Jon Lester

Jon Lester will again be one of a few who’ll hold the key to the Red Sox success (credit: Keith Allison)

The Red Sox set out to do a lot of things this offseason, but from the brunt of their moves, it appears their priorities were as follows:

1.) Field a competitive team in the short term
2.) Don’t give up draft picks
3.) Retain priority prospects
4.) Maintain payroll flexibility
5.) Be able to pivot in the event prospects don’t pan out
6.) Create a positive atmosphere for emerging prospects to learn in once they hit the big league level

Truth be told, I think they’ve succeeded in nearly every single one of those areas. The Red Sox signed six active roster free agents this offseason, none of which forced the team to relinquish a draft pick. Although they did manage to trade for Joel Hanrahan, most of what they gave up was either roster redundancy (Melancon, Sands, DeJesus) or risky lottery ticket types (Pimentel) that weren’t likely to fit into the team’s long-term plans given the current composition of their farm system.

The Red Sox did exceptionally well with numbers 4 through 6. After a season of substantial spending, the Red Sox didn’t go past three years on one, single deal. In addition, nearly all of the team’s offseason acquisitions are capable of serving a dual purpose: being good enough to be kept around as insurance in the event of delayed prospect development while simultaneously being appealing and affordable enough to other clubs to let go in the event said prospects develop on time or ahead of schedule. Regardless of how or when said prospects make their way onto the main roster, they’ll be coming into a warm, welcoming clubhouse that will be filled with veterans who will not only be able to help them become better ballplayers, but can teach them how to live and breathe in the current Boston baseball ecosystem. None of these three things has existed in the Red Sox organization for several years now. The fact that Cherington and company was able to put these aspects of the club back together so quickly is quite the accomplishment.

However the area the Red Sox may have improved the most may be the actual team they’re putting out on the field this year. While there hasn’t been a big, high-profile move as of yet, the Red Sox have quietly gone about business by strategically identifying league average players to fill out the remainder of their roster, making them far deeper and far stronger than they might appear to be on the surface.

While it’s true that many of the same questions still remain, there’s little reason to doubt that this is a significantly improved ball club. A club whose downside has been discussed frequently, but whose upside has been seriously under-considered.

So the question presents itself: how good could the 2013 Red Sox REALLY be?

While my projection systems are crude at best, I tend to baseline teams about a win below their actual win total from last year. I set the ‘over’ win total based on the team’s Pythagorean record. While the Red Sox were certainly terrible last year, they were also terribly unlucky. The team’s final win total of 69 finished a full five wins below what their Pythagorean total of 74 wins. It’s a pretty wide spread, but considering the injuries, extra innings losses, etc. – it makes the 68 and 74-win totals a pretty reasonable place to start stacking wins on top of.

So how many wins did the Red Sox theoretically add to these baselines? Looking at last year, here’s how the Red Sox acquisitions performed on the basis of fWAR

Ryan Dempster: 3.3 WAR
Shane Victorino: 3.3 WAR
Mike Napoli: 2.2 WAR
Jonny Gomes: 2.1 WAR
Stephen Drew: 0.0 WAR
David Ross: 1.5 WAR
Koji Uehara: 0.9 WAR
• Joel Hanrahan: -0.4 WAR

That works out to roughly 12.9 WAR added to this team based on last year’s performances. All things equal, with these additions and based on last year’s actual performance by the players already on the roster, the Red Sox would be looking at a low-end 80.9 wins. Conversely, if we were to go off the Pythagorean win total to project a ceiling for the team, 86.9 wins is what we’d be walking away with. So with the Red Sox staying absolutely static from last year (no measurable change in overall performance), the low end for the Red Sox is 80-81 wins. The high end would be 86-87 wins. I think both numbers are entirely reasonable.

But again, this isn’t taking into account the possibility of bounce backs this year. It doesn’t answer how many wins a full season of Will Middlebrooks could give us. It leaves out what Jacoby Ellsbury’s contributions could be given a full year of health. It also similarly leaves out a possible David Ortiz regression or a continued regression from Jon Lester.

Still – the likelihood of as many players underperforming as they did last year is unlikely. Even if we see reasonable regression on ALL of their free agent acquisitions, the worst-case, doomsday scenario is that this is likely a high-70’s win team. But that seems unlikely as well.

So with bounce backs, how good could this team be in an ideal world?

While it’s reasonable to expect a few regressions here and there, it’s hard to imagine that Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury don’t produce 2 more WAR between the two of them. It’s also equally difficult to see Joel Hanrahan and Stephen Drew not contributing a win between each other as well. Let’s keep in mind here; these are baseline performances WITH last year’s injury bug factored into the equation. Just on the basis of those two very likely scenarios occurring, the ceiling for this team has grown to the neighborhood of 88 -90 wins.

That’s not getting into the pitching possibilities – which as I’ve said before – will dictate to a large degree the success or failure of the 2013 edition of the club. If Dempster can stay close to his career norms and Buchholz and Lester can enjoy reasonable bounce backs, tacking on another 3-4 wins isn’t altogether out of the realm of possibility. While John Lackey has sucked since he’s been in Boston, he’d have to be historically bad to replicate his performance in 2011. Felix Doubront merely needs to maintain value for the team to come out ahead on the pitching front. That’s also completely excluding any and all positive (or negative) contributions from the likes of Rubby De La Rosa and the rest of the Red Sox suddenly deep stock of young arms. It’s not LIKELY that we get an all-roses outcome, but I think it’s entirely unreasonable to suggest that the Red Sox should be an improved staff next year.

If this team can get even reasonable starting pitching, there’s a full-blown 2-3 potential wins sitting there for the taking. That’d put this team’s real ceiling at about 90-92-ish wins. That’d certainly keep them in the playoff hunt.

And yes, that’s even considering the tried and true OMG AL EAST~! meme.

Yes, the Blue Jays got better, but the Yankees and Rays also aren’t nearly as good as they were last year. The Yankees have issues at catcher and in RF. The Rays took a small step back this year to be vastly improved next year. The Orioles were amongst the luckiest teams in baseball in 2012, but can their show of power sustain itself and is it really reasonable to assume that Dan Duquette can replicate his incredible 40-man roster carousel next year? Even the Blue Jays, with all their acquisitions, face a whole swath of injury questions and potential one-year wonders. The bottom line? While there’s more balance in the division, it might not necessarily be all that better. It’s certainly winnable.

So that’s my rose-colored high-end call. 90-92 wins given reasonable, more conservative estimates. The low-end is probably around the 80-win mark. Either way, this team is going to be far more of a contender than most are willing to concede.