Last spring the Red Sox needed to convince the baseball world they were contenders. One World Series championship later, that won't be nearly so difficult to do in 2014. It's true that these are not the same Red Sox that defeated the Cardinals in six games, not entirely, at least. Jacoby Ellsbury now wears pinstripes and Stephen Drew exists in qualifying offer limbo. But all the other most important pieces are still in place, and the Sox have one of the strongest farm systems in the game conveniently ready to fill both holes.
At short, the transition should be easy enough. Xander Bogaerts is pretty much the consensus choice for baseball's second-best prospect, trailing only the seemingly perfect Byron Buxton. He already managed to force his way into the starting lineup during the postseason, more than holding his own against some of the game's best arms. The Red Sox would still be happy to have Stephen Drew back, but honestly if he did return they'd probably be left having to find room for Drew, not Xander.
It's harder to make the argument that Jackie Bradley Jr. is a one-for-one replacement for Jacoby Ellsbury. In fact, I won't try. Bradley is, like Bogaerts, a rookie, but does not come with the same "phenom" aspect. It would hardly be surprising if some of the struggles carried over from his aggressive early-season debut in 2013. Even if they don't, though, the simple fact is he's trying to replace a star. Bradley will play good defense, he'll hopefully work plenty of good at bats, and maybe he'll steal a couple bases. But he's not going to be in the discussion for the best player on a championship team.
That assumes he even gets significant playing time as the replacement, however: Grady Sizemore looks to be the starting center fielder for the Red Sox, with Bradley likely in Triple-A Pawtucket to begin the year. If Sizemore is healthy -- and it's an if as large as the shoes he's filling -- there's a chance his old self resurfaces and the Sox do get that one-for-one replacement for Ellsbury. He could easily go down with yet another injury, though, turning things over to Bradley and his questions once and for all.
Given Sizemore's recent past, let's say the Red Sox take a hit in center. They take a minor hit in the transition from Jarrod Saltalamacchia to A.J. Pierzynski as well and, as with any championship team, there are a handful of players who might not live up to their big performances from last year. Even if we just left it at that, it's not hard to make the argument that the Red Sox could once again take the division that they wrapped up with 10 days to go in 2013.
For the sake of completeness, though, let's talk about improvements, all of which come on the mound. The Red Sox scored 57 more runs than their closest competitor in 2013, leaving their pitching the area of greater (if still not great) concern. In the rotation, they mostly return the same five they finished the season with, but with some reason to expect improvement. For one, Clay Buchholz could dodge a mysterious lingering neck injury that cost him months of starts. For another, Jake Peavy will be around all year, replacing the lackluster Ryan Dempster.
Even beyond their initial five, the Red Sox are better able to deal with injuries than last year. The organization seems intent on keeping Brandon Workman a starter in hopes that, when given the opportunity, he'll perform as well as he did in his three starts in 2013. If he doesn't, though, they still have an embarrassment of upper-level pitching talent to draw upon. There will be no need for someone like Alfredo Aceves to shoulder six starts in 2014.
Then there's the bullpen. The Red Sox certainly had a fantastic closer in Koji Uehara last year, but only in the second half of the season did John Farrell really figure out how to finish games. This year there will be no Andrew Bailey/Joel Hanrahan growing pains. With Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow, and newcomer Edward Mujica, the Red Sox have three excellent set-up options. That's to say nothing of the returning Andrew Miller. Even last man Burke Badenhop has proven reliable in the majors.
These are incremental gains, but the Sox really didn't need much in the way of improvement. Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Koji Uehara, Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli. These are the players who earned 97 wins in 162 tries, and then never so much as faced elimination in the postseason. There may be some sense that 2013 was a miracle, and that lightning doesn't strike twice. Just because 2012 was awful, though, doesn't mean the success of 2013 wasn't well-earned. It was magical, yes, but not the result of magic so much as materly team-building. Now that same well-constructed team is back for another year, and there's no reason to expect the results to be all that different.