Boston Red Sox Preview

The Boston Red Sox won their third World Series title in ten years in 2013. The Red Sox completed a worst-to-first turnaround and did it for a city that was scarred by the tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombing in April. Does the magic dust disappear in 2014 or do the Sawx again make a run at October glory? Here’s the Notebook Nine, our nine key talking points for the season on the favorite team and city of TheSportsNotebook…

*How magical was 2013? Consider this—Mike Napoli stayed mostly healthy all year in spite of not being able to DH and having a degenerative hip condition. John Lackey resurrected his career, David Ortiz kept going strong at age 37 and after the team’s first two choices at closer got hurt, Koji Uehara somehow morphed into Mariano Rivera. Skepticism over all this happening again is what underlies any pessimistic thinking about the 2014 Boston Red Sox.

*For a team considered by many to be in the same financial class of the New York Yankees, the Red Sox were quiet in the offseason. They let the Yankees outbid them for centerfielder and leadoff hitter Jacoby Ellsbury. The only countermove of note was to bring in 37-year-old A.J. Pierzynski at catcher. Here’s reason #2 why observers might be skeptical of another serious World Series run.

*The skepticism is reflected in the betting odds. Boston is a 15-1 shot to win the World Series, which is certainly not bad, but they’re well behind the favorites. It’s the Yankees, Detroit Tigers, St. Louis Cardinals and the betting favorite Los Angeles Dodgers who are getting the love in Las Vegas. The Red Sox are priced in the neighborhood of the Tampa Bay Rays and Washington Nationals—respected yes, but seen as being on the second tier of contenders.

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*Now let’s shift gears and focus on the positive. The starting rotation is solid. Jon Lester got his career back on track last season and has proven himself to be good for 15 wins and 200-plus innings. Lackey is steady and #5 starter Felix Doubront continues to improve. Jake Peavy and Clay Bucholz are fragile, but when healthy we’re talking one former Cy Young winner (Peavy with San Diego in 2007) and another in Bucholz who posted a 1.74 ERA in 16 starts last year. The track record cautions against assuming good health all the way through, but this rotation can match up with anyone when healthy and is good enough to keep things stable when they’re down an arm.

*The bullpen isn’t elite, but it’s deep and balanced. Even allowing a little return to earth from Uehara, he’s still established himself for several years as a consistent pitcher who will have a sub-3.00 ERA. Junichi Tazawa and Craig Breslow make for a nice righty-lefty combination. Edward Mujica, one of the steady arms out of the St. Louis bullpen last year, was brought in. If tall lefty Andrew Miller gets himself healthy after foot surgery, he provides John Farrell with another option out of the pen. This relief corps won’t destroy people like it did in last year’s postseason, but they won’t be the reason for failure either.

*It might have been a quiet offseason, but that’s going to mean more at-bats for left fielder Danny Nava and shortstop Xander Boegarts. Nava has gradually grown into a steady offensive threat, with good plate discipline and power to the alleys. Last year he hit over .300 on top of it. Ellsbury’s departure is going to mean some position shifts that should finally get Nava full-time at-bats. And the 21-year-old Boegarts came up in September and had a .412 on-base percentage in the playoffs. He did that while playing third base and he’s the reason the team let incumbent veteran shortstop Stephen Drew walk in free agency.

*Boston’s lineup is renowned for the way they wear down pitching staffs and it’s reflected in the on-base percentages. Of the nine projected starters, only Pierzynski and third baseman Will Middlebrooks had OBPs lower than .344 last season. And Middlebrooks is considered a likely candidate to improve. He played well enough in 2012 to force the trade of Kevin Youkilis before struggling in 2013. If the 25-year-old finds his form again, the Red Sox again will be in the top three of the American League in runs scored.

*Watch to see if Dustin Pedroia’s power picks up this year. The feisty second baseman turned in his usual hustling effort and an excellent .372 OBP. But his power—which tends to come and go anyway—disappeared as he struggled with an injured thumb. Pedroia only hit nine home runs and slugged a mediocre .415. Offseason surgery has the thumb feeling good again a power upgrade to 17 home runs and a .440-.450 slugging—well within his career expectations—can provide Boston with a quiet, no-cost upgrade.

*We conclude with the man who took a special place in the pantheon of Boston sports last October, and that’s David Ortiz. The DH hit an astonishing .688 in the World Series, had almost every big hit and is the franchise’s one link from the championship teams of 2004 to 2007 to 2013. His consistency over time make him to the Sox what Tim Duncan is to the San Antonio Spurs. Big Papi’s emotional leadership make him to this city and franchise what Ray Lewis once was to the Baltimore Ravens. Ortiz is 38-years-old and coming off a year with a .395 OBP and .564 slugging percentage. How much longer can it keep going?

Boston’s betting number on the Over/Under win futures in Las Vegas is 88. That strikes me as a solid number. I see the Sox likely ranging between 85 wins and 93 wins, so this is a nice in-between spot. I’m going to pick the Over. Partly because what kind of fan would I be if I didn’t? It’s one thing to be skeptical if expectations are out of whack, but as noted at the top of this piece, there seems to be a healthy caution in place by most observers when evaluating the Red Sox.

The case for taking the Over is this—let’s say Boston finishes 89-73. That might not be good enough to even make the playoffs (it wouldn’t have been last year) and it still goes Over. So if I can get the team that just won the World Series and cash an Over ticket even if they likely miss the postseason, that seems like prudent bet to me.