Red Sox open camp with clean slate, eyes on a repeat
World Series champs have turned the page on last year, but they are a confident group
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The team that hoisted the World Series trophy less than four months ago was back at it Saturday, when Red Sox pitchers and catchers officially reported to camp under the Florida sun.
"Happy New Year!" bellowed closer Koji Uehara in English as he got ready to walk into the clubhouse.
Of course, many players have been at the Player Development Complex that accompanies JetBlue Park all week, getting in early workouts.
As excited as they are about having the chance to become baseball's first repeat champion since the Yankees of 1998-2000, the team's veterans have been adamant for weeks that the club can't live on last year's laurels, exchanging several group texts to that effect.
"It's a new year," said veteran starter Jake Peavy, entering his first full season with the Red Sox. "That's been a slogan of ours in the text messages we've been exchanging with the guys. 'Hey, let's turn the page. It's a new year. It's 2014 and we haven't done anything.' Obviously, some teams in our division have gotten better. We feel like we have a good team, and we're looking forward to hopefully doing the exact same we did in 2013."
Coming back as the champs is something the Red Sox will enjoy, but they promise not to get carried away with it.
"Well, when you first show up, it's nice to reminisce for a second, but honestly, as players, we have to turn the page," said catcher David Ross. "Everybody wants to talk about last year, but mentally we have to prepare for this season coming up. There's nobody who is going to be patting us on the back when this thing starts. We have to turn the page as fast as possible, so mentally we do that."
Unlike last year at this time, when nobody knew quite what to expect, there is great excitement surrounding manager John Farrell's team entering 2014.
And also the same expectation from the manager for short-term focus.
"There's 29 other teams that are trying to do the same thing that we are, and that's to prepare for a championship season," Farrell said. "We respect everyone that we play against. I don't think we're focused on the end result. The first day of Spring Training is shortly in front of us. Our focus is on getting back to a building-block approach that we used last year to prepare for Opening Day."
There are also many intriguing storylines to follow over the next several weeks.
How will the logjam in the starting rotation -- six pitchers vying for five spots -- sort itself out?
"I've always felt that you have to pitch well to earn your spot, no matter what position and what you've done in the past," said Peavy. "Spring Training is tough, especially when you have veteran guys, because you want to work on stuff. You want to have the Spring Training you always have, and that's making sure you're ready to pitch come April 1 or whenever the season starts.
"I'm not sure how that's all going down. I love the fact that we have a ton of experience, a ton of depth in a lot of ways. I think we have one of the best staffs in baseball that can pitch with anybody. We've shown that."
Can Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts prove that they are ready to play full time in the Majors?
"Yeah, it's different going into it knowing you are competing for a spot," said Bradley. "Last year I came into it just here trying to learn and seeing what I could get out of it."
Will former star Grady Sizemore be able to come back after missing the last two seasons entirely with injuries?
How will newcomers A.J. Pierzynski and Edward Mujica blend in?
Another storyline to follow is Will Middlebrooks and his burning quest to prove that his down year in 2013 was a fluke. Middlebrooks has been in Fort Myers since the start of February, and he has added some muscle that is obvious at first glance.
"I think in talking with Will at length, whether it was throughout the course of the year or having sit-down conversations with him in the offseason, he learned a lot last year," Farrell said. "He was challenged in a few ways. I think that through those experiences, he's understanding of what his needs and what his strengths are more readily, and that's part of the maturation process of a player."
And what about Stephen Drew, who remains a free agent and therefore is still a possibility to return to the Red Sox?
"And the thing with Stephen Drew, I think a lot of people are holding out hope that there's a chance he may come walk into this locker room any day," said Peavy. "We understand that doesn't look very promising. At the same time, we all believe in Xander, and I think we all saw in the playoffs what X brings to the table. And we've all seen Will. But we have plenty enough in this room to do what we want to get done, and that's win a world championship."
Who will take over for Jacoby Ellsbury in the leadoff spot?
And of course, the most compelling storyline of all is this: Can the Red Sox repeat, something no team has done since the 2000 Yankees?
Peavy was asked if the Red Sox consider themselves the team to beat.
"That's not for me to go out and say, but I can promise you this, whether we are or we aren't, we'll take the field like we are every night," Peavy said. "That starts here. The first time we take the field at Spring Training, we'll feel like the team to beat no matter what anybody says. That's just the mentality this team will always be with."
Aside from Ellsbury and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the Sox have pretty much their entire core back for the repeat attempt.
Ace Jon Lester is primed again to lead the pitching staff. He will be backed by Clay Buchholz, who hopes to stay healthy for the long haul this time, and John Lackey, who came back strong last year from Tommy John surgery.
The bullpen is deep, led by the return of Uehara, who arrived with little fanfare last year but was followed in by an entourage of Japanese media on Saturday morning.
The bullpen also includes setup man Junichi Tazawa. Mujica only deepens that setup crew, which also features a strong duo of lefties in Andrew Miller and Craig Breslow.
Pierzynski is taking over as the primary catcher after signing a one-year deal.
"It's great. It's obviously a first-class organization and a great city, a place I've always enjoyed going to and playing," said Pierzynski. "I'm definitely looking forward to it, and more importantly, my family is looking forward to it."
There are several dates to circle on the calendar in the coming days.
Pitchers and catchers will have their first formal workout Monday. Position players are due to camp the following day.
And the first full-squad workout is on Thursday, an event that is typically preceded by a team meeting that will include a speech from Farrell.
The Red Sox have their first game action on Feb. 27 -- a college doubleheader against Northeastern and Boston College. The Grapefruit League opener is the next day at home against the Twins.
The regular season opens on March 31 at Camden Yards against the Orioles. After a cold and snowy winter in New England, the fact that the Red Sox are ready to start anew is comforting to say the least.
"I had to escape the cold, so I came down here as quick as possible, about three days after Christmas, visiting and taking time to see the family," said Bradley. "I've been down here ever since. I'm just trying to put in some work and just waving at the parents as they're there in the snow."