FORT MYERS, Fla. — It is the question on the minds of fans across New England, from Portland to Providence.
Can the Red Sox do it again?
No team won back-to-back World Series since the New York Yankees won three in a row from 1998-2000. Since then, only the 2008-09 Philadelphia Phillies and the 2010-11 Texas Rangers won back-to-back pennants. The Red Sox came tantalizingly close in 2008 when they fell one victory short of returning to the World Series after winning it in 2007.
So, as pitchers and catchers began rolling into Fort Myers, the challenge was clear.
“The competition’s really stiff,” Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington said. “There’s 29 other teams trying to (win). It’s a very tough game, tough league, tough schedule. It’s a long season. Teams can be just as good the following year and not win the final game in October just because it’s hard to control those outcomes all the time. We’re not spending much time thinking about the outcomes. We’re really just trying to focus on what we felt allowed us to be successful last year, and that’s trying to make disciplined decisions and sticking to a process and a set of principles that we believe in.”
And so, the Red Sox return virtually the same roster that led the majors with 97 regular-season wins, defeated the pitching-rich Detroit Tigers in the American League Championship Series and beat the St. Louis Cardinals in six games in the World Series.
First baseman Mike Napoli was re-signed to reprise his role as a righthander slugger in the middle of the order, and the Red Sox retained their full complement of six veteran starting pitchers, giving them valuable depth and insurance against the inevitability of injuries.
There were a few defections, though. Most notably, leadoff-hitting center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who bolted for a $153 million contract from the rival Yankees. Switch-hitting catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia signed a three-year deal with the Miami Marlins, but only after the Red Sox made a one-year commitment to veteran A.J. Pierzynski. And shortstop Stephen Drew remains unsigned, with a possibility that he still could return if he is willing to accept a one-year contract.
The biggest question will be how to replace Ellsbury, a perennial 50-steal threat and mainstay in the leadoff spot since 2008. Touted rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. is the favorite to take over in center field, although he will be pushed in spring training by recently signed Grady Sizemore, who is trying to make a comeback after missing the past two seasons because of microfracture surgery on both knees. At the top of the order, manager John Farrell likely will use a combination of players, including outfielder Daniel Nava against right-handed pitchers and outfielder Shane Victorino against tough lefties.
Overall, the Red Sox expect at least a short-term drop-off in offense from center field. But they were the only team in the majors to score 800 runs last season despite a below-average on-base-plus-slugging percentage from their third basemen and a wrist injury that compromised second baseman Dustin Pedroia’s power. With a healthy Pedroia and the potential for a bounce-back season from third baseman Will Middlebrooks, they believe they can make up for what they will lose in Ellsbury.
The Red Sox also face the challenge of keeping their pitchers healthy and fresh following an extended October run. In particular, starting left-hander Jon Lester, starting righty John Lackey, righty closer Koji Uehara and heavily taxed relievers lefty Craig Breslow and right-hander Junichi Tazawa will be brought along slowly. According to Farrell, pitching coach Juan Nieves has outlined a plan that would involve Lester and Lackey pitching with one extra day of rest during the first half of spring training before resuming a more normal workload. And even if Uehara was not coming off a career-high 88 innings, including playoffs, he would be hard-pressed to sustain his dominance from a season in which he posted a 1.09 ERA.
Keep a close eye on 21-year-old shortstop Xander Bogaerts, the Red Sox’ top prospect who burst onto the scene in the playoffs and is expected to have a spot in the lineup, either at shortstop or third base depending on Drew’s future. In recent years, Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Yasiel Puig have emerged as potentially transcendent young starts. Bogaerts has the talent to be the next big thing.
SOX NOTES: RHP Ryan Dempster announced Sunday that he would not pitch this season because of “physical reasons and his desire to spend more time with his kids.” Dempster was a disappointing 8-9 with a 4.57 ERA in 171 1/3 innings last year after signing a two-year, $26.5 million free agent deal. The Red Sox will place Dempster on the restricted list, and he will not receive his $13.25 million salary for this year. Dempster said neck problems factored in his decision. “I don’t feel like I am capable of performing to the ability and standard that I am accustomed to,” he said. “I feel it’s in the best interest of both the club but most importantly, myself, to step away from playing baseball at this time. The time is right. I’m not saying retirement but I definitely won’t be playing this season.” Dempster, 36, is 132-133 with a 4.35 ERA over 16 seasons.