The big players in the American League have been mopping up in free agency. The Red Sox? Not so much. Can the Sox still compete in the new-and-improved AL?
The Yankees have signed Hiroki Kuroda (and traded for Michael Pineda), the Tigers have picked up picked up Prince Fielder, Yu Darvish is headed to Texas, and of course there's the Angels with their acquisitions of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. It's been a big offseason for some of the American League's best teams-all except the Red Sox, who for once have been unable to be a major player in the market.
This is not to say that Boston hasn't been active. Moves for Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon have helped to ensure the stability of the bullpen in a future which sees Jonathan Papelbon in Philadelphia and Daniel Bard possibly moving to the rotation. But the signings of players like Cody Ross and Kelly Shoppach break the typical mold for the Red Sox, and do a poor job of keeping pace with the rest of the league.
The question is: who do they really need to keep pace with?
Detroit is the easy team to rule out. They were already the only winning team in their division last year, and but for a few games, the Sox won't really be directly competing with them in 2012. Obviously there are the playoffs to think about, but after a certain level of talent, they become something of a crapshoot to begin with.
The Yankees are always a threat, of course, but the additions of Pineda and Kuroda aren't really something to be too worried about. The Yankees are only getting older in the field, and frankly at best their new starters are only a small improvement on the fluke 2011 combo of Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon, especially when you consider the moves they'll be making (to the American League and New Yankee Stadium).
The real danger comes from out west, frankly, where the Rangers and Angels are threatening to steal the wild card away from its traditional home in the AL East. The Angels have become the favorites to win the division with the additions of Pujols and Wilson, and their case is strengthened even further by the return of Kendrys Morales and the possible advent of the impressive young Mike Trout.
Likely the weaker of the two, the Texas Rangers do have quite a few questions to answer before they can be considered real threats to return to the ALCS. The addition of Yu Darvish is exciting for Texas fans, to be sure, but Red Sox fans know all-too-well that it's risky to bring a pitcher straight from a foreign league into the MLB. The rest of their rotation isn't without questions either, with Matt Harrison and Derek Holland needing to prove they're actually as good as they were last year and Neftali Feliz trying to make the transition to the rotation.
The problem for the Red Sox in all this is that they still need to win more than the 90 games they did last year if they want to stand a chance, because all those question marks do is to provide some assurance that, no, the American League will not have four teams winning 100 games a piece. While statistical models suggest the Sox were actually a lot better than their record last year (a combination of streaky offense and at times unfathomably bad starting pitching is likely to blame for that), they too will need to stave off regression that could bring their talent level down to the 90 wins they actually achieved. Can Jacoby Ellsbury once again provide an MVP-like season? Will David Ortiz once again remind us of what he was like in the glory days? Can Adrian Gonzalez continue to find holes in the infield, or will his shoulder need to compensate by providing the homers that we expected last year?
There is room for improvement too, of course. At his best, Carl Crawford is a guy who can bring six-plus wins to the team. Last year, he was worth pretty much nothing. If Kevin Youkilis can stay healthy, Clay Buchholz can come back strong, and Daniel Bard can make the transition to the rotation successfully, this team can be the best in the American League. The problem for the Red Sox is that this year they're one of the teams in need of some fortune, where as the last two years they've just needed to avoid terrible luck. On the other hand, after 2010 and 2011, they should have some of that coming to them.