Take a deep breath, Red Sox fans. Brace yourselves. This is going to sting a little.
The 2012 Boston Red Sox are going to finish fourth in the AL East this season.
I know, it doesn't make sense on the surface. For $170 million, one would think that 90-plus wins would be guaranteed every year.
The 2012 AL East will ultimately be decided by the quality, youth and depth of each team’s pitching staff. In this vein, the Red Sox find themselves lagging far behind their competitors.
The Yankees will continue to be the Yankees. Like the Red Sox, their offensive stars are aging and will likely see a dip in production. Unlike the Red Sox, however, they have strengthened their pitching by mixing young players (Ivan Nova, Michael Pineda) and savvy veterans (Hiroki Kuroda, Freddy Garcia) with ace CC Sabathia.
The Rays, with apologies to the Angels, have the best pitching staff in the American League. They will be adding a full season of emerging star Matt Moore to the already stellar rotation of James Shields (16 wins, 2.82 ERA in 2011), All-Star David Price and reigning AL Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson. At 28 years old, Shields is the senior member of the staff; Price and Wade Davis are the next oldest at 25.
While Baltimore will continue its never-ending quest to rebuild and will serve as nothing but a late-season spoiler, the Blue Jays are poised to take the next step in their quest to be regarded as a contender in this division. The structure of this team is eerily reminiscent of another upstart group nobody took seriously: the 2008 Rays.
Like that Rays team, the Blue Jays are built upon a foundation of strong offense and young pitching. Where the Rays had a lineup anchored by Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria and Carlos Peña, the Blue Jays likewise have Jose Bautista, Brett Lawrie and Adam Lind. The Rays' 774 runs scored in 2008 is dwarfed by the 811 that FanGraphs projects the Blue Jays will tally this season.
The parallels continue with regards to the pitching staff. The Blue Jays are projected by FanGraphs to have three starters (ace Ricky Romero, rookie Henderson Alvarez and Brandon Morrow) with ERAs under 4.00. Brett Cecil should be able to rediscover at least part of his 2010 form, when he won 15 games. While no sure thing at the back end of the rotation, the now-healthy Dustin McGowan will be able to at least provide the Blue Jays with insurance should Kyle Drabek fail to regain the control that once made him an elite prospect.
Compare this group with the Red Sox, and it becomes easier to see how the Sox could slip behind Blue Jays.
The Sox's top three of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are certainly a fierce trio on paper, but questions linger about each of them.
Beckett has had 30-plus starts in consecutive seasons only once in his career, and with 30 starts last year he can only hope to stay healthy and buck that trend this season.
Lester faded badly in September last year, posting a 5.40 ERA. To be the leader of this staff, he'll need to remain strong through the entire season.
Buchholz is coming back after an injury-plagued season, and the Sox need him to return to his 2010 form. He does not want to see injuries become a recurring theme in his promising young career.
The back two slots in the Red Sox rotation are a total crapshoot as well. Daniel Bard, the presumed No. 4 starter, has an ERA of 7.08 and 78 walks versus 75 innings pitched in 22 career minor league starts.
The No. 5 slot will go to either Alfredo Aceves, who has never started more than four games in a season, or to one of a large pool of veteran has-beens on minor league contracts.
The Red Sox offense, too, is likely to regress. While Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, and Adrian Gonzalez are likely to continue improve upon last year's numbers, the rest of the lineup looks shaky. David Ortiz (36) and Kevin Youkilis (33) are aging, and particularly with Youkilis the risk of a sudden drop in numbers has never been higher.
Crawford is already facing an uphill battle as he tries to come back from offseason wrist surgery. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Cody Ross, Ryan Sweeney and Mike Aviles have all been part-timers the last several seasons, and now will be relied upon to contribute as everyday players.
Undoubtedly, this will be a close division race; these teams are all too talented to totally bottom out. Nevertheless, don’t be surprised if on October 4th the Red Sox find themselves looking up at the Yankees, Rays and Blue Jays.