Opening Day is here! Jon Lester takes the ball in Baltimore today for the defending World Series' Champion Boston Red Sox. Boy does that have a nice sound to it and who would have thunk it? As we projected last year at this time, the Sox had the ingredients for success heading into 2013 but so many fortuitous factors needed to fall into place for them to contend; it was difficult to imagine them winning their division, not to mention basking in October glory. Now they are playing with House Money.
Recent history is stacked against the Sox as they attempt to become just the 3rd team in the last 35 years to repeat as champs. The journey begins this week in Camden Yards against the Orioles and the Home Opener is Friday against the Milwaukee Brewers. What are their chances? As always, success in baseball - particularly in October - starts with good pitching. The Red Sox have great organizational depth in that department with a formidable starting rotation and a bevy of prospects just waiting for an opportunity. Even if John Lackey backslides a bit and Clay Buchholz spends his predictable month on the DL, the Red Sox have a 200-inning horse in Lester and middle-of-the-rotation durability in Jake Peavy and Felix Doubront. The starting staff should be an asset all year.
The bullpen is slightly revamped but the main cogs are still in place. Last October Junichi Tazawa and Brandon Workman emerged as the bridge to Koji Uehara, and that system will be in place this year as well. Look for Andrew Miller and Edward Mujica to be strong contributors in spot situations. The American League East is laden with potent line-ups and Boston's pitching will be tested all year.
Speaking of potent line-ups, the Red Sox have one of the best in the league. Mike Napoli is re-signed and David Ortiz has been extended another year so the heart of the order is in place through 2015. Dustin Pedroia will hit .300 and score 100 runs as he always does, and look for his power numbers to increase this year as he's recovered from a hand injury that hampered his slugging percentage last year. Jacoby Ellsbury has fled south for dollars and pinstripes and Boston cannot replace his speed on the bases, but he was always injury-prone and the Sox can at least compensate for his absence. Maybe reclamation project Grady Sizemore will be the right fit to replace Ellsbury, though it's impossible to predict how healthy and productive he will be over 162 games. The X-factor in the Sox lineup will be the X-man, Xander Bogaerts. The phenom impressed last fall but how will he adapt as big league pitchers test his plate discipline? The left side of the infield in particular - Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks - has tremendous upside but the learning curve may be steep.
The challenge to Boston's throne will begin in the AL East, baseball's deepest division. The Rays remain the primary concern with their great starting pitching and balanced line-up. Baltimore and Toronto will score plenty of runs but both teams lack pitching depth. The Yankees spent exorbitantly to compete but their roster is old; the Bronx Bombers would have a great squad if the calendar year read 2009.
The Sox should win their division and will likely have to go through Detroit or Texas to claim the American League Pennant. So many teams in the AL could surprise us, though, just like Boston did last year: Kansas City, Cleveland, Oakland, Seattle. .. The list goes on. The Red Sox have won consecutive World Series once in franchise history back in 1915-16, so the achievement is not unprecedented, but it's way more difficult with 30 teams vying for that crown. Let the hunt begin for another Red October!