FORT MYERS, Fla. — The odds of winning another World Series are stacked against the Boston Red Sox even before they play a game.
Over the last 35 years, there were only two repeat champions: the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992-93 and the dynastic New York Yankees, who won four titles in five seasons, including three in a row from 1998-2000. Since 2000, defending World Series champs averaged only 88.4 wins. Six of the last 13 didn’t even make the playoffs one year after spraying champagne.
While repeating is difficult, it isn’t impossible. And with 19 of 25 players from the World Series roster back in the fold, including core stars David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Jon Lester, the Red Sox believe they are well-positioned to win again.
“I don’t think we’re looking at it as repeating,” said Lester, the Red Sox’s ace lefty. “We look at it as a new goal and a new challenge. We’re going to go out there and do a lot of the same things we did last year as far as grinding each game out, worrying about now and not tomorrow or yesterday or anything like that. Not a lot has changed. I expect a lot of the same from these guys.”
The Red Sox accomplished most of their goals in spring training, including finding a replacement for Jacoby Ellsbury, the center fielder who bolted for a $153 million contract from the rival New York Yankees.
Once among the league’s most dynamic players, Grady Sizemore proved he is finally healthy after microfracture surgery on both knees. He outplayed rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. during spring training and was set to claim the job in the days leading up to the season opener.
The Red Sox also began to infuse their core with a group of young players. Touted 21-year-old Xander Bogaerts will take over at shortstop. He is displaying the 20-homer power and veteran poise that made him such a prized prospect. Meanwhile, third baseman Will Middlebrooks will look to bounce back after a disappointing 2013 in which he wound up back in the minors for seven weeks.
“This is a game for young players,” team president Larry Lucchino said. “The idea of having young players play such pivotal roles on the team is one of the most interesting dynamics of the game. I love the idea of going with younger players and watching them develop in front of our eyes.”
MLB Team Report — Boston Red Sox — NOTES, QUOTES
–RF Shane Victorino injured his right hamstring March 29 in the spring training finale, and he underwent an MRI exam March 30. More tests were expected to be done, leaving Victorino’s status for the March 31 season opener uncertain. Manager John Farrell said Jackie Bradley Jr., who was sent down to Triple-A Pawtucket, could be called back up if Victorino needs to be replaced.
–LHP Jon Lester will start Opening Day. The 30-year-old veteran, who helped the Red Sox win the World Series last fall, will pitch March 31 against the Orioles in Baltimore. “I know, earth-shattering news, and the world is round. So he starts Monday,” manager John Farrell said March 27 in Fort Myers, Fla.
Lester, 30, will pitch the season opener for the fourth time. He is coming off a World Series in which he went 2-0 with a 0.59 ERA as the Red Sox topped the St. Louis Cardinals. In five postseason starts, Lester went 4-1 with a 1.56 ERA. In the 2013 regular season, Lester finished 15-8 with a 3.75 ERA. A two-time All-Star, Lester has a 100-56 career record and a 3.76 ERA in eight seasons with Boston.
–Contract extension talks between the Red Sox and Lester are being put on hold, according to the Providence Journal.
General manager Ben Cherington told the newspaper the two sides decided to “hit the pause button” on the negotiations after hoping to have a deal worked out by Opening Day.
Cherington recently said talks were going well but since they could not work out a deal, they decided to focus on the season instead. Lester and the club are still interested in possibly reviving talks later in this year.
Lester, 30, has one year left on his contract. He is reportedly looking for a new deal for five years and about $100 million.
–DH David Ortiz got his wish for a contract extension that almost certainly will keep him with the Red Sox for the rest of his career. “You have a guy like David who’s meant so much to the team, on and off the field, for so long, he sort of goes beyond the typical player relationship,” GM Ben Cherington said. “I think we owe him our time, a conversation, whenever he wants it. That doesn’t mean we’re always going to find a way to resolve something or find agreement on something, but he’s sort of passed in our eyes the typical player in the context of a contract negotiation.”
Ortiz will make $16 million in 2015, a $1 million raise from his 2014 salary. The agreement also includes a vesting option for 2016 that has a base value of $10 million and escalates to $11 million with 425 plate appearances in 2015, $12 million with 475, $13 million with 525, $14 million with 550, $15 million with 575 and $16 million with 600. There’s a 2017 club option with the same escalating values.
“I guess you guys get tired of me talking about contracts all the time,” Ortiz said of the importance of the option years.
