Uncertainty, optimism surround 2012 Red Sox

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When last we corresponded, I told you that the Red Sox would hang onto the Wild Card berth they were threatening to squander and that they had as good a chance as anyone to win the World Series.

That piece was published on the evening of Game 162, the lowest point in Red Sox history since Aaron Boone sent a Tim Wakefield knuckler sailing into the New York night.

Since that fateful night, the best manager in team history was exiled among rumors of chicken and beer and addictions to pills. General Manager Theo Epstein left for browner pastures in Chicago and took assistant Jed Hoyer with him. Closer Jonathan Papelbon signed a ludicrously generous deal with the Phillies and baited Red Sox fans by claiming that Phillies fans are smarter than Red Sox fans.

Shortstop Marco Scutaro was traded for spare parts, allegedly to free up dollars for a starting pitcher who never signed. Carl Crawford was poised for a bounce-back season, then out indefinitely with an injury, then ready to play through the wrist injury that was likely the primary factor behind his miserable 2011. Daniel Bard was ready for the rotation, then headed back to the bullpen, then primed to assume the role of fourth starter.

After a winter of discontent in New England, spring brings the optimism of green grass, cold beer (though not in the clubhouse) and another loaded Red Sox team. The always-entertaining Bobby Valentine is at the helm. The bullpen is reloaded with past closers Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon and the ever-reliable Alfredo Aceves. And most importantly, the murderer’s row that occupied the first five spots in the Red Sox lineup in 2011 is back and healthy.

So what does all of this mean? It means the Red Sox will win a lot of games. It also means there are plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong. While a second wild card means another 90-win season might be enough to make the playoffs, there are six very strong teams competing for the five available playoff spots in the American League.

The Rangers were a strike away from winning the World Series, got a year of development from their young core and added Japanese sensation Yu Darvish to their rotation. The Angels added Albert Pujols and CJ Wilson and sent Jeff Mathis (the worst hitter in the American League) packing. The Tigers added Prince Fielder and should once again cruise through a weak AL Central.

The Rays bring back perhaps the best starting pitching in the American League, adding a full year of phenom Matt Moore to the core of James Shields, David Price and Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson. With a full year from Evan Longoria (my pick for MVP) and Carlos Pena back at first base, they’ll be imposing again. And just when it looked like the Yankees were getting old and lacked depth, they added a potential ace in Michael Pineda, a solid starter in Hiroki Kuroda, and another DH option in Raul Ibanez. They look like a lock for another 90 wins or more.

What has to go right for the Red Sox to make the playoffs? Health comes first. If Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz can’t cobble together 600 innings, Red Sox fans will see more Aaron Cook and Carlos Silva than they’d like. Nothing can be worse than John Lackey, Tim Wakefield, and Kyle Weiland taking the hill in September, but pitching depth was the team’s primary weakness in ’11 and they didn’t do much about it over the winter, aside from a necessary trimming of the fat (with all due respect to Wakefield’s contributions over the years).

The lineup has a few injury risks too. Kevin Youkilis showed last year that a move to a more demanding position on the wrong side of 30 can be a terrible strain on the body. David Ortiz has fooled Father Time each of the past two seasons, but is always one wrist pop away from the DL. Most frustratingly, no one knows what to expect of Crawford, who was among the game’s best players from 2008 to 2010 and among its worst in 2011. Will the wrist plague him all season? Is he just not built for Fenway Park? Or is this the year he justifies his mammoth contract?

On the flip side, Dustin Pedroia is among the game’s steadiest- and best- players (he’s had a .367 to .387 OBP every year of his career). Adrian Gonzalez raked (.338/.410/.548) in 2011 despite a shoulder injury that sapped his power. If he gets his home run swing back in 2012, he’s an MVP contender. Jacoby Ellsbury can’t possibly replicate his MVP-level 2011 (his 9.4 WAR were the most for any AL player since 2007), but if he plays two-thirds as well, he’s a six-win player and a force at the top of the lineup.

The three biggest questions among position players are at shortstop, right field, and catcher. While Scutaro (and the healthy version of Jed Lowrie) will be missed, Mike Aviles will hit a little, Jose Iglesias will be among the game’s best fielders when he comes up from AAA, and Nick Punto is a capable utility guy. Cody Ross and Ryan Sweeney won’t be All-Stars in right field, but they’ll be better than J.D. Drew and Mike Cameron were in 2011. And the true platoon at catcher with Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Kelly Shoppach should be better offensively and defensively than Salty and the ghost of Jason Varitek were last year.

There’s no reason to believe the Red Sox won’t be among the best offensive teams in baseball again, even if Crawford continues to struggle and Iglesias sucks up too many at bats with a sub-.200 average. If something goes wrong with this team, it will be on the pitcher’s mound. Lester was among the best pitchers in baseball in 2009, but has seen his strikeout, walk, and home run rates trend in the wrong direction ever since. Beckett seems to pitch well every other year, and 2011 was an on year for him. Buchholz pitched like an ace in limited action in 2010, then missed more than half of ’11 with injuries.

Perhaps the most uncertain of the many gray areas on this team is Bard’s move to the rotation. He’s seen his strikeout rates decline as his workload has increased in recent seasons and the last season in which he was a starter, in 2007, he walked more than a batter an inning in single A. If he can prove that he’s matured as a pitcher and is ready for the strain of 170 innings, the team should be in good shape. If he can’t, who knows who will fill in behind Felix Doubront, the likely fifth starter. Doubront, by all accounts, has looked good in spring training and should feel less pressure than the other starters. 150 innings of 4.75 ERA ball should net the team 15 wins (not pitcher wins, which I don’t believe in, but team wins).

The ceiling for this team is high. If everyone plays like they did last year, Crawford returns to form, Ross and Sweeney make us forget J.D. Drew was ever here and Bard and Doubront are just decent, this team could win well over 100 games and cruise to the division title. If Crawford is still hurt, shortstop is a black hole, and injuries strike the rotation again, 85 wins and fourth place are not out of the question.

Tampa and New York are solid, and Toronto is lurking, but beware of the 2012 Red Sox. A quieter offseason helped them avoid the otherworldly expectations that seemed to haunt them last season. Maybe this year they’ll be the ones sneaking up on everyone else.