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Rich Kimball Rich Kimball
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Hope springs eternal

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For anyone who has been a Boston baseball since before the days of 'Red Sox Nation,' there are a couple of basic requirements tied to the calendar. One is to anticipate the September swoon and the disappointment that follows (except for those glorious '04 and '07 seasons); the other is to greet each new campaign with optimism and unrealistic expectations. Since we're less than two weeks from Opening Day, it seems like as good a time as any to engage in some wishful thinking and envision a scenario where the Red Sox rise from worst to first.

It starts with pitching. What drove this team to the depths last year, as well as in September of 2011, was a pitching staff that completely fell apart. Spring training numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt, but there is reason to think this is an area ripe for improvement. Jon Lester is still the guy who was a picture of consistency through August of 2011 and, at age 29, should be entering his prime years for success. With John Farrell back to keep him focused and with no Josh Beckett to lead him astray, there's no reason he can't return to the form that helped him go 19-9 with a 3.25 ERA in 2010. Clay Bucholz pitched pretty well after a rocky start last year and is certainly capable of getting double-digit wins and giving the Sox 180-200 solid innings, and Ryan Dempster is an excellent addition to the staff. While his ERA was high during his time in Texas, his strikeout rate rose and he has been a dependable middle-of-the-rotation guy since his move from the bullpen. Felix Doubront came to camp overweight and has been getting caught up ever since, but he was more than respectable in the rotation last year, averaging better than a strikeout an inning. With that year of experience under his belt and a little less belly hanging over it, Doubront can be a strong contributor. That brings us to John Lackey, a guy who became the poster child for the beer and chicken gang. His surly attitude and historically bad ERA that year obscured the fact that he took the ball every fifth day, even when injured, and he has worked hard to get himself in shape and for the opportunity to atone for 2011. It's not unreasonable to think the Sox can get 150 innings and 8-10 wins from Lackey, making his huge contract a little easier to swallow. Add in an outstanding and deep bullpen, and the pitching alone should get the Red Sox to .500.

Offensively, the team opted to sign role players to short-term deals, instead of inking superstars to seven-year megapacts. They also looked at things like character and how well guys would respond under the Boston media microscope. Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes and Stephen Drew aren't likely to be earning many MVP votes, but they're all players with upside and something to prove, and they're the type of people who more resemble the blue-collar 2004 squad than the soft and petulant Crawford and Gonzalez team of last year. His hip injury has made Mike Napoli a bargain-signing with 25-30 HR potential, and David Ross should prove to be a better than expected #2 catcher. With David Ortiz expected to miss a significant portion of the early season, the Sox may be forced to put Jackie Bradley, Jr. on the roster, and if so, fans will get to see a combination of raw talent, hard work and positive attitude that will do much to erase the misery of 2011-12. Add in a healthy Pedroia and Middlebrooks and Jacoby Ellsbury playing for a contract and you've got a team primed to shock the experts.

Las Vegas may have anointed the Blue Jays as the team to beat in the AL East, but it remains to be seen if their offseason spending spree can pay dividends or simply become a north of the border version of last year's overpaid Red Sox collective. With Tampa Bay reloading, the Yankees breaking down and the Orioles carrying the weight of their surprising success, I think the Red Sox are in a position to make this a year to remember, and one that may last well into October. Then again, it's spring, and for Sox fans, that's how we approach every year.


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