GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

March 30, 2013

Improved Sox won't be able to hang with league's titans

On Pro Baseball
Nick Curcuru

---- — For the first time in a long time, the Red Sox head into opening day with little hype and little buzz.

A team that used to own the Boston sports scene has been relegated to third or maybe even fourth fiddle thanks to recent struggles and successful teams in other sports.

Despite the low expectations that face the Sox entering the 2013 season, this is still not a team to sleep on, albeit a team that is not a serious World Series contender.

Nowhere to go but up

The 2012 season was an unmitigated disaster for a number of players, and fortunately there is nowhere to go but up. Several Red Sox players had career worst years in 2012 and that simply won’t happen in 2013.

Staff ace Jon Lester was nothing short of abysmal last season winning just nine games and posting an ERA north of 4.00. Last season Lester was a big part of the disappointment, this season he will be one of the main reasons for the team’s improvement.

This spring, Lester has been nothing short of dominant allowing just two earned runs in 24 innings pitched. He will start opposite CC Sabathia on opening day in Yankee Stadium and expect Lester to revert back to his old form as the team’s bona fide ace.

It’s not just Lester that has me feeling optimistic about the Sox pitching staff. Clay Buchholz has picked up right where he left off last season this spring, pitching great and settling into the No. 2 slot. Ryan Dempster in the No. 3 spot gives Boston a very strong trio at the top of the rotation, in fact that trio stacks up with every starting pitching trio in the entire American League East.

Let’s not forget the Sox have quietly put together what looks like a very strong bullpen, especially if Andrew Bailey stays healthy; which is a big if. Joel Hanrahan is a more than capable closer and the Sox have the seventh and eighth innings locked up too with Bailey, Koji Uehara, Alfredo Aceves and Junichi Tazawa. Not too many teams can boast that kind of clout in the bullpen.

Offensively Dustin Pedroia will also have a bounce-back year as the catalyst of the offense and Mike Napoli is tailor-made for Fenway Park.

There’s definitely plenty of reason to be optimistic about this team. Sure they aren’t the 2004 or 2007 Red Sox, they probably aren’t even as good as the 2009 or 2005 teams that were swept in the Divisional Round, but a step forward is a step forward and the Sox weren’t going to dig out of the deep hole they dug themselves into over night.

Top heavy league

Given the talent on the top teams in the league, the MLB has taken on a look similar to the NBA, where the cream of the crop stands out above the rest. Luckily for Major League Baseball, however, unlike the NBA, upsets can and will happen in the baseball postseason.

Just about every division in baseball seems to have a powerhouse team.

In the AL Central the Detroit Tigers have and will continue to rule the roost thanks to the best pitcher in baseball (Justin Verlander) and the best hitter in baseball (Miguel Cabrera). Out west in the American League, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have made themselves into an offensive juggernaut with the addition of Josh Hamilton. With Hamilton in the fold, the trio of him, Albert Pujols and Mike Trout will be nearly impossible to slow down, a scary thought for the rest of the league.

In the National League the Washington Nationals look like the team of the present and future with superstars all over the field in pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez along with a 20 year old Bryce Harper that is getting closer to elite with each at bat.

In the NL West the defending champion Giants are stacked once again and the Dodgers are looking strong thanks to an off-season spending spree.

These four teams seem to stand above the rest on paper, but in a 162 game season anything can happen.

AL East race and beyond

The American League East has changed from the most top-heavy league in Major League Baseball to the deepest.

With the emergence of Baltimore, the consistency of Tampa Bay and the Yankees and the improvements of the Blue Jays in all areas make the East the most intriguing division in baseball. And that’s a problem for the Sox.

This may have seemed like wishful thinking just three years ago but there is a strong possibility that the Red Sox and Yankees could finish in the last two spots in the AL East.

For all the improvements I think Boston will make pitching wise, their lineup leaves much to be desired and the health of David Ortiz is a huge concern, seeing that he’s the guy that ties the whole lineup together. With a year remaining on his contract this season there is no reason to expect optimal effort from “Big Papi” this year.

Unfortunately, 80 wins could lead to a fifth place finish in the stacked AL East this season, and unfortunately 80 wins is right around where the Sox will finish up.

At the moment the Yankees may be in worse shape than anyone in the division with Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter and Curtis Granderson all starting the year on the disabled list. The New York starting rotation hasn’t been World Series worthy for years now and it has not improved.

Baltimore and Tampa Bay are definitely a cut above the Sox and Yanks this year with balanced lineups and a mixture of established stars and young up-and-comers. I’m expecting that balance will lead the Orioles to the AL East crown, and it doesn’t hurt having the divisions best manager in Buck Showalter as well. Tampa Bay gets a wild card slot.

In the American League as a whole it’s going to be between the titans of the league in Detroit and the Angels. In the end, the Angels are deeper and that lineup is just so intimidating.

Over in the National League the Giants get back to the World Series thanks to talent and experience, but once again fall to the hungry Angels, who will win their first title since beating the Giants in 2002.

The powers of the league will stand tall this season, and the Red Sox just don’t have the power and talent to match those teams. The rebuilding process has begun, and while the Red Sox won’t get there this season, they are putting the pieces in place to build their way back to the top of the league. They will just have to take a back seat to better baseball teams for the time being.

2013 MLB Staff Predictions Nick Curcuru AL East: Orioles AL Central: Tigers AL West: Angels NL East: Nationals NL Central: Cardinals NL West: Giants Wild Cards: AL- Athletics and Rays NL- Reds and Dodgers ALCS: Angels over Tigers NLCS: Giants over Dodgers World Series: Angels over Giants Over a decade later the Angels knock off the Giants again thanks to the best middle of the order in baseball. Conor Walsh AL East: Rays AL Central: Tigers AL West: Angels NL East: Nationals NL Central: Reds NL West: Giants Wild cards: AL- Blue Jays and Rangers NL Braves and Cardinals ALCS: Rays over Tigers NLCS: Nationals over Reds World Series: Nationals over Rays The Nats were only a Strasburg away from a title last year, and he'll be back for October. Book it.