COMMENTARY | Although spring training is now less than two months away, the Boston Red Sox are not necessarily done tinkering with their 2014 roster. However, barring a major surprise, the core of their roster appears to be set.
Topping the 2013 season, which saw the team beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, will be hard to do but the Red Sox are built to be an annual contender. They will be in the hunt once again next season, and hopefully have done enough over the past couple of months to be in a position to repeat as champions.
As the last dreary winter weeks fall away and it gets closer and closer to "Truck Day," let's take a look at the team's major strengths and weaknesses for next season as things currently stand:
Veteran Leaders: The positive clubhouse culture was frequently cited as a major reason for Boston's success last year. The Red Sox bolstered long-tenured mainstays like Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester and David Ortiz by bringing in veterans known for their positive influence in Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino and Jonny Gomes to name a few.
This offseason, the team has lost outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, both veteran starters who spent years in Boston, to free agency. They will be tough to replace, but Boston has brought in some new experienced players to help shoulder the load.
Perhaps the most prominent offseason acquisition thus far is new starting catcher A.J. Pierzynski. The 37-year-old has a reputation as being disliked by opponents but embraced by teammates. Former teammate J.J. Putz explained to Sports Illustrated's Ben Reiter in 2012, "He's not a baby, but just a guy who is so passionate that he doesn't hold anything back. Until you play with him, you have a misperception of what he is."
Keeping with the veteran theme, the Red Sox re-signed Napoli to an extension and added relievers Burke Badenhop and Edward Mujica, as outlined by WEEI.com's Alex Speier. The positive clubhouse environment that was so conducive to winning in 2013 seems to be firmly in place again for another run.
Strong Young Talent Pipeline: Despite all the grizzled vets, the team is also very youth-centric. Recently ranked by Baseball America as having the strongest farm system in baseball, there appears to be a steady stream of prospects making their way towards Boston.
Twenty-one-year-old shortstop Xander Bogaerts and 23-year-old outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. are both poised to be 2014 starters after getting their first taste of the majors last season.
There are also many other youngsters ready to contribute if given a chance. Pitchers Allen Webster, Brandon Workman and Rubby De La Rosa are all 25 or under and have big-time power arms.
Catcher Blake Swihart and third baseman Garin Cecchini are a bit younger but aren't far away from being ready.
Better Health: In addition to losing two closers to season-ending injuries, the 2013 Red Sox had two of their most crucial players grit through maladies that fortunately should be healed by the time next season rolls around.
According to ESPN Boston's Jackie MacMullan, Pedroia played nearly all of last season with a severe thumb injury that has since been addressed with surgery. Amazingly, he was still able to play in 160 games and hit .301 with nine home runs and 84 RBIs. Being at full strength should only make the 30-year-old's production improve in 2014.
Likewise, Victorino also had surgery on his thumb. He was able to hit .294 with 15 home runs and 61 RBIs despite missing 40 games because of various injuries caused by his hard-nosed playing style. Having him healthy to start next season will be a huge plus.
Closer Depth Depth: The position looked like an area of strength in 2013, as the team had both Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan on the roster. However, after they were both knocked out before midseason and Junichi Tazawa couldn't handle the role, the ninth inning fell to Koji Uehara.
The 38-year-old right-hander had a season for the ages, finishing with 21 saves and a 1.09 ERA in 73 games. He struck out 101 batters in 74.1 innings while walking just nine batters and permitting a measly 33 hits. He was just as dominant in the postseason, saving a total of seven games and winning the ALCS MVP.
He will be the closer once again in 2014. However, his age and previous issues with injuries (he missed time in 2010 and 2012) should be reason for caution.
There are limited alternate options on the roster with closing experience should they be needed. Only Mujica (who had 37 saves last season for the Cardinals but lost his job because of being homer-prone) and Ryan Dempster (who has worked exclusively as a starter since 2007 and doesn't really have closer stuff any longer) have saved more than 10 games in a season.
Young Players at Key Positions: While the team's prospects are a major positive, they are also an area of concern because of their potential growing pains.
Bradley and Bogaerts appear to be the default starters at two premium positions. If they can't contribute on at least a decent level, it could significantly hamstring the team.
Despite their promise, the plain truth is that he and Bradley have just 135 major league at-bats between them. Even though they are premium prospects, there could be bumps on the road to them realizing their full potential.
In addition to the Yahoo Contributor Network, Andrew Martin has written extensively for Bleacher Report and a number of print publications and websites on the topics of history and sports (particularly the Boston Red Sox and the New England Patriots). He also produces his own blog and has appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts.
You can also follow Andrew on Twitter: @HistorianAndrew.
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