MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Red Sox's rotation key to 2012 success

Red Sox rotation key to 2012 success

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The perspective on the Boston Red Sox, from one February to the next, has changed so dramatically that it is sometimes difficult to believe that we are talking about the same franchise.

In February 2011, the Red Sox, with the acquisitions of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, were being anointed as the class of the American League and very likely all of baseball. There was considerable talk of 100 regular-season victories. That was occasionally replaced by talk of 110 regular-season victories.

This February, the Red Sox are generally being anointed only as third-place finishers in the AL East.

Perhaps the outcome will be improved by flipping the script. It could be that beginning with more modest expectations from the rest of the world will lead to better results for the Red Sox. The lofty expectations of 2011 led only to an epic September collapse, complete with tales of beer and chicken being consumed during games in the clubhouse by off-duty pitchers.

On the plus side, this club still has one of the game's best lineups. The 2011 Red Sox led the Majors in runs scored, cranking out an average of 5.4 runs per game. If Kevin Youkilis is healthy this season, and if Crawford hits to his usual form instead of the way he hit last season, this offense could be better still.

That thought is of considerable comfort to the Red Sox, who can only focus on their own performances, not external perceptions.

"I think last year, on paper, the team looked unbelievable, and it was," catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said on Friday. "It was a great team. We still are. We are the same exact team as we were last year.

"We have to worry about doing our jobs. We can't worry about what everyone else is saying, because that's just what it is -- what everybody else is saying. We're still just as happy with our team this year as we were last year."

The potential problem is in the other half of the game. The Sox are more than set at the top three rotation spots with Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. Boston never fully recovered from the loss of Buchholz for the second half of the 2011 season with a stress fracture in his lower back. It is distinctly possible that the September swoon, during which the pitching repeatedly faltered, wouldn't have taken on its full historical depth had Buchholz been pitching and pitching up to his typically high standards.

This should remain an extremely impressive rotation trio.

"The first three, you can say they are the best in the game, by far," Saltalamacchia said. "I think the top three, we're going to be good, and there's a lot of guys in camp that look really good.

"We brought in a lot of older guys that are established and they look good. We have [Daniel] Bard and Ace [Alfredo Aceves], who are eager and willing to win those spots."

Among the candidates for the fourth and fifth rotation spots are the hard-throwing Bard, attempting to make the transition from the bullpen to the rotation, and Aceves, who has been primarily a reliever, making nine starts out of 114 Major League appearances.

Beyond those two is a cast of castoffs, all trying to regain their best form one more time. Aaron Cook, Vicente Padilla and Carlos Silva are in this category. Bard may be the leading candidate for the fourth rotation spot. Aceves could be the front-runner for the fifth, but he may be deemed too valuable in the Boston bullpen to be given a spot in the rotation. Daisuke Matsuzaka appears to be ahead of schedule in his recovery from Tommy John surgery, although his return to the rotation might not be seen in all quarters as an unmixed blessing.

Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine said that he was not troubled by the uncertainty involved with the last two positions in the rotation.

"I would just think that history is a great teacher, and recent history showed me that the team that won our division last year had no fourth and fifth starter coming into Spring Training," Valentine said.

He was referring, of course, to the Yankees, who emerged from their rotation uncertainty to win 97 games, the best record in the AL.

Given what happened last year, having a new manager and a new general manager, Ben Cherington, is probably a very good thing. The Spring Training surroundings are completely new, too. The new facility, JetBlue Park, ought to be good for the collective self-esteem of the entire operation. It is state-of-the-art in all of its gleaming new facets. It also offers vastly improved accessibility to the members of Red Sox Nation who make the journey to see their team in Spring Training.

Between what happened in September and the questions regarding the rotation, there are reasons to see the Yankees, and the pitching-rich Tampa Bay Rays, as teams that could finish ahead of the Red Sox. But the Boston club remains remarkably, even uniquely talented in its everyday lineup and at the top three positions in its rotation.

The Red Sox have reasons to hope that unlike last year, when they were oversold, this year, they are being underestimated.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.