(SportsNetwork.com) - The Boston Red Sox begin defense of their World Series title on Monday when they kick off their season against the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards.
Boston enjoyed a 28-game turnaround last season, as the Red Sox finished 97-65 and not only captured an American League East title, but also claimed the club's third World Series championship since 2004, a matter-of-fact, six-game win over the St. Louis Cardinals.
Now the Red Sox have their sights set on becoming the first club since the 1999-2000 Yankees to repeat as World Series champions.
It won't be easy, though, as the team lost both outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia in free agency, but weren't nearly as aggressive as they were the previous winter in that market.
It's almost crazy to suggest, but general manager Ben Cherington is in the process of rebuilding this team. Young Xander Bogaerts is expected to be a big factor this year at shortstop, while the team had hoped that Jackie Bradley Jr. would take over for Ellsbury.
The Red Sox, though, may have found lightning in a bottle with the resurgence of Grady Sizemore, who signed as a low-risk, high-reward deal after having not played in two years, but has been the story of camp this spring and beat out Bradley for the starting center field spot.
Jon Lester was one of the pitchers who benefited from having new manager John Farrell around, as he went 15-8 a year ago with a 3.75 ERA and will be on the hill Monday.
This will be Lester's fourth consecutive Opening Day start. Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens each started seven consecutive openers for the Sox. Lester will take over the record for Sox southpaws, passing Babe Ruth and Mel Parnell (three apiece).
Baltimore, meanwhile, has its eyes on the postseason after two straight winning seasons.
Baltimore followed up its 93-win 2012 season with an 85-win 2013. While the Orioles trended backwards with their win total, it was still the first time since 1996-97 that the team posted consecutive winning seasons.
The recent success had president Dan Duquette looking to improve the club in the offseason. He sent closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland Athletics in a package that brought back second baseman Jemile Weeks. Duquette then had a deal for free agent closer Grant Balfour fall through after a failed physical, which sent the club into a holding pattern on major acquisitions until late February when they basically stole slugger Nelson Cruz.
After not receiving a quality offer coming off his Biogenesis-related suspension, Cruz settled for a one-year $8 million deal with the Orioles.
Coming to a hitter-friendly Camden Yards, should provide motivation for a big deal next offseason for Cruz, a 2013 All-Star who is one of only 13 players to hit at least 20 home runs in each of the last five seasons. The nine-year veteran registered 27 homers and 76 RBI while batting .276 in just 109 games with the Rangers in 2013.
Add Cruz's numbers to a lineup that already includes last year's home run and RBI champ Chris Davis (53 HR, 138 RBI, .286 AVG.), Adam Jones (33, 108, .285) and Manny Machado (14, 71, .283) and the Orioles have as strong an offense as any team in the American League.
Baltimore's season, though, will rest on its starting pitchers. Chris Tillman will be on the hill Monday after going 16-7 a year ago with a 3.71 ERA. He also earned his first-ever All-Star berth and at, 25, will be the youngest Orioles opening-day starter since 1994, when Mike Mussina took the ball.
"I've been focusing on getting myself ready," he said. "I think that's the most important thing. I'm happy coming out of this healthy and I'm ready to go."
Baltimore was 11-8 against the Red Sox last season.