AL East Preview: Boston Red Sox Enter 2014 With Target On Their Backs

Mike NapoliThe World Series champions came out of the American League East last season. It wouldn’t be shocking if 2014 ended in similar fashion.

The AL East again figures to be a stacked division, meaning the defending champion Boston Red Sox have their work cut out for them if they’re going to repeat. The AL East sent two teams — the Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays — to the Major League Baseball playoffs in 2013.

The Red Sox still have the potential to be the cream of the AL East crop, but the competition should only heighten as Boston embarks on a 162-game grind with a target on its back.

Boston Red Sox

Strengths: Depth was the key ingredient in Boston’s 2013 World Series formula. It’s also why the Red Sox have a good chance to repeat.

The Red Sox have enviable organizational starting pitching depth, which should help over the course of a lengthy season. Boston also featured one of baseball’s most productive offenses in 2013, largely because of its overall approach — which emphasizes plate discipline and driving up pitch counts — and bench deployment.

Manager John Farrell should have enough horses to pick his spots and keep guys fresh this season, even if there are a few questions.

Weaknesses: Clay Buchholz needs to stay healthy for the long haul. He’s simply too good to keep losing for an extended period, especially if Felix Doubront doesn’t take the next step and/or a couple of the veteran starting pitchers regress.

The Red Sox might miss Jacoby Ellsbury, particularly if the club’s center field replacement — Grady Sizemore or Jackie Bradley Jr. — struggles or if Shane Victorino hits the shelf.

There will be a lot of pressure on the left side of the infield — Xander Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks — to produce offensively.

Projected finish: 95-67, first place

Tampa Bay Rays

Strengths: Starting pitching will dictate the Rays’ level of success. The rotation is young and deep, and not trading David Price over the offseason certainly helps.

The Rays are very strong defensively, particularly in the infield, and the catching tandem of Ryan Hanigan and Jose Molina is impressive.

Weaknesses: The question again is if the Rays will score enough runs. Wil Myers is a breakout candidate, but Tampa Bay needs Evan Longoria to stay healthy and James Loney to perform like he did last season.

The Rays also have a new closer, albeit a familiar face. Grant Balfour enjoyed success over the last few years in Oakland, but will his ninth-inning success continue now that he’s back in the AL East?

Projected finish: 93-69, second place

New York Yankees

Strengths: The Yankees’ offense should be much improved. Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran add firepower, and Mark Teixeira’s return from an injury also should provide a boost.

Weaknesses: The Yankees’ rotation has plenty of question marks — Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda are wild cards, CC Sabathia was shaky last season and Hiroki Kuroda is another year older.

New York also lost the greatest closer of all time, who still was performing at an extremely high level. Good luck filling those shoes, David Robertson.

Projected finish: 90-72, third place

Baltimore Orioles

Strengths: The Orioles’ lineup already was stacked with power threats. Then the O’s added Nelson Cruz, who should be a nice right-handed complement to Chris Davis. It won’t be fun pitching to this team.

Baltimore is an excellent defensive team, particularly in key spots. J.J. Hardy, Manny Machado and Adam Jones all are elite defenders.

Weaknesses: The Orioles made a bold move by signing starter Ubaldo Jimenez. Now they have to hold their breath and hope for the best. Baltimore’s rotation isn’t exactly a daunting unit within the offensively gifted AL East.

Machado’s health, Davis’ late-season drop-off and the search for a closer are concerning, too.

Projected finish: 82-80, fourth place

Toronto Blue Jays

Strengths: The Blue Jays have more talent than last season’s record indicates, especially on the offensive side, where Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes and Edwin Encarnacion headline a talented bunch. Everyone just needs to stay healthy.

Weaknesses: The Blue Jays have some solid late-inning arms, but that won’t help them early in games. Toronto’s rotation is suspect and ultimately could doom the Jays regardless of how many big bats they have.

Projected finished: 77-85, fifth place

Overall thoughts

The Red Sox have the pieces to repeat as AL East champs and make another World Series run. The rest of the division, especially the Rays, are nipping at their heels, though, so Boston can’t afford a World Series hangover out of the gate.

Editor’s note: NESN.com will preview each MLB division leading up to Opening Day. Below are the scheduled run dates for each preview.

Wednesday, March 26: AL East, NL East
Thursday, March 27: AL Central, NL Central
Friday, March 28: AL West, NL West

Have a question for Ricky Doyle? Send it to him via Twitter at @TheRickyDoyle or send it here.

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