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What are the Red Sox at the end of 2014?

The Red Sox started 2014 as champions and finished as favorites. The season happened too.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

What are the Boston Red Sox at the end of 2014? It's an interesting question. We know they can go worst-to-first, because they did it two years ago. I think it's fair to say we didn't expect it then, and I think it's for that reason it's natural to potentially read better odds into 2014 than we otherwise might because of what they did. Recent champions have been subject to patterns that are likely just flukes.

We love small sample sizes, and the short-term trend says the Red Sox will win it all in 2015 and implode again in 2016, and so on into eternity. I'm into it, but it means as much as the San Francisco Giants' uncanny run of every-other-year titles in terms of predictive power, which is very little-if-any, by itself. It does not exist by itself. Hidden within it is the volume play of simply making the playoffs, the value of which the Kansas City Royals definitively proved this year.

The question is not whether the Red Sox are good enough to win it all. It is whether they can to make the playoffs in any form and win it from there. Is this team good enough to make it? Of course it is, and they haven't yet added an ace. If it doesn't happen in the offseason, I have to imagine it would happen at the trade deadline if the Sox were at all close to contending.

They should contend. The division is still uneasy, especially with the recent regime change at the Tampa Bay Rays. They have in short order lost their manager and team president, and now their existence is at stake. The Baltimore Orioles are sure to regress if only because of improved Red Sox, New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays teams, and as for the Yankees and Jays, I'll believe it when I see it.

I cannot describe how happy I am that Derek Jeter has retired. I didn't even hate him. But all of those guys are gone now. (I hate the term they use for them so much I won't say it.) This team now has no identity on the field and no identity in the cold, quiet luxury mall they built across from one of America's great ruins, which, naturally, they tore down. Without Jeter, they're not a team of five titles, but one that has a single championship in 14 seasons.

As for the Jays, I'll believe it when I see it.

If we are to be a team of ground-ballers, as Ben Buchanan recently wrote, so be it. I am down with Rick Porcello. I am down with Justin Masterson. I am amused by Wade Miley. I am indifferent to Joe Kelly. I expect Clay Buchholz to continue to Clay Buchholz, which means some backfill. The move to ground-ballers seems like a nice holding pattern move and one in which spots are easier to fill, but another solid starter would certainly fill things out nicely in the roughly 100 percent chance Buchholz is abducted by aliens before his first start, tearing his meniscus, or something like that.

I'm not worried about the bullpen -- I leave that to Matt Collins. One minute, he's publishing a story saying the Sox don't need another right-handed reliever; an hour later, they trade for right-handed reliever Anthony Varvaro of the Atlanta Braves. Pester him with any questions. Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa and Edward Mujica are still here, which is the big news, and the Sox recently signed lefty Craig Breslow to a bargain-basement deal to be their leading lefty.

On offense, the biggest relevant question before the season is whether or not Dustin Pedroia can stay healthy and whether or not the Boston media can resist the urge to self-immolate over Hanley Ramirez's personality. (They won't.) A nucleus of David Ortiz, Pedroia, Ramirez, Mike Napoli and Pablo Sandoval leaves a lot of room for picking up the slack in the event of the slump.

The Sox seem well-leveraged across the offense, especially with the expected return of Ryan Hanigan in the team's trade of Will Middlebrooks to the San Diego Padres, a team on which he was born to play. With Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart uncertain commodities simply by the virtue of their youth, Hanigan plugs the last obvious hole.

In the outfield, it looks like Jackie Bradley, Jr. will end up as the odd man out in the outfield instead of part of it as he was a year ago. Ramirez will be in left, Rusney Castillo in center, and Shane Victorino in right, with Mookie Betts squeezing into those last two spots as much as possible or as necessary if he's also in the bigs. That assumes Victorino is still with the Sox on Opening Day, of course.

Last year happened, despite a similar standings plunge in 2012, out of nowhere. It was normal regression and abnormal regression at once, and once again the Sox seem ready to make a big jump up the standings. Vegas isn't fooled this time: Boston is the odds-on favorite in the American League. Somehow they've ended 2014 just like they started it: looking good.