What a difference a year makes.
Last year at this time, the Red Sox were disregarded and detested following a 69-93 last-place finish that saw them sink faster than the Lusitania in the standings and in the eyes of their fan base. The Sox were completely written off prior to last season. Now, we’re penciling them into October with confidence.
The only thing I know for sure about the 2014 Red Sox is that some of the assumptions and predictions fostered in Fort Myers, Fla., will evaporate over the course of a 162-game grind. Who had Jose Iglesias supplanting Will Middlebrooks at third base last season, fourth-string closer Koji Uehara pitching like a Japanese Dennis Eckersley, or John Lackey being the winning pitcher in the clinching game of the World Series.
Prescience is futile.
Those who dared to suggest the Red Sox could redeem themselves and make the playoffs in 2013 were derided. “Eighty-nine wins!” a certain soprano sports radio host shouted in disbelief when I offered my prediction for the 2013 Sox as wild-card playoff participants.
Then the Red Sox went out and won 97 games, led the major leagues with a plus-150 run differential, never lost more than three games in a row all season, and celebrated a World Series title on Fenway’s verdant lawn for the first time since 1918.
The mistake that is made annually is forming a concrete opinion off the last impression of the Sox and their players. Entering 2013, that last impression was of a bumbling, underachieving, disharmonious last-place team. Now, that last impression is the World Series trophy being set down at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, a city and a team enjoying a symbiotic and symbolic celebration.
The Sox were never as bad as we thought at the end of 2012, and they’re probably not quite as good as they were at the end of 2013.
Each season starts with a theme and then takes on a gest of its own. Remember “run prevention” (2010) and “Best Team Ever!” (2011), a pair of rallying cries that proved to be far afield from the reality of those Red Sox teams. The theme for this season is emblazoned on the T-shirts Sox players have worn in Fort Myers, Fla., that read, “Turn The [expletive] Page.”
That’s easier said than done when the majority of the core of the World Series team is back.
No World Series champion has repeated since the Yankees won three straight titles in 1998, 1999, and 2000. The odds are not in the Red Sox’ favor because so many developments and decisions went right last season that the law of averages would dictate a market correction, one that still results in a playoff spot, but not 97 wins.
The Sox are taking leaps of faith of varying degrees on the left side of the infield and in center field. There are also durability questions about postseason hero Shane Victorino and willowy starter Clay Buchholz.
This should be a season that we start to see the Red Sox integrate more of the minor league talent they have cultivated and covet (tell that to Jackie Bradley Jr.). The Sox have eight players on Baseball America’s preseason top-100 prospects list, the most in the majors.
There is no more intriguing aspect to the season than the development of uber-prospect Xander Bogaerts (No. 2 overall on the Baseball America list) at shortstop. Bogaerts became the youngest Red Sox player to start a postseason game last season, and the second youngest to start a World Series game. But it was at third base.
The 21-year-old Bogaerts has to prove he can stick at short.
Watching the development of Middlebrooks was supposed to be one of the few joys of the Sox in 2013. Instead, Middlebrooks sputtered and spent an extended stint in the minors, where the Sox preached plate discipline and humility.
Righthanded power has become one of the rarest commodities in the game — 34 righthanded hitters hit 20 or more home runs last year, the fewest since 33 did it in 1982 — and the 25-year-old Middlebrooks has 32 home runs in 660 plate appearances in the major leagues. So, he is getting a second chance at third base.
It’s possible that defensively Middlebrooks and Bogaerts could be a baseball Maginot Line.
Then there is the Grady Sizemore resurrection.
A three-time All-Star and member of the 30-30 club, Sizemore has two knees that have undergone microfracture surgery. He hasn’t played in a meaningful baseball game since 2011.
But Sizemore looked reborn in spring training and the team is prepared to make him the regular center fielder at the expense of Bradley, the presumed heir to Jacoby Ellsbury. Sizemore’s story and perseverance are incredible.
Rooting for him is fun, but counting on him is risky.
In the last two seasons Sizemore played, 2010 and 2011, he played a combined 104 games. If he plays that many games this year, contact the Vatican. We have a miracle.
Here is betting that injury-prone Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp plays more games this season than Sizemore.
Someone will emerge and seize a more prominent role than expected, the way Uehara did last year.
One candidate is Felix Doubront. For all the talk about the bevy of pitching prospects the Sox have on the way, the 26-year-old Doubront is overlooked. The lefty has won 11 games each of the last two seasons, and was electric in relief in the World Series.
Normally, Doubront comes into camp looking like his workout program consisted of lifting a fork to his mouth. But he showed up in good shape this year. Doubront could be poised for a breakout season and a larger role than fourth or fifth starter.
If last year taught us anything, it’s that preseason presumptions and predictions don’t mean squat.
Baseball is a game of averages, but it shuns predictability.