–LHP Jon Lester isn’t about to judge anyone else’s decisions, but he admits he wouldn’t have turned down the $144 million the Tigers put in front of RHP Max Scherzer. “It would be tough, let’s put it that way,” Lester said. “It would be tough.” Like Scherzer, Lester is eligible for free agency after the season. However, while Scherzer tabled conversations, Lester is still trying to work out a deal. The left-handed Lester and right-handed Scherzer were born seven months apart in 1984. Lester owns the better overall career, with two All-Star appearances and 100 victories before his 30th birthday. Scherzer has had the best single season, his 21-3 Cy Young Award-winning 2013 that ended with a loss to Lester’s Red Sox in the American League Championship Series.
–3B Will Middlebrooks can’t recite his spring training batting average (.341 through March 26), but he knows he feels different at the plate.
“Approach-wise, this is the most consistent I’ve been,” Middlebrooks said. “Just swinging at what I want to swing at, not minding going down 0-2 if the pitcher throws me what I’m not looking for. I just feel comfortable throughout the count with all pitches — off-speed, fastball, in, out.”
A free swinger with power who is far more prone to striking out than drawing a walk, Middlebrooks never will be confused with his Red Sox teammates who grind out long at-bats and drive up pitch counts. However, he spent considerable time talking with LF Jonny Gomes and DH David Ortiz in an attempt to develop a more disciplined approach.
“My contact’s there, power’s there, and I think I just finally am seeing the ball how I should be,” he said. “I think a lot of that goes with being healthy and working on my approach, talking with the guys, watching a lot of video. A lot’s gone into it, so it’s nice for it to all start to come together a little bit.”
–LHP Craig Breslow (left shoulder soreness) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to March 21. Breslow didn’t make his spring training debut until March 24, giving him one week to prove he was ready for Opening Day. But the Red Sox are, in manager John Farrell’s words, taking a realistic approach with Breslow, and it is telling that the veteran lefty was pitching in minor league games. By keeping him out of big league spring training games, the Sox are giving themselves flexibility to backdate his stint on the disabled list. Farrell said the move could be made retroactively, which would allow Breslow to be activated as early as April 5. In Breslow’s absence, the Red Sox are expected to give the final seat in the bullpen to RHP Brandon Workman, who would be used in a multi-inning role after getting stretched out as a starter in spring training.
–C A.J. Pierzynski is 37, only four years younger than Jason Varitek. He made his big league debut in 1998, Varitek’s first full season in the majors. Pierzynski has started 1,589 games behind the plate, the most among active catchers and 217 more than Varitek in his celebrated 15-year career. However, that hasn’t stopped Pierzynski from soliciting pointers from Varitek this spring. Two years after retiring, Varitek spent time in camp in his role as a special adviser, assisting catching instructor Dana LeVangie. Pierzynski sought out the former Red Sox captain to unearth a few of the secrets that sparked his admiration for his longtime catching contemporary.
“He’s one of those guys, he came before me, so you kind of always looked up to him,” Pierzynski said. “To be able to be in the same organization and be able to talk to him and learn things from him, it’s huge. You can always get better, and he was one of the best, so anything he can bring to the table to help me, I’m definitely going to take and use.”
QUOTE TO NOTE: “It’s like I told Ben when we were going through this negotiation: ‘There’s going to be that day when I’m not going to feel like doing what I normally do. When that happens, everybody is going to know it.’ Meanwhile, I feel great. I’m still hungry. I want to keep on winning. Winning is good. You feel great when you go out there and kick some ass.” — DH David Ortiz, after signing a contract extension that likely will keep him with the Red Sox for the rest of his career.
MLB Team Report — Boston Red Sox — ROSTER REPORT
1. LHP Jon Lester
2. RHP John Lackey
3. LHP Felix Doubront
4. RHP Jake Peavy
5. RHP Clay Buchholz
Lester is the ace after going 15-8 with a 3.75 ERA last season and playing a starring role in the playoffs. Lester went 2-0 with a 0.59 ERA against the Cardinals in the World Series, and he may have been named MVP if not for DH David Ortiz batting .688. Lester will make his fourth consecutive Opening Day start, and he was discussing a contract extension that would remove him from the free agent market next winter and possibly allow him to finish his career with the Red Sox.
Lackey made a successful return last season after missing 2012 while recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery. Doubront may have the highest upside of any pitcher in the rotation, posting a 2.99 ERA over a 15-start stretch last season while Lester struggled and Buchholz was injured.
Peavy was acquired at the trade deadline and went 4-1 with a 4.04 ERA in 10 starts for the Red Sox. He isn’t nearly as dominant as earlier in his career when he won a Cy Young Award, but he remains a proven veteran.
