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Everything is awesome. It feels a little strange to write that after a second, definitive last-place season in three years, but it’s the truth. You can point your browser almost anywhere away from Dan Shaughnessy’s desk and find a writer who thinks the Red Sox have a good chance at winning the American League East this season, probably the best chance among the closely bunched competitors.
It is a remarkable feat, even for Forbes’ 3rd-most valuable baseball franchise and 24th in sports overall. For proof of that you only need to look to New York, where the Yankees -- comfortably ahead of the Scrooge McDodgers atop the Forbes baseball rankings, and No. 3 in all sports -- are relatively floundering with no bigger a star than Brett Gardner. I live in Brooklyn, and the Modell’s near my house, which for so long had rows and rows of "Core Four" pinstriped jerseys in its spring display windows, now has just one Yankees shirt: Gardner’s No. 11. It’s a far cry from the Glory Days of Jeter: Gardner’s 1 and 1 don’t come close to matching Jeter’s 2.
There is still Masahiro Tanaka, of course, and CC Sabathia and A-Rod, but it would take a strong dose of your drug of choice to see the Yankees beating the Red Sox this year, and that’s before the first game is played. This year’s AL East figures to be not just a battle of relatively equal April teams but of relatively unequal franchises with asymmetrical resources. The Red Sox’ asymmetrically strong group of young players, a group ranked No. 2 by Baseball America, gives them the currency to make midseason moves to push them toward or beyond the top of the heap.
Red Sox are smart not to rush Swihart
The acquisition of Sandy Leon should mean Blake Swihart will get plenty of time to develop in Pawtucket. The Red Sox will be thankful for that later.
If this seems overly optimistic, just think about how glum Red Sox fans were heading into 2013, a year in which the Sox won the World Series in more or less a runaway. That team was expected to play .500 baseball en route to a 2014 title run only to come out of the gates swinging and never stop. While there’s obviously no reason to expect that the Sox will pull off the same feat, there’s no reason they can’t -- especially if Opening Day starter Clay Buchholz can replicate some of 2013’s early season magic. That is, of course, a huge "if."
Another "if" is the pitching staff as a whole, with its glut of more-or-less fungible above-average to average starters and its injured star closer. The obvious hope is that the offense, with the additions of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, expected bouncebacks from Dustin Pedroia and Mike Napoli, continued pitcher devastation from David Ortiz, and likely emergence of Rusney Castillo, Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts, can put up enough runs to overcome a potentially shaky staff.
It’s a great lineup, and for the first time in three years, it looks like our hopes for a new young player in the lineup have real validity. Two years ago, Jackie Bradley Jr. was the talk of camp and a surefire starter; last year, we assumed Bogaerts was going to step into the young Hanley Ramirez role, hitting everything in sight at his first chance. Neither of these panned out as hoped, but, thankfully, that means nothing when it comes to Mookie Betts.
If it seems like just yesterday that writers were comparing Betts to Andrew McCutchen, that's wrong: it was two days ago, and while such comparisons are a bit premature and unfair they’re also not entirely out of center field so long as you're talking about McCutchen the Younger. Betts has 12 extra base-hits in the spring with an OPS of 1324. Bradley had a good spring in 2013, too, but that’s where the comparison ends. Betts has already hit major league pitching at an above-above-average clip. We might even call it good. Whatever we call it, it seems likely that Betts won’t be the weak spot on the team this year, especially not if he gets 200 hits, which is a real possibility if he stays healthy this season. If the Red Sox get knocked out early like they did in 2012 or 2014, it doesn’t figure to be Mookie’s fault
All of which brings us to the analogy for this season I haven’t been able to dodge: the final bout of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, the 8-bit classic from Nintendo. Like a song stuck in my head or Daniel Nava in the outfield, it’s something pleasant and temporary that sticks around and around and around, so here it goes:
In the final match, Tyson would spend the first 90 seconds exclusively throwing uppercuts that could finish you off completely before you even got going. There had been challenges before, but nothing like this. This was an obviously new wrinkle – the final wrinkle – and ultimate test of how good you were at the game. For a minute and a half, your job wasn’t to fight. Your job was to survive.
Image credit: Game Informer
In two of the last three Red Sox seasons, they have not dodged the haymakers. In 2012 and 2014 they were knocked down and out before they had a fighting chance, be it by injuries, meltdowns, competitors, Bobby Valentine or A.J. Pierzynski. In 2013 the Red Sox didn’t merely dodge the knockout blows; they took out the league in, well, Tysonian fashion. Like Tyson challenging Lennox Lewis, they ripped its heart out; they ate its children. (Praise be to Aceves.)
That’s the thing about baseball: You can be smart and rich and everything can work out, but no matter how smart and rich you are, you still have to dodge those punches. To make matters worse, you don’t ultimately know where they’re coming from. Any team, player or ACL can deliver the knocked blow.
For the teams, Canadian spy and Grantland writer Jonah Keri has five AL teams ranked ahead of Boston, which he has ranked at 12th overall in Major League Baseball -- one spot out of the playoffs. Ahead of them are the Tigers (10th), Blue Jays (8th), Indians (5th), Angels (4th) and Mariners (3rd). I wouldn’t be surprised if the top three of these finished with a record better than the Sox, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t, either. I’m more suspect about the chances of the Tigers and Blue Jays. The Red Sox are so stacked and asset-rich that I think they can fly past even the best teams in the AL in the pursuit of a title if they really want to; such is the advantage of being smart and rich. But it’s always ultimately about survival before it’s about thriving.
In Punch-Out, Tyson’s uppercuts didn’t always knock you down. Sometimes they just knocked you down to a level of energy that left you one more out, one more shot to dance before you hit the floor. You could even get knocked down a couple times and not get TKO’ed, though it would get progressively harder to mash the buttons fast enough to raise your body. You had to be good enough to make it those 90 seconds, but you didn’t have to be great. You could still win it -- you can only win it -- if you last just long enough to give yourself a chance. And if you don’t, you can always press reset.
The Red Sox have the best of both worlds. Their 2013 title gave them public license to reset in 2014, and now they look like likely 2015 survivors. If 1+1 still does equal 2, the numbers say there’s too much muscle on offense, too much consistency in the rotation and too much buoyancy in their young legs to get knocked out early. As presently constituted, this is a team to get us into the increasingly forgiving October. In July, it could be better than that. No matter what happens, if they can survive the knockout blows, the Red Sox should have a chance to do something big for the second time in four years: hit back.