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Red Sox seek MLB's first repeat in 19 years

Cora eyes shot at history with key players back for another run
@IanMBrowne
March 25, 2019

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- If it seems like Red Sox manager Alex Cora started talking about the quest to repeat just days after the 2018 World Series ended, it's because he actually did. Behind their fiery leader, the Red Sox will now attempt to do what no baseball team has

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- If it seems like Red Sox manager Alex Cora started talking about the quest to repeat just days after the 2018 World Series ended, it's because he actually did.

Behind their fiery leader, the Red Sox will now attempt to do what no baseball team has done since those 2000 Yankees -- follow up one championship with another.

The roster is basically intact from last year's juggernaut, minus a couple of key bullpen arms (Joe Kelly and Craig Kimbrel).

Now it's just a matter of whether these Red Sox can stay healthy and productive enough to accomplish what proved to be elusive for the past 18 teams who tried to repeat.

What's the goal?

Led by a stacked starting rotation and a loaded lineup, the Red Sox would like to get off to a flying start, like last year, and have the rest of the American League East chasing them for much of the season. It is a little ambitious to think the Red Sox can start 17-2 again, but a season-opening, 11-game trip to the West Coast creates a nice opportunity for Boston to build some early-season momentum.

With the Yankees lurking in the AL East, winning the division might be an even more daunting task for the Red Sox than repeating as champs. But that is where it will start. The Sox have won the AL East the past three seasons, and the Yankees badly want to end that run. The top of the AL East standings should be must-watch all season.

What's the plan?

The Red Sox think they have the best rotation in MLB, and they plan to ride the quintet of Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, Nathan Eovaldi and Eduardo Rodriguez to another big year. But the pitchers can't do it alone.

Fortunately, the Sox also have plenty of offense. Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez are two of the best all-around hitters in the game. Andrew Benintendi and Xander Bogaerts give the team another layer of star power on offense. And this year, the Sox hope 22-year-old third baseman Rafael Devers can break out for 25-30 homers and 90-100 RBIs.

What could go wrong?

The bullpen. It is easy to worry about the bullpen because Kelly and Kimbrel weren't replaced by known commodities. Also, Cora has been tight-lipped about how he will utilize his relievers. Will there be a conventional closer? If so, look for Matt Barnes or Ryan Brasier to get the chance to step up. If not, can the late-inning crew function well as a committee? Heath Hembree and Tyler Thornburg will be asked to get big outs along with Barnes and Brasier, but there are no guarantees they can handle that responsibility.

If Boston's bullpen falters early in the season, the first place that president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski might go for help is the farm system, where talented arms like Darwinzon Hernandez (Boston's No. 4 prospect per MLB Pipeline), Durbin Feltman (No. 12) and Travis Lakins (No. 17) might be able to help. And there is always the July 31 Trade Deadline if the Sox are still trying to find their identity in the bullpen.

Who might surprise?

• Rodriguez has seemed on the verge of breaking out for several years, but something always seemed to go wrong, particularly with his health. For once, the lefty enters the season with no health issues in the back of his mind and is free to display his strong arsenal of pitches.

• Given Thornburg's injury-plagued first two seasons with the Red Sox, expectations are low for him among the fan base. That gives the righty a chance to become a positive surprise for a bullpen that needs people to emerge. Thornburg’s velocity was much improved in Spring Training, which is a sign that his right shoulder is at last feeling better.

• Catcher Blake Swihart could finally get the chance to show what he is capable of, and the hope is that he can give the Sox a boost offensively at a position they didn't get much firepower from last year.

Bottom line

Even though last year seems hard to top for the Red Sox, Cora thinks it's possible.

"We're locked in on trying to do something that hasn't been done in a while, and we have a chance," Cora said. "A lot of people talk about how great we were last year. People put us up there with the great teams of the franchise. But if we do this, we're going to become historic."

Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.