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Red Sox look to repeat championship magic

Sports

Red Sox look to repeat championship magic

The Yankees will spend a lot of money.

The Cubs won’t win the World Series.

Aside from those truths, it’s hard to predict anything about baseball.

If someone told you in summer of 2012 that the 2013 World Series would end with Koji Uehara jumping into David Ross’ arms, would you have had any guess as to which team would win that championship?

In 2012, Uehara was gearing up for a playoff run with the Rangers, Ross was fighting for a Wild Card spot with the Braves and the Red Sox were trying to find a home for the fleet of underachieving stars compromising their payroll flexibility while struggling to stay close to .500.

Boston’s magical 2013 season is in many ways defined by the trade they made late in the 2012 season. Offloading Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, and Nick Punto was not just about clearing $275 million in salary obligations off the books, it was about transitioning to a new organizational philosophy. Long-term deals are a thing of the past. Superstars will still find their way to Boston, but they’ll take Dustin Pedroia’s path, not Crawford’s. Free agent signings will be dictated by need and value, not by greed and star power.

The Red Sox front office tinkered around the edges in the 2012-2013 offseason, making short-term investments at moderate prices in role players like Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Uehara, and Ross. Fans and pundits were lukewarm to this strategy, wondering why a team with such vast resources chose neither to go all-in on the top available free agents nor to sell off and begin a rebuilding process (you may recall such confusion in these pages). One good year, of course, doesn’t justify a long-term organizational philosophy, but as the year went on, it started to make more sense.

A great team needs great players. The Red Sox have those. Dustin Pedroia signed an eight year, $110 million contract through 2021, taking far less than his value on the open market to stay with the only big league team he’s ever known. David Ortiz keeps re-signing at reasonable prices (he’ll make $11 million in 2014) and delivering good results (30 home runs and a .395 on-base percentage in 2013). Victorino emerged as a star in his age-32 season, his career-high 6.2 WAR (per Baseball Reference) anchored by deftly patrolling Fenway’s spacious right field.

A great team needs great pitchers. It was unclear as to whether the 2013 Red Sox would have much pitching, with Jon Lester apparently fading fast, Clay Buchholz always fragile, and John Lackey returning to the mound after missing all of 2012 and giving the Red Sox basically nothing the prior two years. Of those prophecies, only Buchholz’s fragility was an issue in 2013, and when Buchholz was on the mound, he was among the best pitchers in baseball, posting a 1.74 ERA on the way to a 12-1 record. Lester and Lackey were excellent in the regular season, and even better in the playoffs, blowing past quality lineups in Tampa, Detroit, and St. Louis.

A great team needs depth. Ryan Dempster struggled in 2013, but Felix Doubront picked up the slack and midseason acquisition Jake Peavy gave the Red Sox all the starting pitching they needed. When closers Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey hit the shelf, Uehara was there to close, with Junichi Tazawa and Craig Breslow establishing a dependable bridge in the late innings. Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes made for a quality platoon in left field and Ross ably split catching duties with Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Mike Carp had the best year of his career in a limited role, slugging .523.

The 2014 edition of the Red Sox will have to get by without Jacoby Ellsbury, an offensive catalyst and defensive stalwart, but Jackie Bradley, Jr. is ready to take the reins and Grady Sizemore is there for insurance. Those two will make a combined $1.24 million in 2014, less than the Yankees will pay Ellsbury every nine games. Stephen Drew hasn’t signed, which means Xander Bogaerts will be forced into an every day role at shortstop. Bogaerts is the best prospect the Sox have had in several years, but even if he or third baseman Will Middlebrooks struggles, the team has the flexibility to add payroll midseason, either through a trade or perhaps by grabbing Drew if he’s still on the market.

Much of the 2013 season felt like lightning in a bottle in Boston. Victorino is not likely to play at a near-MVP level again. Even if Buchholz is healthier, he won’t have another sub-2 ERA. The rookies will struggle to replace Ellsbury’s and Drew’s production at key positions. Koji Uehara is probably not the most dominant pitcher in baseball history, as his .565 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) in 2013 might suggest.

The American League East is still loaded, with the Rays packing their usual combination of star power and depth, the Orioles slowly building an empire, and the Blue Jays and Yankees having spent more on free agents the last two offseasons than the GDP of Dominica. There is no guarantee that the Red Sox win the division again, but it’s hard to imagine them being bad, now or at any time in the recent future.

A worst-case scenario may be the rapid and final decline of David Ortiz, a return to mediocrity for a few of the starting pitchers, and a .500 season.

A best-case scenario involves the beginning of a legendary career for Bogaerts, enviable depth keeping the team from any considerable losing streaks, and a jubilant Koji jumping into someone’s arms in late October.

Baseball is unpredictable. Nevertheless, it’s a good time to be a Red Sox fan.

Bryan O’Connor lives with his wife and two small children in Cumberland. He writes for Replacement Level Baseball Blog and High Heat Stats. You can follow him on Twitter: @replevel.