Meet the new Sox. Same as the old Sox.
Next Monday, the Red Sox begin defense of their World Series championship when they take the field in Baltimore. There are not many drastic changes for the team that won it all a year ago, but the expectations are completely different.
Last April, most Sox fans would’ve been happy with a .500 season. This year, anything less than a playoff appearance would be a major disappointment.
Boston has the pitching to contend. With a rotation led by Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and John Lackey, the Sox will again be a team that shouldn’t have many prolonged losing skids.
Last year they never lost more than three games in a row, something that hadn’t happened in Boston for more than 100 years.
Somewhat concerning is the fact that Felix Doubront has struggled this spring.
When the team reported to camp, all signs pointed to Doubront being a strong fourth starter.
He arrived in shape and ready to enter the prime years of his baseball career, and looked to be a prime choice to break out in 2014 after throwing six scoreless innings in his first two starts.
Things have changed since then. After giving up eight runs in 41/3 innings Sunday the left-hander has a spring ERA of 9.64.
He says he’s not concerned, and Manager John Farrell says the pitcher will be able to put things “back together” in his final Grapefruit League start.
Farrell believes he has a strong bullpen, especially with the addition of former Cardinals closer Edward Mujica.
Burke Badenhop is another newcomer to the pen, and a healthy Andrew Miller will give Farrell another left-handed option in late-game situations.
Chris Capuano, a starter for much of his nine-year career, will be the long man out of the pen and the first guy to get the ball if a starter goes down to injury.
In the field, the Sox will have most of last year’s team back.
The biggest absence is in center field, a position vacated by Jacoby Ellsbury when he signed a free-agent contract with the Yankees.
That’s also where the team’s biggest competition is. Jackie Bradley, Jr., was the heir apparent to Ellsbury, but began this final week of spring training hitting .188. That’s frighteningly close to the .189 he hit in the big leagues last season.
Grady Sizemore has been the biggest surprise of camp, and will play four games this week. If he gets through it healthy, look for him to be the starting center fielder on opening day.
At shortstop, it seems pretty clear that Stephen Drew isn’t walking through that clubhouse door anytime soon.
The Sox won’t miss his bat – you only have to go back to October to see the team winning in spite of his offense – but he was a far more accomplished defensive player than Xander Bogaerts. The 21-year old may take the world by storm at the plate, but he’s still learning the position defensively. We’ll see if that factors into the team’s success.
Behind the plate, newcomer A.J. Pierzynski joins David Ross in what will be a platoon of 37-year olds. Pierzynski, playing for his third team in as many years, has a left-handed swing that could do some damage off the wall at Fenway Park.
He, Bogaerts, and Will Middlebrooks should make the Sox lineup deeper than it was last year.
In 2013 the Sox were fifth in the AL with 178 home runs. David Ortiz and Mike Napoli accounted for nearly a third of that power production. They should get a little more help in that department now.
Make no mistake, Ortiz is still the centerpiece of this lineup. It’s Big Papi’s team, and will be for the next couple of years thanks to the contract extension that was officially announced Sunday.
He’s happy with his contract, and should be happy with the lineup around him.
And Red Sox fans should be a whole lot happier than they were a year ago.
Tom Caron is the studio host for the Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network. His column appears in the Press Herald on Tuesdays.