April brings a clean slate to 30 ballclubs around North America. This fact seems to be more true for the Red Sox than any other as the team looks to go worst-to-first-to-worst-to-first.
After manager John Farrell annoyed envious Blue Jays fans by leading the team to a World Series in his first season, he saw his club bottom out in 2014. The series of moves made before the trade deadline and in the offseason gives the team both hope and question marks.
The biggest reason for optimism is the team's offense. Adding shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who has been converted into Boston's everyday left fielder, and third baseman Pablo Sandoval on one busy November day created a sonic boom. Outfielder Mookie Betts impressed in 52 major league games last year after ending 2013 in High Class A. Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo, signed for $72.5 million last August, will open the season in Pawtucket after battling a spring injury, shouldn't be there long. Shortstop Xander Bogaerts, Baseball America's No. 2 prospect a year ago, will look to take a big step forward, while second base veteran Dustin Pedroia plans to put his thumb injury woes behind him. Designated hitter David Ortiz will hope to keep raking.
Projected Lineup (2014 stats)
CF: Betts (.291/.368/.444, 5 HR, 7 SB in 213 PAs)
2B: Pedroia (.278/.337/.376, 7 HR, 6 SB)
DH: Ortiz (.263/.355/.517, 35 HR)
LF: Ramirez (.283/.369/.448, 13 HR, 14 SB)
3B: Sandoval (.279/.324/.415, 16 HR)
1B: Mike Napoli (.248/.370/.419, 17 HR)
RF: Shane Victorino (.268/.303/.382, 2 HR, 2 SB in 133 PAs)
SS: Bogaerts (.240/.297/.362, 12 HR)
C: Ryan Hanigan (.218/.318/.324, 5 HR in 263 PAs)
It's a safe bet that Castillo will be in the lineup by the end of the year unless the team surprises everyone by trading him. Blake Swihart, the game's top catching prospect, also figures to be in the mix behind the plate after a season-ending injury to backstop Christian Vazquez.
The two top free agent signings also performed well in the postseason. Sandoval impressed in the postseason while slashing .366/.423/.465 en route to a third World Series title. Ramirez, who hit .345/.402/.638 with 20 homers in just 86 games back in 2013, went 6-16 as the Dodgers fell to the Cardinals in four NLDS games.
The biggest addition the team made, however, is unlikely to have his name on a major league lineup card this year. Between a signing bonus and a matching penalty, the Red Sox committed $63 million to bring in 19-year-old infield prospect Yoan Moncada, who has been compared to Robinson Cano. His impact won't be felt in 2015, but it could be immense in the future.
The pitching staff might be a little less exciting. While on a subpar track last summer, general manager Ben Cherington sought to maximize his assets, trading three fifths of a rotation that had won the fall classic just months earlier (Ryan Dempster took a year off before retiring and Clay Buchholz's value took too big of a hit to make him an attractive trade candidate).
By way of Yoenis Cespedes, former Sox ace Jon Lester has essentially netted the team one season of righty groundballer Rick Porcello. John Lackey, who reportedly would have preferred retirement to playing one year at the veteran minimum salary in Boston (an injury stipulation he agreed to when he signed), was shipped off for righty Joe Kelly and first baseman/outfielder Allen Craig. Jake Peavy brought in farmhand Heath Hembree and 22-year-old starter Edwin Escobar, who was a highly-regarded prospect just a year ago. Rubby De La Rosa, who started 18 games for the Sox last year, was dealt along with Allen Webster for lefty Wade Miley. That deal came less than two years after Boston acquired De La Rosa and Webster from the Dodgers in the August 2012 megadeal in which Los Angeles took on over $250 million in salary along with Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto.
On the free agent front, the Red Sox signed Justin Masterson, who began his career in Boston but was traded to Cleveland for Victor Martinez in 2009, and righty Alexi Ogando, who was effective both as a starter and a reliever in Texas before an injury-plagued 2014. Masterson figured to be one of the more sought-after free agent pitching prizes heading into the season, but settled for a one-year deal to rebuild value after a poor year. Still, Boston has found success with such pillow contracts in the past, like when third baseman Adrian Beltre spent an excellent 2010 season at Fenway.
Buchholz (5.34 ERA, 1.386 WHIP, 7 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 170.1 IP)
Porcello (3.43 ERA, 1.231 WHIP, 5.7 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 204.2 IP)
Miley (4.34 ERA, 1.401 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 201.1 IP)
Masterson (5.88 ERA, 1.632 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 4.8 BB/9, 128.2 IP)
Kelly (starting on DL, but expected back before team needs fifth starter) (4.20 ERA, 1.349 WHIP, 6.2 K/9, 3.9 BB/9, 96.1 IP)
In the cases of Buchholz and Masterson, All-Star 2013 campaigns provide some reason for optimism. Buchholz was having a Cy Young Award-quality year when he went down midseason, finishing the year with a 1.74 ERA, a 1.025 WHIP, 8 K/9 and 3 BB/9 over 108.1 innings. Masterson struck out 195 batters while pitching to a 3.45 ERA and 1.202 WHIP over 193 innings, limiting his walks to 3.5 per nine.
Porcello, as a groundballer, should see a real boost in numbers with a stronger infield defense in Boston than in Detroit.
As for the bullpen, right-handed closer Koji Uehara (2.52 ERA, 0.917 WHIP, 11.2K/9, 1.1 BB/9, 26-5 in save opportunities) will open the season on the DL, but is expected back by mid-April. In the meantime, righty Edward Mujica (3.9 ERA, 1.383 WHIP, 6.5 K/9, 2.1 BB/9) will get the ball in the ninth. Righty Junichi Tazawa (2.86 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, 2.4 BB/9), lefty Craig Breslow (5.96 ERA, 1.859 WHIP, 6.1 K/9, 4.6 BB/9), Ogando (pitched just 25 innings last year) and Robbie Ross (6.20 ERA, 1.698 WHIP, 5.9 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 78.1 IP starting and relieving for the Rangers) are expected to round out the pen.
In the minor leagues, righties Brandon Workman (5.17 ERA, 1.425 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 3.7 BB/9, 87 IP starting and relieving) and Matt Barnes (3.95 ERA, 1.292 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, 127.2 IP at AAA) could be immediate options. Top pitching prospect Henry Owens (currently ranked 19th by MLB.com, 44th by Baseball America and 46th by Baseball Prospectus) could be a big factor later in the year, but has pitched just 38 innings at AAA and likely needs some more seasoning.
For the Red Sox, the long road to October begins Monday at 3:05 p.m. in Philadelphia.