So I'm going to be a name-dropping jerk. I'm sorry. I was talking to Rob Neyer yesterday. He asked me to make an argument that the Red Sox weren't a huge regression candidate. Thinking I was about to fail utterly, I took up the challenge. Then I failed utterly.
I suggested we go through the team position by position. Not surprisingly he's not as high on some of Boston's position players as I am. For example, I believe Dustin Pedroia will not make any outs this season. Nothing less than 1.000/1.000/4.000 because Dee Pee! Also I believe Xander Bogaerts will break the 100 WAR barrier and Daniel Nava will become the first player to reach base more often than he comes to bat. But once you move past those biases, I had to admit, he had a point. We ran through the positions, and one by one, it began to dawn on me. There is a good argument to be made the Red Sox over-achieved last season.
Yet, there was no huge step-forward by any one player. They didn't have a Chris Davis step out of nowhere unless you count Koji Uehara, but relief pitcher so, at least in the regular season, not nearly the same level of impact. If you look at the 2013 roster sorted by bWAR you'll see nobody was hugely ahead of their career numbers. Some players performed above their career averages, but none massively so. I suppose you could count Daniel Nava as one, but as a part-time player his impact wasn't as great. Also, as he can continue to be platooned, there's every reason to believe he can be a valuable player, even if he doesn't produce three wins again.
In fact, that's mostly the argument. It's incremental. A few parts of a win here with Nava, a win with Victorino, a few parts of a win lost by exchanging Jackie Bradley Jr. for Jacoby Ellsbury, and so on. The wins add up. It's not hard to count backwards when you're starting at 97. The Red Sox could have bad performances from their pen (again), and if so they're unlikely to have someone step up and author the best season of relief pitching maybe ever. Clay Buchholz might make it through the season, but even if he does (and most of the projections don't see it happening, not that projection systems are medical doctors (yet)) he's not likely to be much more productive overall than he was last season. And that's about the end of the list of bad happenings from 2013.
The Red Sox got above average production from every single position on the diamond last season, from catcher and DH through the infield and outfield with the only exception of third base (Middlebrooks! /shakes fist), and Middlebrooks reasonably might be better this season. I have my doubts, but smart people are optimistic so that's something.
As we went through, position by position, it became increasingly difficult to argue the Red Sox were going to be as good as they were last season. Of course, last season they won 97 games and the World Series, so that's not a fair standard to hold against any team. Few teams that reach that high improve the following season if for no other reason than there isn't anywhere else to go but down. The same is true for 50 win teams. They win more the following season, not because they got much better, but because it's difficult to suck that bad.
Ninety-seven wins is a difficult standard, but I remain optimistic that a more reasonable standard can be reached and even exceeded, that this team can be competitive and even thrive in the toughest division in baseball. The not-so-secret secret is in the approach to team building that worked last season. Namely, depth. The Red Sox have assembled a deep roster that can sustain injuries to key players (a reasonable amount anyway, not 2006 levels) and downturns in performance and come out the other side only slightly singed. If Mike Napoli takes a step back, well Dustin Pedroia might reasonably be healthy and better. If Shane Victorino isn't quite as outstanding, maybe Xander Bogaerts will pick up the slack. Maybe Jake Peavy will surprise us (in a good way) or Jackie Bradley will make us forget Jacoby, which could off-set something going the other way. These aren't outlandish possibilities. Betting on all of them is foolish, but betting on some of them isn't, and that's how this team is constructed. The baseline is good, and with a few things going their way, the Red Sox will be back, maybe not to 2013 levels, but as a good team, one of the best in the American League.
Few expected Boston to do what they did last season, including the front office and ownership group. The 2013 season was to be a bridge year, a season of good players playing well and restoring the good name of a beaten-down franchise. What ended up happening was special in so many ways, not least of which because of how unexpected it all was. Most seasons are filled with some tough times. 2013 wasn't, but 2014, not being 2013, probably will be. Difficulties, under-performance, injuries, these are the stuff of baseball seasons in Boston just as they are the stuff of baseball seasons everywhere. So, sure, the Red Sox might not be as good this year. Rob is probably right. The 2014 Red Sox probably won't be the equal of their 2013 brethren, if for no other reason than most teams aren't.