In many ways, Buchholz is the wild card in the rotation. When healthy, he is among the best pitchers in the league. However, Buchholz has never stayed healthy for a full season. Last year, he went 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA but missed nearly three months with a shoulder strain, then battled a lat injury in the playoffs and World Series. He hasn’t made more than 29 starts or thrown more than 189 1/3 innings in a season, so the Red Sox are slotting him at the back of the rotation to build in additional rest wherever possible.
RHP Koji Uehara (closer)
RHP Edward Mujica
RHP Junichi Tazawa
LHP Andrew Miller
RHP Burke Badenhop
LHP Chris Capuano
RHP Brandon Workman
Uehara wasn’t the Red Sox’s first or second choice to close games last season, but after injuries to RHPs Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey, he emerged as one of the most dominant ninth-inning pitchers in history. Uehara posted a 1.09 ERA and 21 saves, and his 0.57 walks-plus-hits-to-innings-pitched ratio was the lowest in major league history.
The Red Sox learned last season that bullpen depth is essential, and because Uehara threw a career-high 88 innings (including the playoffs), they signed Mujica to serve as the primary setup man and closer insurance. It is a role Mujica held last season with the Cardinals, for whom he notched 37 saves and a 2.78 ERA. Tazawa will reprise his seventh- and eighth-inning role, and he should return with added confidence after a stellar postseason.
Miller will serve as the primary lefty after coming back from season-ending Lisfranc surgery on his left foot last July. Eventually, he will be joined by LHP Craig Breslow, who will open the season on the disabled list. Until then, Workman will pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen, although the Red Sox still view him as a long-term starter. Badenhop was signed as a free agent because of his ability to get groundballs, while the addition of Capuano gives the Red Sox another multi-inning reliever and depth for the rotation.
1. CF Grady Sizemore
2. 2B Dustin Pedroia
3. DH David Ortiz
4. 1B Mike Napoli
5. LF Daniel Nava
6. RF Shane Victorino
7. SS Xander Bogaerts
8. C A.J. Pierzynski
9. 3B Will Middlebrooks
Sizemore was the front-runner to claim the center field job in the final days of spring training, having proven he was healthy again after missing the past two seasons while recovering from multiple surgeries. From 2006-08, he was among the most dynamic players in the majors, and the Red Sox are hoping the 31-year-old can help them replace Jacoby Ellsbury in center field and atop the order. Pedroia is healthy again after playing almost all of last season with a torn ligament in his wrist. At age 38, Ortiz is as productive as ever. He was one of only three players last season to bat at least .300 with 30 homers and 100 RBIs, joining Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt and Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera.
Napoli remains a middle-of-the-order force and a right-handed complement to the lefty-swinging Ortiz. Nava is a switch hitter, but because he is better from the left side of the plate, he typically starts against right-handed pitching and sits against lefties. Victorino was productive in his first season with the Red Sox, and after recovering from offseason thumb surgery, he may go back to hitting from both sides of the plate. He batted almost exclusively from the right side down the stretch and in the playoffs last year.
Bogaerts may wind up batting in the middle of the order before long, although the Red Sox likely will take some pressure off the touted rookie by starting him lower in the order. Ditto for Middlebrooks, who will attempt to rebound from a poor second season after a promising rookie year. Pierzynski takes over for departed free agent C Jarrod Saltalamacchia and arrives with a proven track record for durability, having started more games behind the plate (1,589) than any active major league catcher.
C David Ross
OF Jonny Gomes
INF Jonathan Herrera
INF/OF Mike Carp
Ross is so well-regarded within the organization that he took over behind the plate for starter Jarrod Saltalamacchia midway through the World Series. Known for his game-calling and defense, he figures to play more than the typical backup catcher. Gomes is part of a productive left field platoon with Nava, playing primarily against left-handed pitching.
Herrera takes over as a versatile middle infielder capable of playing shortstop, second base and third base. Carp was valuable as a super-sub and a left-handed pinch hitter last season. In only 216 at-bats, he had nine homers, 43 RBIs and a .523 slugging percentage.
–RF Shane Victorino (sore right hamstring) was hurt March 29. His status for the season opener was uncertain.
–LHP Craig Breslow (left shoulder soreness) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to March 21. He continues to rebuild his arm strength after a taxing postseason. He isn’t expected to miss more than a few weeks.
–RHP Steven Wright (sports hernia surgery in January 2014) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to March 21. He figures to be sent to the minors when he is healthy.