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Uncertainty abounds for defending champion Red Sox

Boston Red Sox's Dustin Pedroia smiles after swinging

Boston Red Sox's Dustin Pedroia smiles after swinging at and missing a pitch by Northeastern pitcher Dustin Hunt in the first inning of an exhibition baseball game Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014, in Fort Myers, Fla. Credit: AP / Steven Senne

FORT MYERS, Fla. - As the landscaped sign welcoming fans to JetBlue Park proclaims, the Red Sox bask in the glow of their worst-to-first charge to the 2013 World Series championship.

Repeating is hard enough. No team has captured consecutive World Series since the Yankees won three in a row from 1998-2000.

One reason is that successful teams find it difficult to retain all their best performers. The 2014 Red Sox are no exception. They're replacing three key components, all up the middle, and relying heavily on rookies and a player seeing his first action since 2011.

Leadoff hitter and centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, the major leagues' stolen-base leader a year ago, now plays for the Yankees. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, well-respected in the clubhouse, has signed with the Marlins. And shortstop Stephen Drew continues to float in free-agent limbo.

Boston's pitching staff also took a hit early in spring training when Ryan Dempster announced that he will sit out the 2014 season.

Manager John Farrell chooses to focuses on the present, not those players who have departed or the ones Boston might yet sign.

"We're moving forward with the players that are here," Farrell said. "Last year is over and done. We'll have reminders: a ring ceremony, a trip to the White House. But our focus is on what we need to do today."

It's possible that no single player will pick up the slack for those who have moved on. It could be more of a team effort and the results could be surprising.

Last year, Koji Uehara became one of Boston's best weapons as a dominant closer, but only after the Red Sox turned to him out of necessity when Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan were lost to injuries.

"I don't think you ever 'replace' anybody. You try to fill the void," said lefthander Jon Lester, 15-8 last season and arguably the ace of the rotation. "When you start trying to replace people, that's when you get in trouble. Nobody is Jacoby. Nobody is Stephen Drew."

Not that the Red Sox won't be OK.

"I don't expect them to miss a beat," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said Saturday.

The Red Sox are polishing a diamond in rookie shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who hit .250 in 44 late-season at-bats, then handled postseason pressure with aplomb, batting .296 with six walks.

"I hope I opened a lot of people's eyes," said Bogaerts, 21, whose presence enabled the Red Sox to trade slick-fielding Jose Iglesias to Detroit.

"It's good that now I'm going to have time to work with [Dustin] Pedroia -- learn things like where he likes the ball [on plays at second base]. I was only [in spring camp] a week and a half last year, so working with a Gold Glove second baseman, I can definitely learn a lot of things."

Boston signed catcher A.J. Pierzynski, known for his ruggedness, to a one-year deal. Likely to platoon with holdover David Ross, Pierzynski might be an upgrade offensively. A .283 career hitter, he has totaled 44 homers in the past two seasons.

"[A.J.] has more experience than Salty had calling games," Ross said.

"He's played in this league so long that he knows the hitters, so game-calling should improve. He's a presence in our lineup."

But the outlook in centerfield remains cloudy. Boston brass loves the upside of Jackie Bradley Jr., but he struggled in his initial season, hitting .189 in 37 games.

As a contingency, the Red Sox signed Grady Sizemore, 31. The three-time All-Star had 33 homers and 90 RBIs in 2008 but has played only 104 games since 2009, none the last two years. He had back surgery and microfracture surgery on his right knee in 2012.

Sizemore said he's still challenging himself. "It's about [making] all the plays," he said. "You want to test yourself to see how everything feels, whether it's a ball in the gap, a ball off the wall or a play at the plate. You can't really simulate that in early work."

Rightfielder Shane Victorino isn't worried. "I've been there before,'' he said. "I lost [teammate] Jayson Werth, who was a big key when we did well in Philly. Losing Jacoby is a big piece of the puzzle, but as players, we understand it's a big part of the game. It means guys are going to get an opportunity. Between Jackie and Grady, I'm excited. I'd play center if I have to."

Even without Dempster, the rotation -- featuring Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Felix Doubront -- remains highly viable when healthy. Back issues limited Buchholz (12-1, 1.74) to 16 starts last season.

"We have veteran guys who have been through the battle before," Pierzynski said. "They've done it on the biggest stage."

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