Terry Francona is Boston Red Sox Difference Maker, Not Offseason Additions

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Terry Francona is Boston Red Sox Difference Maker, Not Offseason Additions
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Playing in the American League East, it's important to keep a competitive team on the field every season.

The Boston Red Sox organization and its general manager, Theo Epstein, know that very well, so they went out and improved their team more than any other in baseball.

When it was all but set in stone that free agent outfielder Carl Crawford, who was considered the second-best free agent behind Cliff Lee, was going to Anaheim, the Red Sox snuck in like a thief in the night to sign him.

Seven years and $142 million is quite the check to write, but for the Red Sox, self-improvement is an obsession.

Still not done, Epstein then sent top prospect Casey Kelly and two others to San Diego for probably the most underrated slugger in the National League, Adrian Gonzalez. Put simply, Gonzalez was the entire Padres offense; taking him from PETCO Park to Fenway Park is going to be quite the show.

Throw Bobby Jenks into the bullpen to join Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon, along with a healthy Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury returning to the lineup, and the Red Sox have built themselves a World Series favorite.

The starting rotation has some question marks, especially in the forms of John Lackey and Josh Beckett; each is coming off the worst season of his respective career and, as we all know, pitching wins championships.

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Last season, Lackey went 14-11 with a 4.40 ERA and 1.42 WHIP, both well above his career marks. His numbers were down across the board from 2009, including K/9 (7.10 to 6.53), BAA (.263 to .277) and K/BB ratio (2.96 to 2.17).

Beckett missed two months last season due to a back injury and he finished the season 6-6 with a 5.78 ERA and a 1.54 WHIP.

If you subscribe to the "every other season theory," you expect a great season from Beckett, or at least great by comparison to his 2010 campaign.

A .349 BABIP certainly strengthens that position. But until we see it, Beckett remains a concern.

On top of the Lackey and Beckett issues, you can wonder if Clay Buchholz's 2010 season was a fluke and which Dice-K is going to show up this season, the 2008 or 2010 version.

With so many questions surrounding their starting rotation, how can the Red Sox be favored to reach the World Series?

You might be inclined to think it's because of the returning health and offseason additions to their lineup. After all, you can add Crawford and Gonzalez to almost any lineup and produce a winner.

Throw those two guys into the same lineup as David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis and Pedroia, and that's just plain scary.

Elsa/Getty Images

Yet, the World Series expectations have nothing to do with any of that.

It has everything to do with the guy in the dugout pulling the strings and moving the pieces—Terry Francona.

Since Francona took over, the Red Sox have won at least 86 games every season. He is, of course, the manager who broke "The Curse" with a World Series title in 2004 and delivered a second championship in 2007.

Francona boasts an impressive 654-480 record as Red Sox manager and, for my money, deserved to win Manager of the Year honors last season.

Why?

Because the Red Sox managed to win 89 games last season while leading the league in trips to the disabled list.

Francona is the master of improvisation and adaptation. Perhaps no other manager in baseball had to deal with as many moving parts as Francona did last season.

In all, the Red Sox had 11 different players land on the DL in 2010, including Beckett, Pedroia, Ellsbury, Mike Lowell, Buchholz and Victor Martinez.

Darnell McDonald. Bill Hall. Daniel Nava. Eric Patterson. These are the names Red Sox fans had to become familiar with last season.

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Such was the life of Terry Francona.

That team of minor leaguers and guys more likely to have been released than become starters managed to win 89 games.

Flash forward to 2011, and it's a different situation.

Of course, it's a long season and injuries can occur, but if a patchwork team can win 89 games under Francona, imagine what he can do with a healthy team of starters that now includes the slugging Gonzalez and speedy Crawford.

Red Sox fans have to love what their team did this offseason, but they should love Francona more.

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