Jacoby Ellsbury and the Red Sox will have their sights set on a higher finish in 2012.
It's not ideal; then again it's also not set in stone.
The simple fact is that if one looks at the American League East through an unbiased prism of reality there's precious little reason to pick the Boston Red Sox any higher than third in the American League East—for now.
That doesn't mean they're a bad team and with new wild card rules in place it doesn't even mean they'd miss the playoffs. In 2011 the Boston Red Sox finished in third place. They missed the playoffs and still won 90 games, finishing the regular season with an identical record to a St. Louis Cardinals team that would go on to become World Series Champions.
The problem isn't so much that the Red Sox got worse in the offseason. The recent injury to Carl Crawford could result in the left fielder missing the start of the season. The Red Sox started 2-10 last year so even with the Crawford injury the likelihood of the team starting as poorly as they did in 2011 seems a bit remote.
The competition in the division may have gotten a bit tougher though.
The Rays had a quiet offseason but the team that barnstormed through September and snatched the wild-card spot from the Red Sox on the regular season's final night was going to return a very solid core no matter what the offseason held.
The starting rotation, which was among baseball's best last season, will probably be better this year. James Shields may be hard pressed to repeat or improve upon last season's numbers but David Price would be a safe bet to improve on his 2011 season.
In addition the Rays, who had last year's American League Rookie of The Year in their rotation in the form of Jeremy Hellickson, may have a repeat of that scenario in Matt Moore.
Moore, who showed slim flashes of his potential brilliance down the stretch in 2011, will be a part of the Rays rotation in 2012. The 22-year-old lefty will strike out a ton of batters in 2012. That's almost a certainty, what's not a total certainty is how good his final numbers will be.
Make no mistake about it, Moore is likely to be a No. 1, ace type of pitcher. At 22 he may take a year or two to evolve to that point but an already formidable Rays rotation will be better in 2012 than it was in 2011.
The lineup could easily be improved as well. The Rays suffered through an abysmal offensive malaise for much of the 2011 season before finally picking up the pace in time to make their playoff run. Another all encompassing slump by the team through the All-Star break seems unlikely as does Evan Longoria missing several weeks of the first few months as he did last year.
The Rays also return the reigning Manger of The Year in Joe Maddon. The cerebral manager has made a habit of keeping the Rays competitive regardless of the circumstances. Last season was supposed to be a lost year for Tampa with a totally new bullpen in place and the departure of Carl Crawford as well as Carlos Pena. Instead he had the team in the playoffs for the third time in four seasons.
Then there's that pesky team in the Bronx: The New York Yankees. The Yankees managed to win the American League East and finish with the league's best record last season all while enduring a terribly subpar season from Alex Rodriguez.
There were other underachievers too. Mark Teixeira finished with the lowest batting average and lowest OPS since his rookie season in 2003. Nick Swisher, who was an All-Star in 2010, fell back down to earth as his batting average dropped 28 points in 2011.
The Yankees also had a starting rotation that not only looked inadequate when the team took the field in April, they looked inadequate when they wrapped up the division in September. C.C. Sabathia had another impressive Cy Young caliber season but A.J. Burnett was once again disappointing.
Phil Hughes continued to make Yankee fans wait to see if he would become a top-tier starting pitcher by battling a series of injuries and then experiencing control problems upon becoming healthy.
But the Yankees did get an unexpected contribution from Ivan Nova. The team also received better than expected contributions from Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon. This season the Yankees will have a healthy Hughes as well as a physically imposing 22-year-old pitcher named Michael Pineda who finished fifth in the Rookie of The Year balloting in 2011.
As the competition has improved, the Red Sox have at best made nothing more than lateral movement. The closer is less expensive, but Andrew Bailey is not as good as Jonathan Papelbon. Daniel Bard has vacated the eighth inning role, a role in which he didn't yield a single earned run from May 27th through August 1st.
A healthy Clay Buchholz will be a welcome return to the rotation and Jon Lester and Josh Beckett may very well both be quite good also. The other two spots are still very much question marks though. Daniel Bard, Vicente Padilla, Felix Doubront, Alfredo Aceves, Andrew Miller and Tim Wakefield will all compete for chances to start consistently. While any number of them could be good, they could also falter as well.
Offense won't be an issue, but it wasn't an issue last season either. The Red Sox led all of baseball in both batting average as well as runs scored in 2011. That didn't prevent them from getting to watch every minute of playoff baseball form the comfort of their living rooms though.
Of course the good news is that this is baseball. It's not a 162 game sprint, it's a marathon. Over the course of the 2012 season players may develop in ways we didn't think possible. Trades can be made, injuries can happen to key players on rival teams.
The team that takes the field on opening day is almost never identical to the one that finishes the season. That's something for all Red Sox fans to keep in mind as the preseason predictions start to surface in the upcoming weeks.
It was less than a year ago that everyone was sure that the 2011 season would end with a matchup of the Red Sox and Phillies in the World Series. Neither team even played in the league championship series. The Red Sox are currently the third best team in the American League East but there are 162 games to be played before that's set in stone.