— Remember last spring, when the Boston Red Sox were anointed as clear favorites in the American League East after adding Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford? We know how that turned out, of course.
Well, in a measure of just how far this division has come in a calendar year — and how good it can be in 2012 and the near-future — we present the possibility of the Red Sox finishing fourth behind the New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays and stealthily improved Toronto Blue Jays.
Admittedly, 'the fourth-place Red Sox' sounds a bit extreme — and won't be a consensus call, by any means. The last time the Sox finished any lower than third place was way back in 1997 — Jimy Williams' first season as manager after replacing Kevin Kennedy. Seems like ancient history, doesn't it?
Since then, the Red Sox have made six postseason appearances, won two pennants and two World Series titles. And over the last 10 seasons, they have averaged 93 wins, and only twice won fewer than 90 games.
But then again, coming off back-to-back 89- and 90-win seasons that left them out of the postseason picture, it won't take much of a fallback to 84-85 wins and fourth place. So first, let's look at which way the Red Sox are likelier to go this season.
On the plus side, they led the majors in runs scored last season and had a +138 run differential, fourth in MLB behind the Yankees (+210), Phillies (+184), Rangers (+178). The run-production side of that equation involved the Red Sox finishing first in on-base and slugging percentage, and second in batting average.
The Pythagorean formula for that run differential had them at 94-68 as opposed to their actual 90-72 record, and boy, could they have used those extra four wins. This suggests their issues perhaps were more mental than physical — especially in early April and late-September, right?
And if anybody can come in and turn around a team's attitude and fortunes — all while handling a clubhouse full of strong personalities amidst the scrutiny and pressure that comes with the territory in Red Sox Nation — it's Bobby Valentine.
There really are few, if any sharper minds in the game. And If the clubhouse buys in, and Valentine finds the right buttons to push to energize and focus his roster, there's good reason to think the Red Sox will be back in the playoffs.
However, the front office didn't do Valentine any favors in an off-season when Ben Cherington replaced Theo Epstein. So as camps open this weekend, these vital questions remain to be answered:
And now, the competition:
The Yankees won 97 games (albeit losing to Detroit in Game 5 of the ALDS) and have added Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda to their rotation — their weakest area last season. The offense is led now by Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira, so Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter don't have to do it anymore. Health and Father Time permitting, there is no apparent weakness here.
We've also learned by now — haven't we? — never to discount the Rays under Joe Maddon. Yes, even when they have to replace Crawford, Jason Bartlett, Carlos Pena and their entire bullpen. That's what they did last year, and still won 91 games — amazing.
Well, there were no significant losses this off-season (although Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis could be dealt) — only the return of Carlos Pena, plus the likely emergences of two more stars from their bountiful system in Matt Moore and Desmond Jennings. And as currently constructed, nobody's rotation is deeper.
If you're not aware of what general manager Alex Anthopoulos is doing in Toronto, it's time to play catch-up. In any other division, the Jays already may have been a playoff qualifier. This is their best shot in a long time, with squeaky-clean superstar Jose Bautista, emerging star Brett Lawrie and a handful of other up-trending position-player regulars in Yunel Escobar, Edwin Encarnacion, Colby Rasmus, J.P. Arencibia, Eric Thames and Travis Snider.
The back of the bullpen — last year's Achilles' heel — has been rebuilt with Francisco Cordero setting up Sergio Santos. So if one of their young starters emerges to join underrated Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow, 90 wins aren't out of the realm of possibility.
Truth is, beyond the Yankees, it appears as if you can throw the other three teams in a hat, and injuries, breaks and breakout seasons will determine where they end up in October.