Richard Justice

Great expectations nothing new to reloaded Red Sox

Great expectations nothing new to reloaded Red Sox

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval over here. Justin Masterson and Wade Miley over there. Rusney Castillo is beginning his first full season with his new team. So is Joe Kelly.

Shane Victorino is back, healthy and renewed. Likewise for Dustin Pedroia, who's feeling better than he did at any point last season. Oh, and there's a kid behind the plate and another at shortstop. As manager John Farrell said, "There's always an eye toward that blend of players."

These are the 2015 Boston Red Sox. They don't much resemble the 2014 Red Sox. Regardless, optimism is an easy sell.

"It's exciting," Pedroia said. "We've got a lot of good players. It's our job to kind of play together and figure what makes us good together."

One thing that won't change: Expectations.

They're high. As usual.

"There's a good vibe," first baseman Mike Napoli said. "Lot of guys here early, working. It should be fun."

Around midseason last summer, Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington did about the toughest thing someone in his position can do: He took a tough-love look at his club and came to two conclusions. The first was that the Red Sox weren't good enough to make the playoffs. Beyond that, he saw that his organization was pitching-rich, but it lacked offense. So he went to work.

Cherington dismantled a large part of the club that won the 2013 World Series, and on Opening Day this season, the Red Sox almost certainly will have three position players and four starting pitchers who weren't even in the organization a year ago. He focused on offense, adding two free agents, Sandoval to play third and Ramirez in left. Last summer, he signed Castillo, a Cuban free-agent center fielder.

Buchholz ready for 2015

The Red Sox's Opening Day starter could be the lone returning veteran -- Clay Buchholz. Behind him likely will be Rick Porcello, Miley, Masterson and Kelly.

Finally, Xander Bogaerts will get another chance to prove he can play shortstop, while young Christian Vazquez takes over at catcher.

The Red Sox have made so many changes that it may be a while to see how the various pieces fit together. But with Pedroia and Victorino both feeling healthy and with David Ortiz back for a 19th season, the Red Sox seem capable of making another worst-to-first jump in the standings.

"When you start to plug in the names, this has the chance to be a lineup that doesn't give the opposition many breathers," Farrell said. "There's the ability to do some damage up and down the lineup."

Victorino is a big part of things. He played just 30 games last season before undergoing back surgery, and besides his production, the Red Sox missed his energy and his enthusiasm. Both those are back in a big way this spring. The Red Sox have outfield depth, but Victorino's mere presence is important.

"It's everything he brings," Pedroia said. "We missed that. His professionalism. The way he played right field. That's a game-changer. It changes the way I position myself, the way the center fielder plays."

As Victorino said, "That's something I was always taught to do -- to play every game like it's your last. It's energy and fun and those kinds of things. That all translates into having that attitude that tomorrow's never promised.

"Having surgery made me realize how much I miss it. I'm fortunate in how lucky I'd been up to that point in my career. I never had anything that set me back. I'm back to being that player. The most important thing is staying healthy. The rest will take care of itself."

Pedroia arrives at camp

Pedroia brings some of those same intangibles. He plays every game recklessly, as if it were Game 7 of the World Series. His teammates feed off his approach and his competitive fire.

Pedroia soldiered through a 2014 season in which his left wrist hindered everything he did. Finally, in September, he underwent surgery aimed at being 100 percent this spring. He showed up early, and he has looked like his old self.

In a demanding city, no player is tougher on himself than Pedroia. And so, his good health will be another step in the right direction.

"That's the thing," Pedroia said. "Everyone says, 'Well, Boston it's a tough place to play.' Yeah, every game is looked at like a World Series game. That's the best part. Driving to the field or just around the city, you smell it. It's baseball year-round. I love being in that environment."

When Cherington constructed the team that won the 2013 World Series, he focused on getting players who would embrace the whole Red Sox experience. Napoli was one of those guys.

"I love it. It's how I am," Napoli said. "I like that you're expected to win every day, you're expected to do good every at-bat, you're expected to win a championship. It's enjoyable to go to the park every day and play in that atmosphere. It's a great place to play. It's so cool going to that every day."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.