2014 Preview: Boston Red Sox

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The Boston Red Sox.

The Big Question: Have the Red Sox taken the steps necessary to avoid a post-championship decline?

No team has repeated as World Series champions since the Yankees won three straight from 1998-2000. The Red Sox, though, didn’t suffer from any championship hangovers their last two times around, winning 95 games and returning to the postseason in both 2005 and 2008.

The Red Sox didn’t desire to partake in any sort of shakeup over the winter; they just weren’t willing to outbid the Yankees for Jacoby Ellsbury or commit to substantial multiyear deals for fellow free agents Stephen Drew and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Replacing the trio will be either rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. or former superstar Grady Sizemore in center field, phenom Xander Bogaerts at shortstop and the much beloved A.J. Pierzynski behind the plate. Interestingly, the team’s only newcomer to get a multiyear deal was new setup man Edward Mujica (two years, $9.5 million).

The pitching staff has survived almost entirely intact, with the rotation set to include Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Felix Doubront. The surprising exit of Ryan Dempster turned heads — he gave up $13 million to spend the year with his family — but he was being viewed as a middle reliever or swingman. Replacing him in that role is left-hander Chris Capuano.

So, the Red Sox are counting on their returning stars and a gradual infusion of young talent to stave off any decline. Boasting one of the game’s very best farm systems makes that an easier choice, and if it turns out that they do need help as the season goes along, they’ll have about as much artillery to pull off a trade as any team in the league.

What else is going on?

  • The Bradley-Sizemore battle in center remains unsettled, and complicating matters is that there’s only room for one on the roster. Sizemore has shown surprising speed as he comes back from multiple knee surgeries and he’s also been making decent contact at the plate, but a month in the minors might not be a bad idea for him as he tries to shake two years of rust.
  • Working in Sizemore’s favor is that the Red Sox see him as a possibility to replace Ellsbury in the leadoff spot, whereas Bradley would hit at the bottom of the order if he wins the job. There was some thought over the winter of simply moving everyone up a spot and going with a Shane Victorino-Dustin Pedroia-David Ortiz top three with Ellsbury gone. However, that idea seems dead now, and it looks like Daniel Nava will lead off against righties if Bradley makes the team.
  • Victorino hasn’t ruled out switch-hitting entirely, but it appears he’ll focus on batting right-handed for now. It made him more of a threat against righties last year when an injury forced him to give up batting left-handed for a time, and he’s always been weaker left-handed anyway. Batting right-handed exclusively could lead to bigger numbers this year. On the other hand, it could also lead to more injuries, since he stands directly over the plate hitting right-handed and gets hit by pitches with ridiculous frequency.
  • So far, however, the injury bug that has racked fellow contenders in Texas and Detroit, as well as left Oakland minus a couple of starters, has avoided Boston. Those losses the Rangers, Tigers and A’s have suffered may not affect the AL East race, but they will help the Red Sox’s postseason chances by increasing the odds that one or both wild cards will come from their division.

Prediction: If spring training numbers are any indication, it’s going to take some time for the Red Sox lineup to start clicking. Still, the bats are there to make the team a top-three offense in the AL, and the pitching staff has both top-level talent and excellent depth. The Red Sox’s decision to largely stand pat could cost them a few wins and perhaps the AL East, but the team should return to the postseason in some form.

Second place, American League East.

Report: Giants hire Gabe Kapler as new manager

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The Giants announced on Tuesday the hiring of Gabe Kapler as manager. Kapler, filling the extremely large shoes of future Hall of Famer Bruce Bochy, inked a three-year deal, Alex Pavlovic of NBC Sports Bay Area reports. Kapler was one of three finalists for the job, beating out Astros bench coach Joe Espada and Rays bench coach Matt Quataro.

Following his 12-year playing career, Kapler was a coach for Israel’s team in the 2013 World Baseball Classic qualifier. He then became an analyst for FS1 before joining the Dodgers’ front office as the director of player development in November 2014. He was involved in three scandals there: one in which he tried to handle a sexual assault incident involving two Dodgers minor league players without telling police, one in which he allegedly discriminated against Nick Francona, a veteran and former baseball operations employee, and an incident that implicated most of the Dodgers’ front office concerning the recruiting of international free agents. The Dodgers reportedly kept a spreadsheet of employees and their level of criminality.

Despite Kapler’s background, the Phillies hired him as their manager ahead of the 2018 season. He would lead the Phillies to an 80-82 record that year and then helped them improve by one game in 2019, finishing at exactly .500 before being fired. Kapler’s tenure in Philly was tumultuous, often drawing ire from the local media and subsequently the fan base for not being tough enough on his players. The Phillies also reportedly had a clubhouse issue in 2018 in which players were playing video games in the clubhouse during games, prompting Carlos Santana to smash a TV with a bat.

Kapler has a history with Farhan Zaidi, the Giants’ president of baseball operations. They worked together in the Dodgers’ front office as Zaidi served as GM from November 2014-18.