How'd They Wind Up In Third?

Jon Lester's got your third place right here. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

There's an old Russian story, made into a film with a terrific Prokofiev score, about the adventures of Lieutenant Kije. Kije goes on missions, is exiled to Siberia, regains his good name, marries, rises through the ranks to general, and eventually is given a grand state funeral. Pretty typical stuff for a war hero tale. What makes it interesting, of course, is that Lt. Kije doesn't exist. His name was a misprint, a bureaucratic slip-up. But the czar saw his name on the officer rolls, and rather than tell the czar that the man he'd singled out for praise didn't exist, everyone felt it would be better to simply concoct a life story for Kije. So they created the perfect soldier, the man against whom all future officers would be judged in the eyes of the czar. The ultimate triumph of invented narrative.

A similar dynamic often plays out in sports. Event X occurs. Narrative Y is crafted to explain Event X. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as we all discussed a few weeks back. But occasionally a narrative takes hold so strongly that it begins to affect the way we see everything else. The storyline gets so entrenched that it becomes part of our base assumptions, and pretty soon we're giving promotions to fake Russian army officers. Or, more likely, saying dumb things about the Red Sox. And that seems like a thing to be avoided. So today, and hopefully most future Mondays, I'll be taking a look at any narrative that might be extending its tentacles into our subconscious and trying to prevent it from doing too much damage, lest we all start nodding when someone says "Jose Iglesias is the best shortstop on the 40-man roster."

Today, it's time to delve into the tale of the 2012 Boston Red Sox, guaranteed third-place also-rans.

With Opening Day right around the corner, everyone's starting to put out their season previews and predictions. ESPN and Sports Illustrated have the Red Sox third, behind Tampa and New York. Now, honestly, this isn't silly. Boston plays in the toughest division in MLB, and both the Yankees and Rays have powerful teams. The Sox have finished third the last two seasons, it's not unreasonable to think they might wind up there again. (It is unreasonable to think they'll wind up fourth, though, as certain recently-fired pundits have suggested.) Come to think of it, the Sox did finish 2010 in third place, with a shaky back end of the rotation and a cavalcade of injuries. How'd the picks go heading into 2011?

Well, 11 of 12 SI writers had the Red Sox winning the East, with nine of them also picking the Sox to win the AL. As for ESPN... All 45 of the writers they polled picked the Sox in the East. All but three had Boston in the World Series, with 33 awarding the 2011 MLB title to our boys. The Red Sox went from being almost unanimously forecast as AL champs to either missing the playoffs entirely or barely scraping in by means of the new second wild-card. That's quite the shift, and kind of demands an explanation, doesn't it? Some breathtaking roster shift or sudden influx of talent to their rivals?

In terms of the AL title, I can see looking at the Angels and Rangers with their armload of shiny new free agent toys and leaning toward them. Seems fair. But within the division, I'm downright puzzled. New York made three big acquisitions. They signed Hiroki Kuroda. They traded for Michael Pineda, who will start the season on the DL and might not have gotten a starting spot even if healthy. And they added one more year to the knees, shoulders, and hamstrings of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Mark Teixeira. One of these moves can be seen as an improvement on where the team was heading into 2011. Tampa signed Carlos Pena and Luke Scott, who might contribute actual home runs to a team that hasn't had many. Otherwise they're counting on Jeremy Hellickson to not regress and Matt Moore to instantly thrive in the majors.

So their top rivals, while maybe slightly improved, certainly haven't made any great leaps. Has Boston's roster gotten substantially worse than the one that wowed everyone a year ago? The core of the offense is basically the same. Sub in Cody Ross for a declining J.D. Drew, and Mike Aviles for Marco Scutaro. Also the fully armed and operational Jacoby Ellsbury, which they didn't have in 2011. Along those same lines, in 2011 there were serious health questions about Adrian Gonzalez's shoulder and Dustin Pedroia's foot. Both seem to have been put to rest.

How about pitching? Going into 2011, the Sox had an ace, a second ace coming off a surprisingly effective year, and a third maybe-ace coming off an injury-ravaged season at the top of the rotation. At the back end were an aging knuckleballer, a wildly inconsistent veteran, and John Lackey, coming off the worst season of his career. Basically no one knew what to expect from the fourth and fifth spots. In addition, their closer was coming off a less-than-stellar season, and was something of a question mark both performance and health-wise. This should be sounding familiar.

Now, maybe what this means is that the experts shouldn't have picked Boston to win everything in sight going into last year. They focused too much on the strengths of the team (ridiculous offense, established aces) and ignored the flaws (fragile/unreliable back of rotation). Still, I find it fascinating how the offseason affects these kind of predictions. Not the actual moves, because of course those are significant. But the way the offseason is interpreted, the storyline we give each team's winter, frames how we project the spring.

Going into last year, the Red Sox were bathed in the warm glow of their Winter Meetings triumph, and everyone picked them to win it all. Going into this year, they're bathed in the... something else of their September collapse, and everyone's picking them to miss the dance entirely. Something to keep in mind when you flip through the prediction pages this week, or make your own picks.

The roster hasn't changed all that much. The way we see it has.

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