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AL East Preview: Boston Red Sox

"Hi. I'm tall and skinny. And a starting pitcher now."
"Hi. I'm tall and skinny. And a starting pitcher now."

Ben Buchanan of Over the Monster penned a preview of his club for us.

For all the hype, 2011 was not a fun year for the Red Sox. You know how the story goes, down to that final night which saw your Yankees drop a huge lead to the Rays as the Sox watched their own victory over the Orioles slip away in the ninth. It's the sort of thing that's going to go down in our lore with the likes of Bucky bleeping Dent and Bill Buckner.

Why oh why do these all have to involve New York?

Anyways, the Sox entered the offseason with some obvious holes to fill. The rotation was down two members due to injury, right field was vacant with the departure of J.D. Drew, and the bullpen now lacked a closer as Jonathan Papelbon finally cashed in with a big contract in Philadelphia.

Typically, the Red Sox have been able to address this sort of thing through free agency, but after two years of wanton spending to cover up for a farm system that had gone suddenly dry at the top levels, they were not the big players they usually are this year, and were forced to find cheaper methods to reinforce the team.

To fill in the rotation, the Sox made runs at mid-level, short-term free agents like Roy Oswalt, but ended up missing out on all of them due to either money or geography. Left with no other recourse, Ben Cherington turned instead to the bargain bin, the bullpen, and the minor leagues, assembling a rag-tag group of rejects, prospects, and converted relievers in hopes of finding two starters who could hold their own. At the moment, Daniel Bard seems to be a shoe-in for the fourth spot, with Vicente Padilla and Felix Doubront the first two to get shots in the fifth role if only to keep them on the roster. Still, Afredo Aceves and Aaron Cook are not far back, and could easily take over should both of them prove unsuccessful.

Of course, the conversion of Daniel Bard left another big hole in the bullpen. Here Ben Cherington took to the phones, unloading some of the team's solid-if-unspectacular MLB-ready talent in Jed Lowrie, Kyle Weiland, and Josh Reddick to the A's and Astros for Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon, effectively rebuilding the pack of the bullpen.

Also coming over with Andrew Bailey was Ryan Sweeney, who along with free agent signing Cody Ross will form a platoon in right field. The hope is that each player will be able to take advantage of Fenway and the Monster in left to improve their mediocre offensive records. Ryan Kalish, the heir apparent in right field before an injury-riddled 2011, could also factor into the equation once he's healthy again.

In one of the more puzzling moves of the season, the Sox also opened up a new hole when they shipped Marco Scutaro off to Colorado, receiving almost nothing in return. The expectation was that the salary freed up would go towards bringing in a starter, but so far nothing has materialized. The Sox are now left hoping that Mike Aviles will manage to find his old form in filling in.

It's not a pretty picture by any stretch of the imagination, but the Sox aren't to be counted out of the race by any means. As terribly as 2011 ended, the team's run differential was befitting of a 94-win team, with third order wins putting them on equal footing with the Yankees atop the East. That they're down to three starters is nothing new—they spent all of 2011 with little more to their name than Jon Lester and Josh Beckett. And it would be hard for right field to have gotten much worse.

The question for the Red Sox is not whether or not they were able to fill the holes from the beginning of the offseason, because other than Jonathan Papelbon they didn't have any answers to them last year, either. What will really determine their record in 2012 is whether there is more positive or negative regression. Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Josh Beckett all had seasons which will be difficult to repeat. How far will Jacoby Ellsbury fall from his MVP-type campaign? Can Adrian Gonzalez replace the gains that came through BABIP with a power boost from his healed shoulder? And on the other hand, what of Carl Crawford and Kevin Youkilis? Can they return to their previous heights in 2012?

It's hard for Sox fans to get optimistic after last year, but the fact is that for every glaring hole and question mark, Boston has a potential surprise at another position. This is not the terrifying juggernaut that the 2011 seemed to be, and they'll have to prove that they're on the same level as the top teams in the league before people start believing it again, but with two wild cards on the table, it would be foolish to expect them to miss out for a third straight year.

Thanks, Ben.