FORT MYERS, Fla. --The Boston Red Sox face more than just tougher competition in their quest for back-to-back championships. They're also fighting history.
The seven previous winners all failed to repeat. Only one of them reached the World Series in the following season. And the last two champions before the Red Sox didn't even make it back to the playoffs.
"It's doable, but obviously we need some things to go our way," 2007 World Series MVP Mike Lowell said. "There's no magic pill."
The start of the season is more than a month away, but the Red Sox are well equipped to cope with the problems that defending champs face.
Some of them lose key players. But almost the entire Boston team that swept Colorado is back -- 23 of the 25 players who were on the World Series roster.
Some can't cope with being the team opponents target. But pressure doesn't faze the Red Sox. They play before packed houses at Fenway Park every game and brushed aside a 3-1 deficit to win the next three games and beat Cleveland in the AL championship series.
Some face costly injuries. But the Red Sox have a pretty good fill-in for Curt Schilling, whose shoulder injury should sideline him at least half the season. It's Clay Buchholz, who merely threw a no-hitter in his second major league start last Sept. 1.
"A true test of a team, especially a team that's got the core group of guys coming back, is, OK, can they do this again?" said closer Jonathan Papelbon, who struck out the last batter of the World Series. "Was it not a fluke or did they get some breaks or things like that?
"But there's no reason in my mind we can't go out and repeat as long as we stay healthy."
The Red Sox are fortunate that the AL teams who added most of the best players are not in the East.
The Yankees, who finished second in the AL East to Boston, made no significant veteran acquisitions, preferring to keep young pitchers Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy rather than include one or both in a trade for Johan Santana.
The Red Sox roster shake-up took place before the 2007 season with the additions of Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideki Okajima, Dustin Pedroia, J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo. Rookies Buchholz and center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury were outstanding late in the season.
This year all seven should be more comfortable.
The Red Sox had much greater turnover in 2005, the year after they won their first World Series in 86 years, and were swept by the Chicago White Sox in the first round of the playoffs.
"This time," catcher Jason Varitek said, "we have the mix of some very youthful players with some older players. So you get those youthful players another year of experience coming into this year, so that's a great thing to have an opportunity to see."
The Florida Marlins lacked that continuity in 2004, losing catcher Ivan Rodriguez to Detroit and first baseman Derrek Lee to the Chicago Cubs. So they missed the playoffs one year after current Boston ace Josh Beckett won the final game of the World Series against the Yankees.
Lowell was Florida's third baseman in 2003 and 2004.
"We were kind of trying to interchange parts and say we wanted to repeat, but we didn't have the same manpower," Lowell said. "In a small market like we were in '03, everyone had to have either real good years or career years for us to compete, because there was no depth.
"You take away two pieces like Derrek Lee and Pudge (Rodriguez), that's tough. I think we were more excited to get our rings that first week of the season. We thought we could maybe make the playoffs, but so many things needed to be perfect, and that's hard."
The Red Sox, he said, have much more depth and experience.
Florida lost Lee and Rodriguez, two of their best hitters. Boston lost sub Eric Hinske and ineffective reliever Eric Gagne after its championship.
Boston, in Terry Francona's first year as manager, succeeded the Marlins as champions in 2004.
The next season, the Red Sox couldn't even win a playoff game.
"We certainly tried to do what we thought was right after '04," Francona said. "None of us had ever been through it. I think the experience certainly helped and that's something that we'll talk about as a team."
The White Sox followed the Red Sox as champions in 2005 then missed the playoffs in 2006.
"When you win the championship, everything had to be right, from playing to injuries to mentally," Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen said. "It's hard to do it. It's one thing a lot of people can't figure out. To me, it's just because the people who compete against you get better."
No one was better than the Yankees at the end of the last century. They won three straight World Series in 1998, 1999 and 2000.
"George Steinbrenner did a great job of keeping our team together," said Tino Martinez, a special instructor in the Yankees camp and a member of those three teams. "The nucleus of the team came back year in, year out, but he added one or two parts that we needed to really keep us moving in the right direction.
"The attitude of the team was incredible. Once we won that one World Series, our goal was to win every year. Once we got to the postseason we knew what it took."
They nearly won again in 2001 but lost in seven games to Arizona as Schilling shut out the Yankees for the first six innings of the final game.
New York led 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth. Then Mariano Rivera gave up two runs and the era of repeat champions was over.
"We had great pitching" during the title streak, Rivera said. "A great team. A great everything. Great chemistry, pitching, players. Everything was great."
The Red Sox don't need everything to be great this year.
But a lineup that starts with Ellsbury, rookie of the year Pedroia, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, and Lowell should be outstanding. So is a pitching staff headed by Beckett, Matsuzaka and closer Papelbon.
That's the 2008 Red Sox, just about the same as the 2007 Red Sox.
"We'll have an extra bull's-eye on our back because we're the defending champions," Lowell said, "but I don't think teams come into Boston thinking it's going to be easy.
"If we're the hot team in the playoffs, we're going to be able to keep moving on."