To the surprise of many, the Red Sox were World Series champions in 2013. Now comes the hard part. The bar has been set higher-- much higher. No more talk of "bridge years." Bobby Valentine is a distant memory. Bobby who? Now the talk is about defending a championship.
To the Red Sox credit, they didn't make many changes to their 2013 championship team. Here are five burning questions that I will be looking to have answered as spring training heats up:
Who replaces Jacoby Ellsbury in centerfield?
It'll take some getting used to seeing Ellsbury in that Yankees' uniform. It'll be easier when we see Ellsbury wearing a Scranton Wilkes-Barre uniform at McCoy Stadium while rehabbing some injury. The Red Sox were wise to not match New York's 7-year, $153 million offer. I still shake my head at the thought of the Yankees giving him that much money and allowing Robinson Cano to walk.
The Red Sox made no deal to get a veteran outfielder. Nope. They were comfortable with starting the season with youngster Jackie Bradley, Jr. OK, maybe not that comfortable-- they did bring in veteran Grady Sizemore just prior to camp opening. Ellsbury became what Sizemore once was. Now the Red Sox are hoping Sizemore can become Ellsbury again who once was what Sizemore was. Got that?
Bradley had an outstanding spring last year, but couldn't carry it over to the regular season. He struggled against lefties (2 hits in 25 at-bats), despite having had success against lefties in the minors. His defense will make few miss Ellsbury.
Look for the Red Sox to be looking for an outfielder by June with Shane Victorino (who is injury-prone, as well) shifting to center field.
Will the Red Sox call Stephen Drew?
The left side of the Red Sox infield is a huge question mark. Granted, it's not as bad as the situation with the Yankees' left side of the infield. The big difference is the Red Sox have huge upside there.
Xander Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks could go on to become perennial All-Stars at their respective positions. Then again, Middlebrooks could start out in the minors in 2014 and Bogaerts could struggle to hit .250 in his first full season in the majors.
If that scenario plays out, and Stephen Drew signs with the Mets or Yankees, then Red Sox fans might not be too happy with the Red Sox front office. As for right now, Drew is still waiting by the phone.
I think Bogaerts will adapt well to the majors. Think Manny Machado. Maybe not that good, but, then again, it wouldn't surprise me. The kid can hit. The ball just sounds different coming off his bat. The question will be his defense at shortstop because, well, we haven't seen it at the major league level.
Middlebrooks is more of a question mark. His swing tends to get a bit long and sometimes he seems a bit distracted at third base. Maybe the lack of a certain field reporter standing nearby will make him more focused.
His power is undeniable. From all reports, he has come to camp even more bulked up. Middlebrooks is at his best when he is not trying to pull everything, but instead tries to spray the ball to all fields. That's what I'll be looking for.
Is Edward Mujica healthy?
Edward Mujica played for the Cardinals last year. The Red Sox played the Cardinals in the World Series. Do you remember seeing Edward Mujica pitch against the Red Sox? Of course you don't. That's because he didn't pitch.
People look at his end numbers and are, rightfully, impressed. For the first half of the year, Mujica was one of the top two or three closers in all of baseball. But he fell off in September (11.05 ERA) due to, depending on who you believe, a groin injury or shoulder fatigue.
I always believed it was an arm/shoulder injury so I will be watching to see how effective Mujica is early on. He is not being asked to be Boston's closer. That job belongs to Koji Uehara. But do we really think Uehara can repeat his injury-free 2013 season? Mujica will be expected to be first in line to close games if Uehara goes down.
As the Red Sox learned last year, it is good to have second or third or, even, fourth options to close out games.
Why is Jake Peavy still here?
In one of the bigger upsets of the offseason-- Jake Peavy is still with Boston. I figured he'd be put-putting his duck boat to some National League city by now.
The Red Sox starting rotation looks to be Lester, Lackey, Buchholz, Doubront, and Brandon Workman. Youngsters Allen Webster, Anthony Ranaudo, and Henry Owens (more about him later) aren't too far away. The situation was even more clouded before Ryan Dempster decided to call it quits last week.
The Red Sox even brought in veteran Chris Capuano to provide depth for the starting rotation. Isn't that what Peavy is? So why is he still here? I guess we'll find out.
I was all aboard bringing in Peavy halfway through last year, but I worry about him pitching him an entire year in Boston. His velocity was down towards the end of last season. That's a major concern.
How soon before we see Henry Owens (left) in Boston?
The one player I am most eager to see this Spring is Henry Owens. The lanky lefty has been compared to Clayton Kershaw by one teammate. His minor league numbers show a guy who strikes out a lot of batters, but also walks a ton of them. It looks like he just needs to harness his electric stuff and then the sky is the limit.