COMMENTARY | One thousand two hundred sixty-seven.
No, that's not the number of innings Jon Lester has pitched in his career (that's 1,163). No, it's not the length of the team's Fenway Park sellout streak (that's 793 and coming to an end very shortly). It could be the number of non-Red Sox fans nationwide who expect this team to finish anywhere other than last, but my gut tells me that number is probably lower.
No, on opening day 2013 that will be the number of days since the Boston Red Sox shamefully exited their home stadium on October 11, 2009, after getting swept out of the playoffs by the Los Angeles Angels.
One thousand two hundred sixty-seven days. Zero playoff games.
That's three seasons of underwhelming baseball from a team that was perennially considered a World Series favorite. If they fail to qualify for the October tournament again this year, it'll be their first time missing the playoffs in four straight seasons since a 10-season stretch of futility from 1976 through 1985 (they also missed the playoffs four straight seasons from 1991 through 1994, however, the playoffs were cancelled in '94 due to the strike).
While chances are they end up on the outside looking in once again, I guarantee we see game number 82 in Fenway Park if these five things happen:
Jacoby Ellsbury has reached the 140-game mark just three times in the last five years. In those three seasons he's won the Rookie of the Year Award (2008), finished second in MVP voting (2011), won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger (both 2011), and combined for 159 stolen bases with a .302 batting average. With Ellsbury, the Red Sox have one of the most dynamic leadoff hitters in the game. Without Ellsbury, Daniel Nava and his career .242 average and four stolen bases likely find their way to the top of the lineup.
Similarly, David Ortiz is the only left-handed bat in the middle of the order that can be counted on to drive in runs. They're already light on power up and down the lineup, so Ortiz had better recover quickly from the Achilles injury that cost him almost half of last season.
2. Jon Lester needs to win 15 games
Wins are overrated as a stat for pitchers. There are just too many factors that are outside a pitcher's control that affect win totals to accurately judge them by it. That said, your ace needs to win at least 15 games if you want to contend come September. The Red Sox don't have a very good pitching staff, but if Lester can get back to being a 200-inning starter with an ERA in the mid-to-low 3.00s then he should end up right around the 15-win mark.
3. The bullpen needs to be elite
By adding Joel Hanrahan and Koji Uehara to a unit that features a hopefully healthy Andrew Bailey, a suddenly dominant Junichi Tazawa, and an always-reliable Craig Breslow, the Red Sox could end up having one of the best bullpens in all of baseball. Given the starting rotation the team will trot out there this season, Boston will need to be good late in games.
4. R.A. Dickey needs to struggle
Even if 2013 unfolds better than fans could have hoped, the fact of the matter is the Red Sox will probably need some help sneaking in as one of the American League's wild-card teams.
The Baltimore Orioles failed to make any impact signings this offseason and are due to regress after going 29-9 in one-run games last year, the third-highest win percentage in such games in baseball history according to ESPN. The Tampa Bay Rays traded away a key member of their team in starting pitcher James Shields, and I'm not sure Matt Moore's development and Wil Myers' contributions will be enough to offset it. Boston should be able to top both of those teams without either of them getting massively unlucky.
The Toronto Blue Jays are a different story.
If Red Sox fans can pray for just one player in the American League East to struggle this year, they'd better hope it's R.A. Dickey. Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow can be ace-like in stretches, but it's unlikely they can maintain that pace over 200-plus innings. Dickey is in his prime and coming off an amazing season, and if he doesn't live up to expectations the Blue Jays will find themselves with a potent offense and an inconsistent pitching staff. An ERA around 3.50 from Dickey should be enough to give the Red Sox a chance.
5. The AL West needs to produce no more than two 90-win teams
Lost in the excitement of Toronto's offseason, the unheralded American League West is quietly shaping up to be a deep division (well, until you get to the Houston Astros). The Oakland Athletics bring back almost the same squad that won the AL West crown in 2012; the Los Angeles Angels nabbed Josh Hamilton from the Texas Rangers and have the best top-half of the lineup that I've ever seen; and despite losing Hamilton, the Rangers were able to recoup some of their losses by signing Lance Berkman. Heck, even the Seattle Mariners retooled and look to be competitive. The Red Sox can't afford to have both wild cards come out of the AL West.
Bryan Curley lives near Boston, MA and has been a lifetime member of Red Sox Nation. He also owns and operates Baseball Professor, a fantasy baseball blog.You can follow Bryan on Twitter @BaseballProf.
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