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Uncertainty remains, but Boston should improve

The Red Sox were the best team in baseball back on Sept. 1, 2011, when summer turned into a bleak fall after the 7-20 collapse and final-day elimination. That spun out into stories of clubhouse ignominy, the firing of manager Terry Francona, the exile of general manager Theo Epstein and a last-place season in 2012 bookended by the hiring and firing of manager Bobby Valentine, who now knows how presidential candidate George McGovern felt in November 1972, as Valentine's ravaged September roster lost its final eight games and finished with 93 losses.

With the deal for reliever Joel Hanrahan completed -- and if and when the Mike Napoli signing is cleared medically and legally -- the Red Sox have added eight and maybe even nine players. They have brought former pitching coach John Farrell back to manage with some new, energetic coaches. They get John Lackey back after a missed season because of Tommy John surgery, David Ortiz back after missing half a year due to an Achilles injury, near-2011 American League MVP Award winner Jacoby Ellsbury back after missing 88 games due to a shoulder injury and Dustin Pedroia healthy after playing through a myriad of injuries, including broken fingers on each hand near the end of 2012.

But because the media perceives there to be a lack of things to talk and write about, the Boston offseason has created all the excitement of the changeover in the toll-taking system on the Mass Pike. One columnist constantly reminds everyone that this is still a last-place team. Another suggested the Red Sox should have given Josh Hamilton $150 million because at least he was someone to write and talk about.

Yet everyone in New England should remember that the Red Sox are two years removed from "The Winter of Buzz," when they expended nearly $300 million and three players for Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, who have since been traded to the Dodgers in what was a make-good deal with the bonus factor of two outstanding pitching prospects. That remembered, no one really knows what the 2013 Red Sox will be.

All the players acquired thus far will be 30 by Opening Day. Three of them -- Hanrahan (2011, '12), Shane Victorino (2009, '11) and Ryan Dempster (2000, '08) -- have been All-Stars. All, especially David Ross and Dempster, are considered chemistry upgrades.

The thinking of other teams active on the Hot Stove seems clear. The Blue Jays are trying to seize the moment in the lessened AL East, make a run at October and return the franchise to its status in the early 1990s, when Toronto was World Series champions and had the highest payroll in the game. The Royals cannot spend $100 million on the likes of a James Shields on the free-agent market, so they used a young player as currency to get a front-piece veteran starter in Shields and a sleeper mid-rotation starter in Wade Davis, who, incidentally, knows what it is to pitch in the postseason.

Angels GM Jerry Dipoto, when he couldn't re-sign Zack Greinke, got the firepower in Hamilton, then built his pitching from the back to Jered Weaver at the top. The Halos have five deep in the bullpen and Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Jason Vargas, Tommy Hanson and Joe Blanton, who last year made 158 starts and averaged 194 innings apiece, in the rotation.

But the Red Sox?

First, the players the team signed are on short-term deals that carries Boston from mercenary territory to its next generation of self-developed players like Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley, Bryce Brentz, Jose Iglesias, Christian Vazquez, Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster, Matt Barnes, et al.

Second, it's all about pitching, and where the Red Sox land in 2013 starts with Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz in their primes returning to their '10 promise with Farrell. Where their starters were near the bottom in innings, ERA and quality starts in '12, they need Lester and Buchholz to be the All-Stars they have been. They need Felix Doubront to continue to grow into a mid-rotation power lefty, and they need 360-400 innings out of Lackey and Dempster. This year, they seemingly have starting depth with Franklin Morales and knuckleballer Stephen Wright; last year their depth was Daisuke Matsuzaka, Aaron Cook and Zach Stewart, who made 31 starts and were 5-20 with a 7.13 ERA, which further tapped the bullpen.

Hanrahan will be the Red Sox's closer; they see easily fixed mechanical issues that upped his walk rate last season. Many think Junichi Tazawa showed in September he can close. They thought Andrew Bailey, healthy, could do so. They have Koji Uehara, Craig Breslow, Morales, Andrew Miller, Daniel Bard, Chris Carpenter and Alex Wilson.

"We might be able to make a trade out of our bullpen in January," said one Boston official, and indeed Melancon was a part of the 4-for-2 trade with the Pirates for Hanrahan. "Or we could work from a pitching staff with a lot of depth."

The impact of Farrell and pitching coach Juan Nieves -- who is highly intelligent, was tutored by the esteemed Don Cooper with the White Sox and because of his bullpen experience understands the value of handling relievers as Buck Showalter did in Baltimore in 2012 -- is extremely important to the Red Sox if they are going to be able to at least restore themselves as factors in the wide-open AL East.

The Red Sox also hope that bringing Jonny Gomes, Dempster, Ross and Victorino to a clubhouse with Pedroia and Ortiz will rekindle the positives of "the idiots" of 2003-04. That doesn't mean they have to ride motorcycles around Boston at 2:30 a.m. or sip Jack Daniels before postseason games, but the brash, devilish crew of Kevin Millar, Johnny Damon, Ortiz, et al were never intimidated by the tensions of Fenway. They cared, they offered no excuses. There is no analytic that can estimate what Millar meant to that team or calculate what Damon's toughness brought them.

There are some of us who believe that the fall of the Red Sox began after the 2010 season when the decision was made to let Adrian Beltre walk and to expend the players and money on Gonzalez and Crawford. There may be no more intrepid player in the game today than Beltre, whose energy and force impacts everyone around him, as does his power and his Hall of Fame defense at third base.

General manager Ben Cherington clearly hopes that gradually improving the defense will play a hand in the restoration of the pitching. But this winter has seen the Red Sox remember that what made them so good -- especially in 2003-04 -- was the quality of at-bats up and down those batting orders, sometimes with Bill Mueller batting ninth and getting huge July and October hits off Mariano Rivera.

"Like the one- and two-pitch at-bats?" laughed now-departed hitting coach Dave Magadan during the season. He was kidding; he was also frustrated. One of the reasons Red Sox-Yankees games played like telethons was the quality of at-bats from both teams. From 2003-09, the Red Sox were either first or second in the AL in on-base percentage; in 2012, they were 10th, at a pitiful .315. And if Ortiz hadn't played in half the games, they probably would have been last.

In 2003 and '04, the Red Sox were first in runs, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS, and second to the Yankees in walks. In 2012, they were fifth in runs, 10th in OBP, seventh in slugging, sixth in OPS and 13th in walks. Thirteenth.

Granted, Pedroia was playing through a myriad of injuries. Granted, Ellsbury went from a .376 OBP, .928 OPS and 83 extra-base hits in 2011 to a .313 OBP, .682 OPS and 22 extra-base hits in '12.

But they clearly were not going to give three years to free agent Cody Ross with his .326 OBP (.308 vs. RHP), despite how hard he played for Boston in 2012. They may well back away from Jarrod Saltalamacchia and his .288 OBP. Remember, Ortiz and Daniel Nava were 1-2 on the team in that critical stat in 2012.

No one really knows what the 2013 version of the Red Sox will be, but it can't be worse. If they rebuild the front-end pitching, they can come close to winning as many games as they did in '11, and if this winter's signings change the clubhouse and offensive cultures and transition to the next generation, the bridge will be a road well taken.

"Was there a 'wow factor' when Theo signed Millar, Mueller, Ortiz and guys like that?" asked one front-office official. "This isn't a headliner game. It's all about consistency and pitching, and we have to get back to that."