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Red Sox are AL East's mystery team

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  March 16, 2012 11:51 AM

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Maybe Bobby Valentine genuinely believes the Red Sox will be a playoff team, or maybe Valentine is merely playing the kind of mind games for which he can be known.

Maybe Valentine is trying to send a message to his players. Maybe he is setting himself up to take credit for any success.

Regardless, slightly more than two weeks before the start of the 2012 season opener, the indisputable truth is that the Red Sox remain a relative mystery, particularly in a league that became far more competitive over the winter.

Seriously folks, exactly how many wins do you project for your baseball team this season? 85? 95? Either number would be an entirely legitimate guess. The Red Sox have not entered a season with this kind of relative uncertainty in a very, very long time, and so the range for them is greater than perhaps any other time during the ownership of the John Henry conglomerate. The Sox have the talent to be a championship contender and the lingering issues to be the object of disdain, making them one of the great variables - or dare we say true wild cards? - in all of baseball this year.

If this all somehow meshes, the Red Sox could be exceptional. If it does not, they could be dysfunctional. Ten years after Valentine managed a New York Mets team long defined by schizophrenia and unfulfilled potential, he now manages a Red Sox team that played last season as if bipolar.

When the Sox were good, after all, they were very, very good. But when they were bad, they were very, very bad.

Further complicating the issue for the Red Sox this year is the improved competition throughout the American League, in the division and out. The Toronto Blue Jays have become everyone's darlings to challenge the hierarchy in the division, and the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays both are now annual playoff contenders. Some wise guy out there is certain to pick the Red Sox fourth in their very own division, a contention that seems utterly outrageous until you actually stop and think about it.

If the Red Sox carry over some of the issues that destroyed them at the end of last season, they might not be one of the three best teams in their division, let alone league. And when the discussion expands to include the Detroit Tigers, Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels, among others, the reality is that the Red Sox might end up in the middle of the pack of a league in which there is decidedly little margin for error.

Is that true for other clubs in the upper half of the league, be they the Rays, Jays or even Texas Rangers? Of course. The obvious difference is that the Red Sox are still toting that $180-$190 million payroll, which is an awful lot to pay for a team that might finish in the middle of the pack.

Think of the questions on this team at the moment: Shortstop. Right field. The bullpen. Every pitcher from Josh Beckett, Daniel Bard and Clay Buchholz to Andrew Bailey and Alfredo Aceves comes with some question of durability - and the potential for enormous upside. Add in a rookie general manager and the opinionated Bobby V., and there is the potential here for a reality show that should make team chairman Tom Werner giddy.

And yet, for all of the talk this spring about the issues that plagued the Red Sox last year and continue to hover them this spring, here is something we all should not overlook: there is indisputably the potential here for greatness. If things break right - if Beckett bounces back, if Valentine's ways are embraced, if Bailey flourishes - the Sox could win their division. Talent has never once been the issue on this team, and a year ago there were many proclaiming the Sox as absolute world-beaters coming out of camp.

And for a good chunk of time last summer, they were.

All of that said, here's a prediction: the Sox will play well during the early stages of this season because they have to. After last September, a slow start would increase the potential for disaster. Don't be surprised if the Sox come out and play April and May as they did in 2002 - the year immediately following their last cataclysmic finish - when they raced to a 40-17 start. Unfortunately, that club ultimately reverted to form and went 53-52 over its final 105 games, missing the playoffs by six games and becoming the poster boys for the Red Sox of the Tom Yawkey era.

That club, like this one, was loaded with big-name talent, from Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe (a 20-game winner in 2002) to Nomar Garciaparra, Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon. And yet, when the schedule intensified and the heat got turned up, the Sox were anything but a team, and anyone who remembers that season remembers that the Sox almost never came back from deficits and rarely fought for one another.

In the end, their numbers looked good and had a cluster of All-Stars.

But they didn't win a darned thing.

Bobby V said on a New York radio show that the Red Sox are a work in progress. Maybe Valentine has recognized the extent of the fractures that exist within the Boston organization. Maybe Valentine was positioning himself as the man to fix it. Or maybe Valentine simply feels as we almost all do, that the Red Sox have the talent to win and the selfish attitude to lose, and that the 2012 season could be a struggle between those forces.

This year, in this league, what the Red Sox ultimately will be, after all, is anybody's guess.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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