Daniel Bard

Daniel Bard (Keith Allison/Flickr.com)

Following a putrid 69-win season, there isn’t much optimism surrounding the Red Sox’ chances of winning the American League East in 2013.

The Sox have not made the postseason since 2009. They haven’t won the division since 2007, which is the only time they’ve done it in the past 17 years; and Boston has put out some pretty great teams during that span.

Needless to say, winning the AL East is always tough. The Yankees are a perennial roadblock, Tampa Bay has arisen as a yearly contender, and with the recent emergence of Baltimore and Toronto’s latest acquisitions, winning the division this year will be an almost impossible feat for Boston.

But, there’s a reason they play the games, as they say. Many things can happen over the course of a 162-game season, and baseball has seen its fair share of worst-to-first triumphs.

Will the Red Sox be the latest Cindarella story in baseball? Maybe. If they’re going to pull it off, they’re going to need just about everything to go right.

Here are three things that will likely need to happen in order for Boston to win the AL East in 2013, among others:

A bullpen rebirth

The Red Sox currently have five guys in their bullpen who combined for the following numbers in 2010: 312 innings, 9.92 K/9, 2.97 BB/9, 2.63 ERA, 8.6 rWAR.

Andrew Bailey, Daniel Bard, Craig Breslow, Joel Hanrahan and Koji Uehara were excellent pitchers three years ago, but all of them have had their ups and downs since that time (with the exception of Uehara, who has been consistently very good, for the most part). Such is life for relief pitchers, whose stats tend to be the most volatile from year to year due to their small samples of playing time.

Boston has assembled a bullpen of high-strikeout, low-walk relievers. When all five of those guys are at their best, they can all be pretty dynamic. If the Red Sox get 2010 production from them in 2013, they’ll easily have one of the top bullpens, if not the best, in all of baseball.

Consider, too, how mediocre Boston’s bullpen was in 2012, as Sox relievers combined for 514.2 innings with a 3.89 ERA (which isn’t actually too bad, considering how much they were used).

Then, consider the amount of value Boston’s pitching staff contributed as a whole last year. Including starting pitchers, Red Sox pitchers combined for just 1.2 rWAR. That is a pathetic figure, even after factoring Daisuke Matsuzaka’s -1.5 rWAR and Aaron Cook’s -1.3 rWAR.

The 8.6 wins that Bailey, Bard, Breslow, Hanrahan and Uehara combined for in 2010 are an unlikely figure for any bullpen to produce, but it does show the kind of difference quality relievers can make on a team. If the Sox get anywhere near that sort of value from their ‘pen in 2013, it will take a lot of pressure off the starting rotation.

Drew hits his stride

Stephen Drew is another guy who, just three years ago, had an outstanding season. The then-27-year-old shortstop for the Arizona Diamondbacks posted a .278/.352/.458 and played impressive defense on his way to a 3.7 rWAR campaign. This came after two consecutive 2.7-win seasons for the D-Backs, and it appeared that Drew was emerging as one of the top shortstops in the game.

In 2011, had posted 1.7 rWAR through the first half of the season, but suffered a major ankle injury in July. He didn’t return until the following June, and went on to post a miserable -0.6 wins between Arizona and Oakland, managing just a .223/.309/.348 line in 327 plate appearances.

Boston gave Drew a one-year, $9.5 million deal this winter that appears risky, but has the potential to pay off in a big way.

For one, reports indicate that Drew is healthy and is ready to be Boston’s everyday shortstop. More importantly, Drew’s offensive numbers have pretty much nowhere to go but up.

Looking at Drew’s batted ball stats from last year, it’s pretty clear that he was victimized by terrible luck – and he was, as his .275 BABIP was by far the lowest of his career. Despite posting a career-high 27.6% line drive rate and a substantial increase in his home-run-to-flyball rate (8.1% was the second-highest of his career), Drew ended up with very poor offensive numbers overall.

Defensively, Drew showed struggles in 2012, as his UZR/150 dropped dramatically to -10.7 after consecutive seasons of 10.0 and 8.7. Fielding data is not always accurate, but these numbers support the notion that Drew’s ankle wasn’t quite back to full strength when he returned. Shortstop is also one of the toughest positions on the diamond to play, and it’s possible that he may have been a bit rusty after having missed the equivalent of an entire season.

The Sox are banking on a big rebound from Drew, both at the plate and in the field. The numbers suggest that Boston will be right, and with a little luck, Drew could once again prove to be one of the more valuable shortstops in the game.

Outfield puzzle solved

The Red Sox did something kind of amazing this winter. They spent over $100 million on signing players, including three outfielders, but nobody (outside of maybe Ryan Dempster) can be considered a high-impact acquisition.

Boston is going to rely on a slew of players who have the potential to produce, but who also have serious holes in their games. This is especially true in the outfield, where Jonny Gomes and Shane Victorino, two of the projected starters, have huge platoon splits at the plate.

A few weeks ago, I highlighted Boston’s potential for great production in left field by using a platoon of Gomes and Daniel Nava. But there could be other ways in which the Red Sox could extract more value from their roster by making judicious lineup decisions.

The following is a list of Boston’s depth of outfielders for 2013, and the difference in career wOBAs between their best and worst splits:

Jonny Gomes – .385 vs. LHP (1,100 PA), .318 vs. RHP (1,962 PA) = .067 difference
Ryan Sweeney — .330 vs. RHP (1,515 PA), .266 vs. LHP (385 PA) = .064 difference
Shane Victorino — .381 vs. LHP (1,225 PA), .321 vs. RHP (3,043 PA) = .060 difference
Daniel Nava — .343 vs. RHP (374 PA), .283 vs. LHP (131 PA) = .060 difference
Jacoby Ellsbury — .350 vs. RHP (1,822 PA), .337 vs. LHP (746 PA) = .013 difference

There are a few things worth noting here. The obvious is that Nava’s sample size of plate appearances is fairly limited, so it’s a stretch to argue that he can consistently hit big league pitching yet, despite his impressive on-base numbers thus far. Another is that Ellsbury’s platoon split is quite small, and because his defense in center field is so good, he clearly needs to play every day if he’s healthy.

The final note is that Victorino, while a much worse hitter against right-handed pitchers (who start games nearly twice as often as lefties), is a valuable commodity both on the bases and in the field. Even when right-handers start against the Sox, Victorino should be in the lineup, most of the time.

However, that doesn’t mean that Boston manager John Farrell should not be extra careful about when and when not to give Victorino his inevitable rest days.

Ryan Sweeney is on the roster for one reason: he can hit righties while filling in adequately in the field. He probably deserves 150-200 plate appearances against right-handers this year, and that should be in place of Victorino or Gomes.

In fact, Sweeney (who wasn’t on the roster a month ago) is probably a better platoon option for left field than Nava, so really it should be Nava who spells Victorino on his off days – which, again, should only come against right-handed pitchers.

The Red Sox have plenty of potential for great outfield production; they just have to plan and act accordingly.