year award, and he’ll only get better. Slugger Evan Longoria is always a tough out and scary run-producer, while brief Sox first baseman James Loney can get on base with regularity, but Matt Joyce, Ryan Hanigan, and Yunel Escobar hardly evoke substantial fear at the plate and the bench is slim.

That said, Tampa always finds a way, doesn’t it? The Rays managed 92 wins last season to reach the playoffs for the fourth time in six years and they’re definitely the popular pick among national pundits to win their third East championship.

As for the Yankees, it’s tough to not show at least some love to a team that spent a half-billion dollars in the offseason and has a $203.8 million, but they scream of a more veteran and high-priced version of the 2013 Sox. In other words, a champ only if everything breaks right.

The oft-injured and already banged up Jacoby Ellsbury could have a banner year in the Bronx with that short porch in right, and we all know what he’s capable of when healthy. Captain Derek Jeter looked healthy in spring training after playing in only 17 contests a season ago, though the soon to be retiring 40-year-old batted just .137 with a pair of RBI in his 18 games. Mark Teixeira’s also back (with a horrendous .086 spring in tow) after being limited to 15 games last year, and Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann should both be dynamic additions to the middle of the order. In that group, there are several former All-Stars hoping to reach that plateau again.

Beyond that, new additions Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts may not hit much better than their weight in the infield, which would produce a real scare if Jeter or Teixeira is knocked out again. Bench depth is very thin. Think they’ll miss Robinson Cano?

Joe Girardi’s rotation is on the older side, even without Andy Pettitte, and also has questions between the always productive but 39-year-old Hiroki Kuroda, a Jenny Craig inspired CC Sabathia who no longer throws heat, and unknown Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka. Ivan Nova should impress once again, though, Michael Pineda is intriguing, and David Robertson appears poised to replace Mariano Rivera as closer. Unfortunately, for him, the rest of the bullpen is severely lacking. After all, Matt Thornton is regarded as the Yanks’ other big arm.

The ceiling is high for the Bombers, but age and health has to be an overwhelming cause for anxiety even for the most ardent New York supporter.

Boston’s season-opening opponent went from offseason irrelevancy to sleeper contender, thanks to late additions of starter Ubaldo Jimenez and hard-hitting PED user Nelson Cruz.

Best guess here is that the division is simply too strong for the Orioles to make any noise. Chris Tillman, Jimenez, and Wei-Yin Chen are the top three starters in the rotation, and there’s a chance they could all have ERA’s in the mid-4’s.

If Baltimore does stand a chance, it’s because of the lineup. Chris Davis, Adam Jones, Cruz, Matt Weiters, and J.J. Hardy are all threats to hit 30 home runs, and Nick Markakis and Manny Machado – whenever he returns from his offseason knee surgery – should drive in a lot of runs. The O’s have as deep a lineup as anyone in the division, maybe across baseball, and that makes them a legit challenge every time they take the field.

As for Toronto…eh, why bother? Then again, the Jays were the 2013 preseason division champs while the Sox were picked last or close to it by most, so…

Short and to the point: Offense good, pitching bad, durability a problem.

There are varying expectations for all of the Red Sox hitters and pitchers. Players like Xander Bogaerts, Will Middlebrooks, and Edward Mujica may emerge, John Lackey, Koji Uehara, and Shane Victorino could regress, and we already know roughly what to expect from guys like Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Mike Napoli, and Jon Lester if they stay healthy. With Grady Sizemore, well, we can’t wait to find out.

The bottom line is, of all the teams in the AL East, Boston’s the deepest and best-rounded from the rotation to the bullpen, and the lineup to the bench. That’s not hometown bias – it’s a reality. The race will be competitive and entertaining, whether three teams collect 90 wins and all make the playoffs like the Cardinals, Pirates, and Reds in the NL Central a season ago, or they all beat the heck out of each other and no club wins more than 88 contests. Either way, it’ll be a dog fight.

And the Red Sox will be left standing at the top come the morning of September 29.

Prediction:

Red Sox – 92-70
Rays – 90-72
Yankees – 86-76
Orioles – 80-82
Blue Jays – 75-87

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