One year ago, the Boston Red Sox were entering the 2011 season as World Series favorites, the darlings of experts everywhere. In 2012, the story is different. Primarily marked for third place, fourth more often than second, and expected by many to miss the playoffs, they are a team with a lot to prove -- or at the very least a lot of people to prove wrong.
Unfortunately for Sox fans, the last six months have not been the kind that the team needed for them to forget the tragedies of last year. Of primary concern was the rotation, the collapse of which had been the biggest reason for the team's September woes. An offseason of frustration, however, saw the Yankees snag one top target in Hiroki Kuroda, and another in Roy Oswalt choose to take a break from the game rather than joining a team so far from his Midwestern home. In the end, the Sox settled for a cavalcade of low-cost options, hoping they could find gems in the castoffs of other teams, their own minor leaguers, and relievers attempting a conversion.
The attempt to fix the rotation with the likes of Daniel Bard, however, left new holes to be filled in the bullpen, precipitating trades for Mark Melancon and Andrew Bailey. Another opening was left when the Sox sent Marco Scutaro to the Colorado Rockies in what amounted to little more than a salary dump-money that likely was supposed to go to a free agent who never came, and will now be hopefully be reappropriated for use in the trade market. There the Sox looked for an internal solution, designating Mike Aviles as the starting shortstop.
While none of this paints the most encouraging picture, a strong spring training should have been enough to allay many of the fans' worst fears. Unfortunately, the preseason was more of a mixed bag than anything else. While Felix Doubront, the other spring training selection for the rotation showed strong results throughout March, Daniel Bard has not reassured fans of his ability to start yet. Where Mike Aviles and free agent acquisition Cody Ross have shown swings tailor-made for Fenway, the bullpen has suffered a significant hit with the loss of Andrew Bailey for half the season to thumb surgery. The upshot of all this: just as many questions as we had in February.
Within the first month, Sox fans should have a much better grasp on their team. The final two spots in the rotation will either be solidified by Daniel Bard and Felix Doubront, or will fall to the likes of Aaron Cook and Vicente Padilla after their failure. Alfredo Aceves and Mark Melancon will either step up to fill the void left by Andrew Bailey, or the Sox will be sent searching for answers in yet another area.
We will learn a great deal about the Sox over the first month, but that is not when the final word will be written. After running a gauntlet of talent in the first few weeks-the Sox have to face the Tigers, Jays, Rays, Rangers, and Yankees before they get to the Twins-there will be chances to recover from a slow start or consolidate a strong one as the Sox take advantage of what may be one of their best attributes: their (eventual) depth. If Bard or Doubront can't get it done, Cook may well be able to, perhaps sending Bard back to play a major role in the bullpen. And then there's the likes of Carl Crawford, Rich Hill, and Ryan Kalish making their returns, or Ryan Lavarnway making the jump back to the majors if it proves necessary. There are, for once, options.
Still, nobody wants a repeat of 0-6, and if the Sox can get off to even a .500 start over the first 15 games, then they'll be in a strong position to contend for one of the three playoff spots available to them. The reality is that this team is very similar to the one that was expected to roll their way to a World Series championship. Hopefully with a chip on their shoulder and a few new bullets in the gun replacing the likes of John Lackey, they can prove their critics wrong.