Sun shines cordially on the brim of your cap, a welcome respite from the biting cold in the nearby shade. Meticulously manicured grass sparkles proudly, unaware that the last patch of snow is clinging for its life in your yard back home. Familiar songs blare from the loudspeaker as grown men stretch and toss on the field below. April has come to rescue us from another dismal winter and baseball makes spring’s arrival official. There’s no better time to be alive than the beginning of baseball season.
Unless, of course, you’re a Red Sox fan.
It’s been an ugly couple of years in New England. In 2011, winter came early, as the Red Sox lost 20 of their last 27 games after starting 83-52 and looking like a solid bet to win another World Series. In 2012, summer never came, as Boston started 1-5, sputtered to a .500 record at the All-Star break, then fell apart and shipped off two of their prize acquisitions from the 2011 offseason.
Rather than retooling with another cadre of elite free agents or rebuilding with low-cost talent, the Red Sox took a rather unsettling middle road in the offseason. They brought in Mike Napoli despite a harrowing medical report that completely reshaped his contract. They signed Shane Victorino, perhaps hoping he can duplicate Cody Ross’s 2011 performance for the next three years despite signs that he’s slowing down. They added veteran starter Ryan Dempster, who’s had a handful of great years in the National League, but struggled in a brief stint with the Rangers last summer. They added relievers Joel Hanrahan and Koji Uehara, who should be upgrades, but neither will pitch more than 75 innings in 2013. And Johnny Gomes is on the team for some reason.
Throw in a David Ross here and a Stephen Drew there and this is not a bad team, but it’s not the Manny-Ortiz-Pedro juggernaut we’ve become accustomed to in Boston. The pitching is still thin, with Jon Lester regressing at an alarming rate, Clay Buchholz never having pitched 200 innings or struck out 130 batters in a season and the mere thought of John Lackey on the mound more terrifying in Massachusetts than the prospect of a Sarah Palin presidency.
Furthermore, the American League East has been a gauntlet for a decade and with the Orioles winning 93 games last year and the Blue Jays claiming available talent over the winter like Bobby Jenks claiming hors d’ouvres at the postgame buffet, the Red Sox seem far more likely to finish last than first in 2013.
But are the chances of a division title really that bleak?
The Yankees listen to Lawrence Welk in the clubhouse before games. Most Yankees spent this offseason wagging fingers and yelling at kids to stay off their lawns. Some Yankees even remember when Clint Eastwood’s diaper wasn’t visible through his pants. Even with C.C. Sabathia and Robinson Cano, can they hold up for 162 games?
The Orioles won a lot of games last year, but they only had two players worth as many as three Wins Above Replacement (per fangraphs). For reference, the Rangers, who won the same number of games, had six. No pitcher on the 2012 Orioles has a track record of Major League success, yet they made no moves to strengthen the staff, or for that matter, the lineup, which batted just .247 last season and was below average by just about any metric.
The Rays have one of the game’s best rotations, but their starting first baseman and designated hitter early this season are James Loney and Shelley Duncan, who might have been the neighbors on “All in the Family.” If Evan Longoria struggles to stay on the field, as he has in recent years, this could be a truly impotent lineup.
The Blue Jays are the favorites to win the division. With Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera setting the table, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion providing clout in the middle of the order, and four aces in the rotation, Toronto is a popular pick to win the World Series. But R.A. Dickey has never pitched well in the American League, Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow are more familiar with the trainer’s room than the pitcher’s mound and Mark Buehrle gave up 26 homers in the National League East last year. Furthermore, the bottom of the lineup isn’t as strong as Boston’s, at least as long as Adam Lind is wasting at-bats like reality shows taking primetime TV spots.
Boston’s lineup might not be the best in the division this year, but as long as all the Yankees you’ve heard of are on the disabled list, it’s not far behind Toronto for second. The bullpen doesn’t have a Mariano Rivera, but it should be the best in Boston in years. And the rotation- well, it could be bad, but who’s to say it can’t be good? Lester is still just 29, looked solid this spring, and was a legitimate number one starter as recently as 2010. Buchholz pitched well down the stretch last year and has a career ERA under four. Dempster has over 550 strikeouts over the last three seasons, and Felix Doubront struck out 167 in 161 innings as a rookie last year. It’s even possible that Lackey is healthy for the first time in a Red Sox uniform and could pitch more like the ace he was from 2005 to 2007 than the joker he’s been since 2010.
And perhaps best of all, the bumbling reign of Bobby Valentine is over. Former Sox pitching coach John Farrell has the same luxury FDR had in succeeding Hoover: things can only go up from here.
On paper, this Red Sox team has something like 85-win talent. It’s easy to see the pitching falling apart, Lester and Jacoby Ellsbury getting traded midseason and another sub-70-win finish. But it’s also possible that Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia are two of the best players in baseball again, as they were in 2011, that a stacked bullpen holds leads turned over by an adequate rotation, that Jackie Bradley, Jr. continues to electrify fans throughout his rookie season and that no other team in the AL East has a great year.
Red Sox fans who came of age in the current millennium are accustomed to expecting more than a sliver of a chance at the division if everything breaks right. But maybe this is the way baseball is supposed to be. A team with a few stars and a lot of decent role players faces an uphill battle. This is what baseball is like most years in Chicago and Cleveland and Milwaukee and Seattle. Fans start with hope, catch a few breaks and hit a few snags along the way, and more often than not, start dreaming of next year by midsummer.
But if the games still count when the shade is a welcome break from the sun, when the grass, no matter how meticulously manicured, shows evidence of cleats chasing fly balls in the gap, when snow is as distant a memory as Ted Williams’s swing or Cy Young’s fastball, it feels not like a birthright, but like a miracle.
Bryan O’Connor lives in South Portland, where he obsesses about sabermetrics and the Hall of Fame in the offseason. Read more of his work at Replacement Level Baseball Blog (http://replacementlevel.wordpress.com) and High Heat Stats (http://highheatstats.com).