On paper, the American League East is relatively wide open. Every team and every fan base can come up with a realistic scenario in which their team comes away with the division title. If a favorite had to be picked, though, I think it would be fair to say the Red Sox have a slight advantage. That’s far from a guarantee of success, though, as we should all know right now. The way this roster is put together, there is a chance of greatness for this team, but there is also a timeline in which they play to another last place finish in 2015. Whether they end up with the former result, the latter, or something in the middle with depend on how a handful of players perform. We can be a safe in assuming guys like David Ortiz, Mike Napoli, Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval will hit, but the following five players’ seasons could go in a number of different directions, and will ultimately dictate how this season goes.
5. Rick Porcello
After missing out on Jon Lester, it’s clear what the Red Sox strategy for building the rotation this offseason has been. They’ve skipped out on acquiring the big, top-of-the-rotation name and instead opted to head into 2015 with a bunch of mid-to-back of the rotation types. This strategy is how one ends up with Rick Porcello as the de facto ace. The 26-year-old has a lot of hype around him in Boston right now, and while I think he’s a fine pitcher, I think it has gotten a little out of control. Last year was just the second year of his career in which he put up an above-average ERA+. Of course, it was also the first time in a long time the Tigers had a respectable infield defense. His 2015 will be about proving his past mediocrity was more due to the defense behind him than his actual skills. If Porcello can continue to make the strides he made in 2014, he will be a fine number one pitcher on a playoff team. If he’s the Porcello from 2010-2013, though, they’re going to need help on that unit, and may not notice until it’s too late.
4. Dustin Pedroia
As I said at the top, we have every reason in the world to believe the big bats in the middle will produce like they always do next year. They need their table-setter to have a good year, too, so they have someone to knock in. There’s no doubt that Dustin Pedroia’s offense is on decline, though both the extent to which that is true and the reason for it are up for debate. While he was still a valuable overall player in 2014, he ended up as just a league-average offensive player. His batting average and OBP were both career-lows, not a great trend for a top-of-the-lineup bat. His walk-rate fell from double digits, and his K-rate hit a career high. Pedroia claims that health is a big reason for these struggles, and that he’s feeling great right now. With Mookie Betts as the most likely leadoff hitter, ups-and-downs should be expected from the top spot in the lineup. That means a consistently strong performance from the two-hole will go a long way towards the lineup reaching its potential.
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3. Koji Uehara
For all of the work the Red Sox did with their rotation, the front office also did a little work with the bullpen, though the core remains the same. There are a lot of questions for the unit, though, and Koji Uehara will be the difference between it being an average group to a very good one. It’s not the performance I’m worried about with the 40-year-old, though, it’s health. When on the field, Uehara has always been one of the elite relievers in the game. He missed a little bit of time last season with a sore shoulder, and has had major arm problems in the past. That, combined with his advancing age, makes him an injury risk for the rest of his career. Without Uehara, they’d be looking at a back of the bullpen with Junichi Tazawa as the closer and Edward Mujica and Alexei Ogando setting him up. There’s an awful lot of question marks in that group, and they’d be a lot more likely to cough up leads than one headed by Uehara.
2. Shane Victorino
As painful as it is to think about, the chances are good that one of Betts and Rusney Castillo will be underwhelming in their first extended look at MLB pitching, and/or Hanley Ramirez will spend some time on the disabled list. Really, that’s just a long way of saying Boston will need some extra outfielders. Enter: Shane Victorino, who represents an extremely valuable insurance policy. He can be paired with Pedroia atop the lineup if need be, or can provide some value at the bottom. His defense is elite, and he can fill in for any of the three outfielders at any point. Most importantly, he should have an easier time staying healthy in 2014. With all of the outfielders on this roster, they’ll be able to rest the 34-year-old a lot more this year than in the past. He’ll start the year as the fourth outfielder, but given the starters in that group, Shane Victorino will be as important as any bench player I can remember.
1. Clay Buchholz
I’m not really sure this one is particularly close, to be honest with you. The way I look at it, this rotation is going to go how Clay Buchholz goes. Porcello and Wade Miley should provide good-not-great production from the top two spots. Justin Masterson and Joe Kelly are both wildcards who probably have a decent chance of pitching out of the bullpen at some point. Buchholz, though, could go either way. If he pitches to his ceiling and is the 2013 version of himself, this is a playoff caliber rotation with one of the better arms in the American League. If he pitches like the 2014 version of himself, this rotation probably won’t be very good. If he's somewhere in the middle, this team will be in a fight for the postseason all year long. Buchholz is playing for his job this year, as the Red Sox hold an option on the righty for 2016. He’s going to be the most fascinating name to watch this season, and is the ultimate key to their success.