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2015 Red Sox season preview: From worst to first once more?

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SB Nation 2015 MLB Preview The Red Sox found themselves back in the AL East cellar once more in 2014. After an eventful offseason, are they back on track to take down the division?

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

For years, the Red Sox prided themselves on consistency. With the playoffs largely a crapshoot, the Sox were built not with an eye to be far-and-away the best team in any given year, but to make the playoffs year in and year out, giving the team the best chance to come away with the most rings over the long term.

These last four years haven't really gone according to plan, then. Theo Epstein went all-in on Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford in 2011, arguably breaking from the philosophy which ended the 86-year drought in 2004 and followed it up with a second World Series just three years later. That season ended with a September collapse, and led directly into a 2012 where, constrained by the expenses of 2011, the Red Sox fielded a team that never really had a shot at October.

General manager Ben Cherington attempted to get the Sox back on course with the 2013 team. He signed players to reasonable contracts, and established a sustainable plan to get the team back in contention now without restricting their ability to make moves down the line. The expectation was a solid 2013 performance building up to being top-level contenders in 2014 or 2015.

Instead they won the World Series right then and there, and promptly fell back into the cellar in 2014. The Red Sox went from being one of the most consistent teams in the game to the baseball equivalent of whiplash. Now they're hoping to pull themselves right back to the top, but to do so in a way that leaves them there for years to come.

Rebuilding the Roster

It was a busy offseason for the Red Sox, with Ben Cherington once again confronted with the challenge of taking a last-place team and transforming it into a contender. 2014 had seen the rotation emptied out in mid-season trades, with Jon Lester sent to Oakland for Yoenis Cespedes, and John Lackey to St. Louis for Joe Kelly and Allen Craig. The lineup wasn't exactly in good shape either, coming off a campaign that saw just 634 runs scored, good for 11th in the American League despite the offense-boosting nature of Fenway Park.

While many saw pitching as the priority, the Red Sox instead went all-in on Pablo Sandoval from the get go. Third base had become a position of need over the past few years as Kevin Youkilis declined, and Will Middlebrooks flared out after a hot start to his career, the victim of either questionable plate discipline, or perhaps just the long-lasting effects of a broken wrist. Sandoval proved every bit as interested in the Sox as they were in him, with his November 24th signing coming as no great surprise.

Instead, the surprise came from the Sox snapping up Hanley Ramirez on a four-year, $88 million contract not 24 hours before. Where the Pablo Sandoval saga had been widely publicized, the team's involvement with Ramirez, who wanted to return to the place his career started to play with David Ortiz, was anything but. It was not a perfect fit positionaly, with the one-time shortstop moving to left field and leaving the Red Sox with a roster crunch that has still not been resolved, but in less than a day the Sox had added a pair of middle-of-the-order bats, answering their lineup questions in emphatic fashion.

Ortiz/Ramirez is back once more, if slightly different. Photo Credit -- Joe Robbins

That left the question of the rotation, with Jon Lester still the primary target despite the team's large investments in Sandoval and Ramirez. There, however, the team would fall short, with their longtime ace choosing to rejoin Theo Epstein in Chicago after the Red Sox proved unwilling to match the Cubs' $155 million offer.

With Lester gone, the Red Sox moved on to a riskier Plan B. Yoenis Cespedes, suddenly without a place in the outfield, was swapped to Detroit for Rick Porcello. Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster, never quite able to establish themselves as reliable options for the Red Sox, were traded to Arizona for Wade Miley. Finally, the Sox reunited with Justin Masterson on a one-year deal, betting that the pitcher's roller coaster career would once again be on the upswing after a disappointing 2014.

Add in a revamping of the middle relief corps, with Anthony Varvaro, Robbie Ross, and Alexi Ogando coming in to replace the likes of Andrew Miller and Burke Badenhop, and you've got a Red Sox team with as many new faces as old.

Projected Rotation

1. Clay Buchholz
2. Rick Porcello
3. Wade Miley
4. Justin Masterson
5. Joe Kelly

The rotation is obviously the big question mark for the 2015 Red Sox, with the team pinning their hopes on rebound seasons and a ground ball strategy to make up for the lack of a clear ace.

Essentially, the Red Sox are hoping that, combined with excellent defensive catchers in Ryan Hanigan and Christian Vazquez, the infield behind the starting pitchers can help take the run prevention burden off the shoulders of the rotation, leaving the actual pitchers less the keys to success than simple role players tasked only with keeping the ball on the ground. Each pitcher involved has produced highly successful seasons in the past, and the Red Sox hope they've put them in the right situation to recapture that success once more.

