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Red Sox eye a superlative season

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  March 30, 2011 07:42 AM

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For $180 million, you get more answers than questions. Interest heightens. And Sports Illustrated picks you to the win the World Series, which, depending on your perspective, may or may not be a good thing.

From that perch, after all, there is nowhere to go but down.

So for those who believe in such things, take note that SI has not correctly picked a World Series winner since 1999. The last time the magazine picked the Red Sox, in 2000, Boston missed the playoffs entirely and did not qualify for the postseason again until 2003. All of that serves as a backdrop to this season, one the Red Sox enter with one of the deeper and more talented rosters in their history.

Nonetheless, people like predictions.

And if you want predictions, we’ll give you predictions.

100lester.jpgMost Likely To Succeed: Jon Lester (pictured), Daniel Bard, Adrian Gonzalez.

As we go along, we’ll generally try to pick one starter, one reliever, one positional player. In the case of Lester, he is the closest thing to a sure bet in the Boston starting rotation. Over the last three years, only Roy Halladay and C.C. Sabathia have more wins. Among all pitchers who have at least 500 innings during that time span, only Sabathia, Adam Wainwright and Tim Lincecum have a higher winning percentage.

Bard seems the surest bet among the back-end bullpen trio that also includes Jonathan Papelbon and Bobby Jenks. The Red Sox relied too heavily on Bard during the first half of last season – and pitched him a little too much – so keeping him fresher will be a priority. But with the development of his changeup, he has become one of the most dominating relievers in the game.

Gonzalez, meanwhile, looks like a perfect fit for Fenway Park. During his time with the San Diego Padres, he was a .316 hitter away from PETCO Park. Keep your expectations in check, but a .300-30-100 season seems a virtual guarantee with the possibility for .320-35-120 (or even slightly better). Gonzalez rarely takes days off. Everything is lined up for him to excel.

100buchholz.jpgMost Likely to Disappoint: Clay Buchholz (pictured), Jonathan Papelbon, Carl Crawford.

Really, what fun would it be if we picked Felix Doubront, Matt Albers and Darnell McDonald?

Buchholz was positively terrific last season, particularly in August, when he went 4-0 with a 1.03 ERA in six starts. The only time he struggled was in July, when he was derailed by a leg injury. The great question still concerns durability, an issue that compounds itself with each additional season.

Papelbon, meanwhile, is obvious. According to one longtime evaluator, Papelbon was clocked between 89-93 mph throughout spring training and lacked finish on his fastball. Certainly, in past years, he ramped it up when the real games began. For all of the analysis about Papelbon’s problems and pitch selection over the last two years, the simple truth is that he doesn’t blow the ball by hitters as much as he used to. And he has never really been one to paint the corners.

Crawford? He is a dynamic player. The problem is that he is being paid in excess of $20 million per year and he is not really a $20 million player. Regarded as temperamental, this is his first time in a big market, let alone a hyper-intense one. This year could be a huge adjustment for him. Just be prepared for it.

100lackey.jpgMost Likely to be Underappreciated: John Lackey (pictured), Matt Albers, J.D. Drew.

The problem with big contracts, of course, is that people often set unrealistic expectations. (See above on Crawford.) In eight full seasons as a starter, Lackey has given teams almost exactly what he gave the Red Sox last year: 14 wins. He also has given them almost exactly 200 innings. (Last year, the number was 215.) There is room for a guy like that on any staff, including this one. Maybe we should start comparing him, in terms of output, with someone like Derek Lowe.

In the case of Albers, nobody is expecting anything from him, which is a nice position to be in. He’s a groundball pitcher who can go multiple innings, and Terry Francona almost certainly will use him when the Red Sox are behind in the middle innings. Know what that means? If Albers does his job on this team, he could rack up some wins. Don’t be surprised if he does.

As for Drew, what more needs to be said? Cut that salary by $4-$5 million a year and you’d be talking about him as if he were Trot Nixon. Drew is a fundamentally sound hitter, fielder and baserunner. Again, there is room for a guy like that on any team. But the Red Sox signed him to bat fifth and he ended up hitting seventh, which is fine if you can afford it. And the Red Sox can.

100scutaro.jpgMost Likely to Cause Roster Instability: Daisuke Matsuzaka, Bobby Jenks, Marco Scutaro (pictured).

Ah yes, Dice-K. Over the last two years combined, he’s pitched 213 innings (fewer than Lackey last season) and gone 13-12 with a 4.99 ERA. If you think he’s going to give this club more than, say, 150 innings, there's little to support the notion. Blips in performance are maddening. But for big money, you should at least get innings.

Jenks, meanwhile, is an absolute wild card. On the one hand, he could push Papelbon for the closer’s job. On the other, his WHIP has gone up considerably over each of the last three seasons. Jenks could end up in the sixth inning as easily as the ninth, and time on the disabled list is hardly out of the question. Fasten your seat belts.

Scutaro, meanwhile, was being pushed before he even arrived in camp, some believing that Jed Lowrie should be the starting shortstop. (Lowrie is better suited for a utility role.) With Scutaro coming off a shoulder injury and with Jose Iglesias closing in, don’t be surprised if the Red Sox have a change at shortstop during the season. Unlike Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Scutaro is not being groomed for something.

100ellsbury.jpgBest Candidate for a Breakout Season: In this case, we’re going with one and only one selection: Jacoby Ellsbury.

Surprised? Don’t be. What made last year particularly frustrating is that Ellsbury was growing. After an erratic 2008, his monthly batting averages in 2009 were as follows: .287, .308, .313, .300, .295 and .305. Consistency is the hallmark of any good player. Maybe Ellsbury understands that now. On this team, Ellsbury has the potential to score 120 runs with 50-60 extra base hits, but he has to be in the lineup, continue to improve his plate discipline, be committed.

If he does those things, the pieces are in place for him to have a huge season. He has great run producers behind him.

And like the Red Sox as a whole, he has no excuses.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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