Since capturing the 2013 World Series Championship just a few months ago, the Boston Red Sox have had a tough go of it in free agency. Key players like catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury have signed elsewhere. Free agent shortstop Stephen Drew, a Scott Boras client, remains un-signed as Boras likely smells blood and will wait to see just how desperate Boston is to re-sign his highly coveted client. And despite the buzz around Major League Baseball regarding Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, Boston is not expected to pursue his services for 2014. The question now becomes, where does this leave Boston in the highly competitive AL East Division next year?
Boston's main rival for the last 100 years or so, the New York Yankees, are in terrible shape heading into 2014. In fact, it has been roughly 20 years since the Bronx Bombers have looked this bad on paper. While New York was able to snag Ellsbury away from Boston and catcher Brian McCann from Atlanta, that is a very small consolation for their loss of Robinson Cano to the Seattle Mariners. In addition to losing Cano, team captain Derek Jeter was only able to play in 17 games last year while battling injuries and Father Time. With the looming suspension of third-baseman Alex Rodriguez and the retirements of Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, this could actually be a re-building year for the Yankees.
With the Toronto Blue Jays occupying the AL East cellar, the two main competitors for Boston in the 2014 divisional race could be the Baltimore Orioles and the Tampa Bay Rays. After 14 consecutive losing seasons, Baltimore surprised the baseball world in 2012 with a 93-win season and their first post-season appearance since 1997. While the Orioles took a step backwards in 2013 by missing the playoffs in the first year of the expanded wild-card field, their young core unit remains in-tact for this season. All-Star position players Manny Machado (20), Adam Jones (27), Chris Davis (27), Matt Wieters (27), and JJ Hardy (31) are all returning and will be ready to contribute. The question for Orioles manager Buck Showalter moving forward will be all about pitching: Is there enough starting pitching behind the 25-year old ace Chris Tillman and who will replace the production of Jim Johnson in the bullpen?
As for the Tampa Bay Rays, their major move thus far has been holding onto their franchise left-handed hurler David Price. Despite rumors that Price will likely bolt for a major payday in a bigger market once his current contract expires, the Rays have decided not to deal Price in an attempt to win big now. Former Los Angeles Dodger James Loney enjoyed a phenomenal 2013 season at first base with the Rays and re-signed with Tampa for three more years on January 3rd. Other moves for Tampa Bay included the acquisitions of former 40-save closer Heath Bell and catcher Ryan Hanigan. The Rays have struck gold with reclamation projects in the closer role before with Rafael Soriano and Fernando Rodney and are hoping for a similar result with Bell. Ryan Hanigan will definitely give some much needed depth behind the plate as current starter Jose Molina is clearly not an everyday catcher. The catcher position has been a sore spot for this club ever since Dioner Navarro’s lone All-Star appearance in 2008.
While Boston has taken a step backwards since their October success, they are still equipped with stalwarts like Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz whose consistent production will likely be enough to keep Boston in the playoff hunt throughout the season. The success or failure of Boston in 2014 will depend upon the production of their youngsters who will have to play a larger role on the team this year. Specifically, outfielder Jackie Bradley (23) and infielder Xander Bogaerts (21) will have to adjust quickly to their expanded roles in order for Boston to keep pace in the AL East.