But that's all a strategic gamble from Ben Cherington, and if his 2013 bets were wildly successful, it's possible he's missed the mark here. Even if the logic behind his strategy is sound, there are injury concerns with Clay Buchholz and Justin Masterson, and one serious defensive question mark in Xander Bogaerts. Big things are expected from this Red Sox team, but if they fail, it's almost certainly going to be because of the rotation.

Projected Lineup

1. Mookie Betts, CF
2. Dustin Pedroia, 2B
3. David Ortiz, DH
4. Hanley Ramirez, LF
5. Pablo Sandoval, 3B
6. Mike Napoli, 1B
7. Shane Victorino, RF
8. Xander Bogaerts, SS
9. Christian Vazquez, C

Everything is rather more cheerful in the lineup. While Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval were the big offseason acquisitions, the Red Sox started fixing the offense long before the 2014 season ended. After a breakout 2013 season, Mookie Betts tore through the upper levels of the minors in 2014 before making the jump to the majors, not missing a beat in the process. He hit .291/.368/.444 in his first exposure to major league hitting, and has some scouts thinking "All-Star" before he's even turned 23.

Photo Credit -- Steve Mitchell

The Sox also added $72.5 million man Rusney Castillo out of Cuba in August, and while early spring injury issues leave his place in the Opening Day lineup uncertain, that just means the Red Sox will get to put off figuring out the Betts - Victorino - Castillo logjam in the outfield for a little longer. His time will come, and it likely won't be far into 2015 when it does.

Boston does need to hope for some better performances from returning players. Dustin Pedroia's bat was barely above league average in 2014. The aforementioned Victorino suffered through injuries all year long, barely reaching replacement level. And Xander Bogaerts got off to a hot start and finished strong, but disappointed in his first full season thanks to a dismal stretch in the middle months of the season of work. Seeing any or all of these three return to form would put an already strong Red Sox lineup over the top.

Projected Bullpen

Koji Uehara
Junichi Tazawa
Edward Mujica
Anthony Varvaro
Robbie Ross
Alexi Ogando
Craig Breslow

The Red Sox made some strong under-the-radar moves this past offseason to bolster a bullpen that had lost Andrew Miller to first the Orioles at the traded deadline and then New York in free agency. They had the good fortune to profit from an Atlanta roster crunch, picking up a solid arm in Anthony Varvaro for pennies on the dollar, and took low-cost on Rangers reclamation projects in Alexi Ogando and Robbie Ross, both arguably victims of Texas jumping through hoops to fill a rotation ravaged by injuries in recent years.

The most important question facing the Red Sox, however, is just how much Koji Uehara has left in the tank. Over the last two years, Uehara has emerged as one of the best closers in the game, even producing at historic levels. But he's about to turn 40, and he did not end 2014 on a positive note. For most relievers, a bad stretch like Uehara had would be little more than a blip on the radar. But at his age, it's hard not to read into even just five rough innings of work. With plenty of minor league arms available, the Red Sox can survive a good deal of attrition in the bullpen. But surviving the decline of Koji uehara would be a tall task indeed without looking outside of the organization.

Prospects to know

There's a difference between Boston's best prospects, and the ones most likely to help in 2015.

Blake Swihart and the newly-signed Yoan Moncada are unanimously held to be the top two prospects in the system. Swihart, 22, is the rare catching prospect who projects to be both a plus at the plate and behind it. He hit .300/.353/.487 with the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs, and if defensive whiz Christian Vazquez has generally overshadowed his glove, Swihart has caught about 40% of would-be base stealers in his minor league career, and grades out well in terms of framing, blocking, and game-calling as well. If all goes well, he's the Jason Varitek replacement the Red Sox have been in search of for the better part of a decade.

Photo Credit: Reinhold Matay

Yoan Moncada, signed to a $31.5 million bonus and as much again in tax, is the latest young phenom out of Cuba, and combines the potential for big offense with the athleticism to play up-the-middle or at third. The Red Sox plan to start him as low as Single-A Greenville, but MLB.com already has the 19-year-old ranked as the ninth best prospect in baseball.

Moncada, then, is obviously a little ways off, but even Swihart isn't likely to be a huge contributor in 2015. The Red Sox have two good catching options in Vazquez and Hanigan, and have already said if there's a need for a catcher early on, they'll likely call on veteran Humberto Quintero before Swihart, opting to play it slow and safe with their top catching prospect.

Instead, it's the pitchers who are most likely to have an impact on the major league roster. Matt Barnes, the team's first-round pick from 2011, is still ostensibly a starting pitcher, but has impressed in his opportunities out of the bullpen, and could well be called on to make the switch—perhaps permanently—if the need arises for more relief help in Boston.

