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Red Sox' upcoming schedule offers chance to make a statement

Tomase: Red Sox' upcoming schedule offers perfect test for 2023 team originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Putting aside for a moment the Last Place conundrum -- it doesn't matter how many divisions you'd theoretically be winning if you can't leapfrog anyone in the AL East, and therefore the wild card race -- the next month should tell us a lot about the Red Sox.

Their schedule is replete with teams kinda just like them -- wannabe contenders nonetheless hovering right around .500.

Outside of the Blue Jays and Braves, who have both turned on the jets, everyone else on the upcoming slate is failing to meet expectations.

That starts with the 12-13 Guardians, who open a three-game series at Fenway Park on Friday night, but continues through the end of May when the Red Sox visit San Diego (13-14).

In between, they'll square off with the Phillies (13-13), Cardinals (a shocking 10-16), and Mariners (11-14). All reached the playoffs last year, and every one of them entered 2023 believing they'd return.

So that makes them the perfect test for the Red Sox, who can deal with the problem of their division later. For right now, let's see how they stack up against exactly the kind of competition that will be jockeying for wild card position all summer.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly where the Red Sox stand. At 13-13, they've probably exceeded some prognostications, but they've also completed what many assumed would be one of the easier portions of their schedule.

Of course, the Pirates were supposed to be easy, but they swept the Red Sox and now own the best record in the National League at an improbable 18-8. Many similarly looked at the Orioles' underwhelming offseason and assumed they'd come back to the pack, but they're a dropped fly ball away from being 4-2 vs. Boston instead of 3-3 after winning the most recent series between the clubs at Camden Yards, and they're now 17-8.

On the plus side, the offense is showing serious signs of staying power, especially with Alex Verdugo finally taking a step forward, newcomer Masataka Yoshida punishing the ball to all fields, and youngster Jarren Duran smashing rockets behind a new batting stance.

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Outside of Kaleb Ort and Ryan Brasier -- two pitchers who probably won't be here when everyone is healthy -- the retooled bullpen has been lights out. The Red Sox are the only team without a blown save, thanks to closer Kenley Jansen, and they've received a huge lift from setup man Josh Winckowski, who has turned into a multi-inning weapon while making the Andrew Benintendi trade look better by the day.

On the negative side, the only rotation in baseball worse than Boston's belongs to the itinerant and irrelevant A's, with Chris Sale particularly disappointing. And the defense up the middle, especially with Kiké Hernández at shortstop, has been a liability.

In other words, the Red Sox are still searching, which makes the upcoming portion of their schedule such a solid barometer, given its surplus of teams straddling the contender/pretender line. The small-market Guardians, for instance, are integrating a number of new faces but consistently play beyond the sum of their parts under old friend Terry Francona.

The Phillies are experiencing a bit of a World Series hangover in one of baseball's best divisions while awaiting the return of two-time MVP Bryce Harper from Tommy John surgery. The Cardinals are surprisingly middle-of-the-pack in everything, while the Mariners just lost former Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray for the rest of the season to elbow surgery.

That leaves the Padres, who just welcomed Fernando Tatis Jr. back to a lineup being kept afloat by Xander Bogaerts, who's in the discussion as baseball's best overall player after a month in his new home.

There's an opportunity here, but also a risk. Most of the upcoming opponents are probably better than their records. The Red Sox believe that description applies to them, too. Now they get to prove it.