Coming off tough 2014 season, Boston built to contend for AL East in '15
By Hal Bodley
Start with this: When it comes to defending a World Series championship, the 2014 Red Sox were one of the worst in baseball history.
In 2012, the cloud over Red Sox Nation was as dark as it gets. Boston was dreadful, finishing dead last in the tough American League East. But from the depths of despair and 93 losses, the Red Sox picked up the pieces, rebuilt the team and roared to the top of the division and polished off the stunned Cardinals in the 2013 World Series.
A year ago, manager John Farrell stood outside their Spring Training clubhouse and oozed with optimism. World Series championships in back-to-back seasons was his dream. Instead, the thud you heard was the Red Sox hitting the basement concrete once again as the AL East cellar dwellers.
But rather than walk around with his head bowed, executive vice president and general manager Ben Cherington took a deep breath, swallowed hard and became one of the most active movers and shakers in Major League Baseball this offseason.
Cherington spent $88 million to sign Hanley Ramirez, who began in Boston's Minor League system before stops with the Marlins and Dodgers.
And while fans were grieving over the failure of persuading former Red Sox favorite Jon Lester to return to Fenway Park, Cherington pulled off what I consider a shrewd marketing ploy: He gave "The Panda," former Giants All-Star third baseman Pablo Sandoval, a five-year, $95 million deal to bring his talents and charisma to Boston.
Can you imagine how Sandoval will excite Red Sox fans? Sure, he was in the middle of San Francisco's three World Series titles the past five seasons, but I'll guarantee you the Red Sox's marketing department is already ordering stuffed pandas, bobble heads -- you name it.
Sandoval elevated the adrenaline and hopes of Red Sox fans when he was asked recently if Boston would win its division. "We will," he said flatly. At this stage of the winter, it's hard to disagree.
The AL East used to be dominated by the Yankees and Red Sox. No longer do they stand out above the Orioles, Rays and Blue Jays.
The division is very even -- and a tad weak. The O's have lost key ingredients from last year's division championship team. The Rays are recast, and you can never tell about the Jays. The Yanks are one huge question mark.
Throw all that into the crystal ball and it says here that the much-improved Red Sox should be very capable of returning to AL East's top perch.
After finishing last in 2012 and first in '13, will it be déjà vu this season after finishing last again in '14?
Last season, the Red Sox were among the least productive offensive clubs in MLB, posting a .244 team batting average.
"The one thing that clearly stands out is we have now have balance left- and right-handed," Farrell said in a WEEI radio interview. "I've always liked [DH] David Ortiz in the No. 3 hole. You know he's going to come up in the first inning. I think Hanley Ramirez gives David some protection behind him.
"Then, you start to create some protection, and we want to keep [switch-hitting] Sandoval on the left side of the plate as much as possible -- or if you sandwich him in between Ramirez and Napoli, you start to have a formidable middle of the order where you're going left-right-left-right all the way through."
If Cherington could swing a deal for another starting pitcher, such as the Phillies' Cole Hamels or somebody from the Nationals' overpopulated rotation, the Red Sox would be an even stronger division favorite. A veteran starter would strengthen the rotation, which now consists of Clay Buchholz, Joe Kelly, Porcello and fellow newcomers Wade Miley and Justin Masterson.
To swing a deal for a starting pitcher would cost Boston a few top prospects. And that would contradict Cherington's philosophy to remain a contender while at the same time making the team younger.
"I think we're getting closer to figuring out what that next core is, and with that, we're closer to something that's more lasting, more sustainable," Cherington recently told the Boston Herald. "You can't plan on a World Series every year, but we ought to be planning on winning teams and teams that are playing meaningful games in September and getting into October more often than not."
Bottom line: This, the 2015 season, is a challenging new chapter in Red Sox baseball. With the bold moves Cherington & Co. have made, they should be every bit as good as any team in the division, maybe better.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. Follow him @halbodley on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.