On the other hand, in the likely event the Red Sox end up needing rotation help, Henry Owens could be the one to provide it. He has emerged as Boston's top pitching prospect over the past couple of years, dominating minor league lineups as he's climbed the ladder up to Triple-A Pawtucket, where he will start the year just one step away from Fenway. A strong start to the year there would put him in position to be the first line of defense against injury, or even just disappointing performances from a rotation that's risky to begin with.

How it goes right

This isn't hard to imagine. The Red Sox have put together what should be one of the best lineups in the game, and have an excellent bench in Jackie Bradley Jr., Allen Craig, Daniel Nava, and Brock Holt, to say nothing of Rusney Castillo.

Their rotation isn't a traditional picture of dominance, granted, but Ben Cherington hasn't just thrown names together hopelessly. These are primarily ground ball specialists with success in their past and an infield to back them up. And if they're unlikely to all succeed, the Red Sox have the farm system depth to add help at the trade deadline. It might not be Cole Hamels, but with this much run support, it doesn't need to be. Add in Koji Uehara with a handful of other solid relief options, and you've got an obvious contender.

How it goes wrong

Unfortunately, this isn't that hard to imagine either. Justin Masterson and Wade Miley's struggles continue. Clay Buchholz becomes known as the pitcher whose career was ruined because he "slept wrong." Maybe David Ortiz finally starts to go south for good, Pablo Sandoval's bat doesn't get quite the Fenway bump many expect, and injuries strike down some combination of Hanley Ramirez, Dustin Pedroia, and Shane Victorino.

At least one or two of these will likely occur. And the Red Sox can deal with that just fine. But if it all goes wrong, kind of like it all went wrong in 2014, then even an American League favorite can fall back into the cellar.

Player to Watch: Clay Buchholz

Photo Credit: Steve Mitchell

Clay Buchholz has had a rough 20 months first trying to come back from an injury that just wouldn't go away and then trying to find his old form when it finally did. But for as much of a struggle as it's been, we have to remember just how good Buchholz was when he went down in 2013. Through 16 starts, Buchholz had a remarkable 1.71 ERA, holding opponents to a .535 OPS in 84 innings of work. He was, at the time, a very likely candidate to win the Cy Young award.

We haven't really seen that Clay Buchholz since. Not for an extended period of time. But we have at least seen glimpses in 2014, including a pair of complete game shutouts. There's still an excellent pitcher buried somewhere in there, and looking back at how Buchholz' recovery from his 2011 injury went, there's some reason to think we might see that pitcher again in 2015.

Or it could just be more of the same. There's no player on the Red Sox roster whose best case and worst case scenarios are so far apart, and no player more likely to play towards one of those two extremes than somewhere in the middle. The Red Sox' lack of an ace means they're not relying on any one pitcher all that much, so if Buchholz falls apart again, it's not the end of the world. But if he finds his way back to full strength—and early spring returns are at least encouraging—then it would be huge for a rotation in need of an anchor.

Prediction: Playoffs

The playoffs are, as mentioned much earlier, a crapshoot, making it questionable at best to predict a World Series run, or even advancing beyond the Division Series.

But the Red Sox should at least make it back to the playoffs in 2015. The American League East is vulnerable. The Yankees are on the decline, and could well be without Masahiro Tanaka if he cannot pitch through his injury. The Rays have fallen, and if they have an excellent crop of pitchers, are likely in a rebuilding period. The Orioles are still contenders, but are likely to take a step back after an unproductive offseason. And while the Blue Jays' additions of Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson leave them improved, the loss of Marcus Stroman hurts quite a bit.

And it certainly doesn't hurt that the Sox might just be the best team in the American League, with the league's talent concentrating in National League superpowers like the Dodgers and Nationals. Vegas, projection systems, and pundits seem to agree that it's between the Red Sox and Angels.

Whether they cruise their way to the top of the American League East, or have to fight through surprisingly good competition for a wild card spot, the floor on this Red Sox team is awfully high. There's no 2014 disaster incoming, leaving 2015 very likely to be another high note in Boston's recent up-and-down history. There's always going to be a perception in this city that any season that does not end in another World Series is a failure, but it's just not realisitic to expect anything from October beyond the chance to play.

If the Red Sox win the division, that's a successful season. If they make it to the division series after a wild card win, that's a successful season as well, if perhaps a more difficult one than expected. But if they fall short of the playoffs, or are one-and-done in the wild card round, it's going to be an uncomfortable offseason in Boston. This team was built to play games—plural!—in October. Anything less is a disappointment.