MLB Spring Training: 5 Things to Expect From Champs Red Sox

After a 2013 World Series win, the Boston Red Sox will attempt to become the first team to repeat as champs since the 2000 New York Yankees. Boston will take the next step in its quest to repeat this week with its first 57-player full squad workout at Fenway South in Fort Myers, Florida. Now that the beards have been trimmed and the duck boats have returned to giving tours, it’s time for the Red Sox to begin a 2014 season loaded with expectations.

Before all the action gets underway in Fort Meyers, here’s a breakdown of what to expect from the reigning champs.

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1. New faces

The Red Sox went in a different direction at catcher for 2014, signing 37-year-old A.J. Pierzynski to a one-year deal. Pierzynski, who played for the Rangers last season, will provide some pop in the lower half of the order for the Red Sox. He’s hit 10 or more home runs 10 times during his career — but whether he’ll be a reliable defensive catcher has yet to be seen. He’s also known as a fiery guy who can get under the skin of both opponents and teammates. In 2012, Pierzynski was named the MLB’s “most hated player” by a Men’s Journal survey of 100 MLB peers. The Red Sox locker room personalities have been a much-talked about factor during their championship runs, so it will be interesting to see how Pierzynski blends in.

Former Indians outfielder Grady Sizemore also joins the team after enduring five surgeries since 2010. Sizemore, a three-time All Star and two-time Gold Glove award winner, hit 33 home runs and stole 38 bases in 2008 — the last time he played a full season while healthy. If Sizemore can return to form, the signing will have been a steal for Boston.

In addition, former St. Louis relief pitcher Edward Mujica swapped World Series locker rooms and will suit up for the Red Sox as a late-inning reliever. Mujica earned 37 saves and posted a 2.78 earned run average in 2013 despite struggling late in the season due to fatigue.

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2. Former Red Sox in new places

Red Sox fans have become accustomed to this storyline, but it shouldn’t make it any easier in 2014: Outstanding former Red Sox player joins the Yankees. Kevin Youkilis did it in 2013. Johnny Damon did it in 2005. Roger Clemens did it in 1999. And of course, Babe Ruth did it in 1919.

That won’t completely take away the sting when Jacoby Ellsbury dons the pinstripes in 2014, but Boston fans are likely becoming numb to the phenomenon at this point. Ellsbury signed a seven-year, $153 million contract with the Yankees, and he will bring his speed, swing, and defensive abilities to the Bronx. The Red Sox cannot easily replace Ellsbury’s talents. He has hit .297 in his first seven seasons and ranks third all-time in Red Sox history for stolen bases. The hope is that the 23-year-old Jackie Bradley Jr. and former All-Star Sizemore can make up some of the ground.

Also missing in 2014 is former catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who signed with the Marlins. Saltalamacchia hit .273 last year for the Red Sox with 14 home runs and was commended for developing a strong rapport with his pitching staff.

Though he has yet to find a home, 2013 shortstop Stephen Drew doesn’t seem likely to return for 2014. The Mets have expressed interest, but both Boston and New York have played the waiting game until Drew comes down to a more enticing price. He declined a one-year, $14.1 million deal from Boston earlier this offseason.

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3. Pitching

The 2014 Red Sox will begin the season with a rotation that is strong from No. 1 to No. 5. Led by ace Jon Lester, who pitched two gems in two World Series starts last season, the projected rotation also includes veterans John Lackey and Jake Peavy, whom the Red Sox acquired near the trade deadline last year.

The Red Sox will also benefit from a well-rested Clay Buchholz, who missed three months of 2013 with shoulder issues before returning and pitching in three playoff wins. If Buchholz can replicate his red-hot start to 2013, when he went 9-0, the Red Sox will be tough to beat. Former Red Sox right hander Ryan Dempster’s announcement last week that he will step away from the game this season solved manager John Farrell’s problem of whittling six starters into a five-man rotation. Felix Doubront, who went 11-6 with a 4.32 ERA last season, will likely round out the rotation.

Younger pitchers, including Brandon Workman and Allen Webster, provide the Red Sox some protection should injuries become a problem. Workman started several games before Peavy’s arrival and struck out nine against Seattle on July 30. He then moved to the bullpen, where he would pitch 8 and 2/3 innings in the playoffs without allowing an earned run. He could make an adequate spot starter if the Red Sox are in a pinch.

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4. Infield

The right side of the infield will again feature All-Star second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who hit .301 with nine homers in 2013. He will be joined by power-hitting first baseman Mike Napoli, who slugged 23 home runs and 92 RBI last year. The real questions for Boston are on the left side of the infield.

Shortstop Xander Bogaerts, a 21-year-old from Aruba, saw some playing time in September and played well in the playoffs, batting .296 in the postseason. Bogaerts is ranked second among MLB prospects by Baseball America, and the Red Sox have put their faith behind him by neglecting to sign Drew. At third base, Will Middlebrooks will look for redemption from a disappointing 2013 that saw his batting average dip to .227 in 2013 from .288 in 2012.

Though he won’t see much time outside the designated hitter slot, David Ortiz will return for his 12th season with the Red Sox after leading the team with 30 home runs and 103 RBI last season. Ortiz is sick of hearing from critics asking when he is going to retire. “When you put up numbers like I’m putting up, who’s thinking about retiring?” Ortiz told the Boston Herald.

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5. Outfield

The Red Sox have some depth in the outfield with 2013 postseason hero Shane Victorino, Daniel Nava, Jonny Gomes, and Jackie Bradley Jr. all returning. Victorino’s grand slam against the Tigers in Game 6 the ALCS and three-run double in Game 6 of the World Series helped cement his place as a fan favorite in Red Sox Nation. The question facing Victorino this season will be whether he can replace the departed Ellsbury leading off the order; Victorino told MLB.com he is comfortable wherever Farrell puts him.

The biggest burden in the outfield falls upon Bradley Jr., who must fill Ellsbury’s shoes in center field. Bradley Jr.’s strong spring training last winter earned him a spot on the Opening Day roster, but he spent much of his season in the minor leagues. He hit .189 in 95 big-league at-bats last season. Bradley Jr. will have to fend off Sizemore to claim the starting role.

“Everyone just needs to focus on being the best they can be,” Bradley told the Boston Herald. “Be the best you are and don’t try to be anyone else.”

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