The slate is clean, for now.
The Boston Red Sox stumbled to a last-place finish in the American League East last season, with several players underperforming, in large part because of injuries. Opening Day means everyone starts from scratch, however, and there’s both optimism and skepticism surrounding this year’s Red Sox team.
Boston’s offense looks primed for a big season, but the pitching staff is a question mark. There could be plenty of high-scoring affairs at Fenway Park in 2015, which should be entertaining, if nothing else.
Let’s break down the hometown club before it kicks off its season Monday against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. It figures to be an unpredictable year, so we might as well look at where things stand before fully immersing ourselves in another season of Red Sox baseball.
Which pitcher has the most to prove? Clay Buchholz.
And it’s not even close.
The Red Sox enter the season without an “ace,” leaving Buchholz as the team’s de facto No. 1 starter. Manager John Farrell recently said “this is his time” with regard to Buchholz being named Boston’s Opening Day starter, yet there are plenty — including Curt Schilling — who have doubts about whether the right-hander really can spearhead a pitching staff.
Buchholz’s career has been all over the place to this point, with both very good moments and very bad moments. In many ways, the 30-year-old has arrived at a crossroads.
It’s his time, indeed — his time to sink or swim.
Which position player has the most to prove? Shane Victorino.
Victorino played in only 30 major league games last season, making it fair to question whether he’ll make it through this season in one piece. Trade rumors floated all offseason, yet the Red Sox hung onto the 34-year-old outfielder.
Rusney Castillo and his $72.5 million contract are sitting in Pawtucket to open the season. Victorino needs to show Boston was justified in handing The Flyin’ Hawaiian the keys to right field.
Which new acquisition will make the biggest impact? Pablo Sandoval.
Hanley Ramirez might post big numbers if he stays healthy. He showed up to spring training in great shape and the Green Monster could become a friendly target for him at the plate.
But Sandoval has shown he’s a big game player, and his ability to step up in the clutch could be a difference-maker if the Red Sox contend this season. He’s also an underrated defender at third base, and infield defense will be paramount this season with so many ground ball pitchers in tow.
Which prospect will make the biggest major league impact in 2015? Blake Swihart.
The door is wide open for Swihart with Christian Vazquez out for the year. Swihart will start the season at Triple-A, as the Red Sox decided he still needs to develop defensively, but don’t be surprised if he arrives in Boston before long.
The catching tandem of Ryan Hanigan and Sandy Leon, while very solid defensively, isn’t something that jumps off the page like a 24-year-old top prospect.
What is the most intriguing storyline going into the season? The starting rotation.
The Red Sox are going to score runs in bunches. The question is whether the pitching staff will be able to prevent opponents from scoring more runs in more bunches.
Every single pitcher in the Red Sox’s starting rotation is a question mark for one reason or another. It could be a formidable unit if everyone performs up to their potential or it could crash and burn. Right now, we just don’t know, which is why it’s such an intriguing situation.
Having three left-handed prospects (Henry Owens, Brian Johnson and Eduardo Rodriguez) makes things even more fascinating.
Who will be the Red Sox’s breakout star? Xander Bogaerts.
Mookie Betts is receiving most of the attention after tearing it up in spring training, but the other 22-year-old still has the potential to become a major league star. Perhaps flying under the radar — unlike last season, when he was Major League Baseball’s No. 2 prospect going into the year — will allow Bogaerts to settle into his own and show why he was so hyped coming up through the system.
Who will be the Red Sox’s MVP? Dustin Pedroia.
Pedroia claims he’s 100 percent healthy and ready to go. If so, that could mean big things for the four-time All-Star.
Pedroia still was a defensive stud in 2014 despite battling a hand injury for pretty much the entire season. His offense could return to career norms in 2015, as the gritty second baseman finally had a normal offseason after undergoing surgery in September.
Pedroia is talking the talk. It’s time for him to walk the walk, as he’s done for most of his career.
Will the Red Sox contend? Yes.
The Red Sox’s offense should be enough for them to outslug teams in the American League East, even if the team’s pitching isn’t exactly top notch. No one in the AL East looks ready to throw the division into a Full Nelson.
Are they legitimate World Series contenders? Well, that remains to be seen. But you should at least expect to see the Red Sox playing meaningful games in September and possibly October.
Thumbnail photo via Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports Images