The Red Sox entered the 2014 season as the defending champions, having won the 2013 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, but quickly returned to their mediocre ways of 2012, finishing last in the American League East. They became the first MLB team to finish last in one season, win the World Series the next, and finish last again the following season.
So what kind of season will this be? Winning big, or losing big?
Here’s what to watch for in 2015.
1. New Faces In The Field
Pablo “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval takes over at third base for the Red Sox this season. Sandoval, 28, is a switch hitter, likes to laugh and thrives under pressure (.426 batting average during three World Series with the San Francisco Giants). He’s averaged 14 home runs over the past three seasons and is a .294 career hitter. He’ll be a fan favorite at Fenway … if he delivers.
Hanley Ramirez is back. Ramirez, 31, came up through the Red Sox organization. After playing two games for the big-league club in 2005, he went to the National League (Marlins and Dodgers). Ramirez is learning left field and the Green Monster after being a shortstop for most of his career. He hits for average (.300 lifetime) and power (191 HRs in nine full seasons) but has also been accused of failing to give his all at times.
Mookie Betts is about to have his coming out party. As a rookie, Betts looked sharp in 52 games last season, but with his spring training batting average well above .400 and consistently stellar defense, the starting job in center field is his to lose this year.
2. New Faces On The Mound
Right-handed pitcher Rick Porcello joins the Red Sox starting rotation after six seasons with the Detroit Tigers. Last year, Porcello was 15-13 with a 3.43 earned-run average, but the wins and ERA were both career bests. The Red Sox are betting he can match or improve on those numbers.
It might be just as important to Boston that Porcello, 26, rarely gets hurt. He’s made 27 or more starts every year of his career. Opening Day starterClay Buchholz has a history of injuries, and Joe Kelly is beginning the year on the disabled list.
Justin Masterson is another new addition. Like Ramirez, he is a returning member of the Sox. Masterson, 30, began his career in Boston but spent several seasons with Cleveland before landing in St. Louis last year. Masterson is a 6-foot-6, 260-pound righty with a 4.24 career ERA.
3. Aging Talent
The Red Sox have plenty of young talent, but the roster also features older players expected to play important roles this season.
David Ortiz is 39 years old. That’s about 104 in designated-hitter years. The face of the franchise hit 35 home runs and drove in 104 runs in 2014. Both of those totals were Ortiz’s highest since 2007. But his .263 batting average was 22 points lower than his career average. Expecting a player his age to deliver 30+ home runs and 100+ RBI is a risky bet, but if newcomers Sandoval and Ramirez live up to their billings, Ortiz will have less pressure to produce. Ortiz also has a personal milestone to shoot for this season: 34 more home runs will give him 500 for his career.
Relief pitcher Koji Uehara turned 40 last week. After being virtually untouchable in 2013, Uehara struggled late last season and he’ll start the 2015 campaign on the disabled list because of a nagging hamstring injury. Can Uehara stay healthy and return to form? Without him, there’s a bigger question: Who will lead the Red Sox bullpen?
Shane Victorino, 34, played just 30 games last season before undergoing back surgery. Now Victorino is back in the lineup and will open the season as the starting right fielder. But Boston’s outfield is crowded. Backups Daniel Nava and Allen Craig are available. And down in Pawtucket, Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Cuban star Rusney Castillo (and his seven-year, $72-million contract) will be hoping for a call-up.
4. Can Dustin Pedroia Return To Form?
If Big Papi is the face of the franchise, Laser Show is the heart of the team. It’s hard to find a player who loves playing the game more than Dustin Pedroia, but the 31-year-old is is coming off his worst full season in the majors. In 2014, he posted a .278 average, 7 HRs and 53 RBI. The Red Sox don’t need him to hit for power, but they do need him to drive in runs and be more efficient at the plate. However, Pedroia’s defense continues to shine. He earned his fourth Gold Glove award at second base last year.
That’s a lot of question marks. So it’s a tough call. I tend to be less optimistic because… well, I’m a Red Sox fan of old.