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Tim O

Tim O’Sullivan: Change for the better for Sox

  • Boston Red Sox's Mike Napoli plays in a spring training exhibition baseball game against the Minnesota Twins, Thursday, March 14, 2013, in Fort Myers, Fla. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

    Boston Red Sox's Mike Napoli plays in a spring training exhibition baseball game against the Minnesota Twins, Thursday, March 14, 2013, in Fort Myers, Fla. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

  • Boston Red Sox's Mike Napoli plays in a spring training exhibition baseball game against the Minnesota Twins, Thursday, March 14, 2013, in Fort Myers, Fla. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

When the Red Sox open the season tomorrow at Yankee Stadium, they will have more question marks and fewer expectations than any Boston team since the early 1990s. But they’ll fit right in the 2013 AL East, where change is the norm.

As the Sox try to escape last year’s still-smoldering 69-93 wreck, they’ll have to do it with their third manager in three years, top hitters who are either too old (David Ortiz), too young (Jackie Bradley Jr.) or too flighty (Jacoby Ellsbury), and a pitching staff that had a 4.70 ERA last season, third worst in the American League.

Boston’s climb from the cellar will have to come in a division where the Yankees, last year’s AL East champs, may be the least of their worries. The Blue Jays have gone all in with pricey additions, the Orioles have momentum from last season’s surprise run and more young talent coming, and the Rays traded two of their top players and built a new infield off the division scrap heap, but remain dangerous as ever with their flowing pipeline of arms.

In order to embrace the change, here’s a breakdown of the 2013 Opening Day Red Sox and how they stack up against some of the best and worst in their transformed division.

First base – Mike Napoli

2012 stats: .227 average, .343 on-base percentage, .469 slugging, 24 home runs

2013 Monitor projected stats: .255/.360/.510, 25 HR

Napoli is an upgrade over the disappointing Adrian Gonzalez and the stop-gap James Loney, who is now Tampa’s starting first baseman. Napoli’s righty bat should thrive in Fenway, although others have come to Boston expecting the same and failed. The biggest questions for Napoli are health (he missed 103 games in the last two seasons) and inexperience at first (he started playing there in 2010 and has 133 games at the position). He’ll never pick it like New York’s Mark Teixeira, but then again Teixeira is out with a broken wrist, leaving the Yankees with Boston reject Lyle Overbay.

Second base – Dustin Pedroia

2012 stats: .290/.347/.449, 15 HR

2013 projected: .295/.355/.475, 15 HR

Pedroia’s offensive numbers should tick up closer to his career averages (.303/.369/.461) without last year’s thumb injury. He’ll also benefit with Jacoby Ellsbury back and hitting in front of him, although Pedroia won’t have the protection of David Ortiz behind him in the lineup for up to a month as Big Papi recovers from injury. Still, the 29-year-old Pedroia is in his prime and produced last season under terrible conditions, so expect a strong year. The only second baseman in the division who can compare is Robinson Cano, who looks ready for an MVP-type campaign, although Baltimore’s Brian Roberts is an intriguing feel-good story as he comes back from a two-year layoff due to concussions.

Third base – Will Middlebrooks

2012 stats: .288/.325/.509, 15 HR

2013 projected: .280/.320/.505, 25 HR

The AL East is dripping with young and talented third basemen – Tampa’s Evan Longoria (still only 27), Toronto’s Brett Lawrie (although he’s on the disabled list to start the year), Baltimore’s Manny Machado and Middlebrooks. The 24-year-old Middlebrooks strikes out too often, but he has the power to make up for that as he showed this spring (.558 slugging) and last season before he broke his wrist. He still has some adjusting to do to big league pitching, but the Sox are better off with one of the rising third base stars in the division as opposed to the familiar and fading one in New York, Kevin Youkilis.

Shortstop – Stephen Drew

2012 stats: .223/.309/.348, 7 HR

2013 projected: .255/.330/.400, 10 HR

Jose Iglesias will open the season at short, but chances are good Drew will spend more time there, as long as he can shake the concussion problems that have plagued him since being hit in the head on March 7. While Drew has struggled with injuries for the last two years (165 total games played in 2011 and 2012), he did play an average of 147 games per season from 2007-2010 in Arizona and was productive during that span. While this position and the battle between Iglesias and Drew is interesting to Sox fans, the big shortstop stories in the division are in Toronto with the addition of Jose Reyes (will he be the best position player in the AL East?), in New York with Derek Jeter (will age and injury finally catch up?) and in Tampa with Yunel Escobar (can Joe Maddon get the most out of the troubled and well-traveled talent?).

Catcher – Jarrod Saltalamacchia

2012 stats: .222/.288/.454, 25 HR

2013 projected: .230/.300/.450, 20 HR

Many Sox fans were hoping for an upgrade behind the plate after watching Salty butcher his way to that .222 average last season. But Saltalamacchia did lead the team in home runs in 2012, he’s still on the young side (28 on May 2), and Boston did add a solid backup catcher in David Ross, who should give Saltalamacchia more days off than he had last season. Besides, it could be worse for Sox fans, at least they don’t have to watch the tandem in New York – Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart, anyone?

Designated hitter – David Ortiz

2012 stats: .318/.415/.611, 26 HR

2013 projected: .290/.420/.550, 20 HR

Jonny Gomes will start the season at DH while the 37-year-old Ortiz heals his Achilles heels. Getting and staying healthy is the biggest concern for Ortiz, and one of the biggest concerns for the Sox overall since Gomes is a career .244/.334/.455 hitter who struggles mightily with right-handed pitching (.209/.324/.391 last year vs. righties) and is a borderline everyday player. Like Boston, Toronto is looking for serious production from its primary DH (Edwin Encarnacion), but that’s not the case in the rest of the division, where the DH will be a bottom-of-the-order platoon spot.

Outfield

Jacoby Ellsbury – 2012 stats: .271/.313/.370, 14 stolen bases; 2013 projected .300/.350/.450, 30 SB

Shane Victorino – 2012 stats: .255/.321/.383, 39 SB; 2013 projected .250/.325/.375, 30 SB

Jackie Bradley Jr. – 2012 stats (minor league): .315/.430/.482, 24 SB; 2013 projected .270/.390/.430, 15 SB

There are many concerns about this trio of outfielders. Will Ellsbury be traded and can he stay healthy? Can Bradley make the jump to the majors? Does Victorino, at age 32, still have the speed that has made him so effective? But if these three spend the most time in the Boston outfield, that would be good news for the Sox. Gomes was signed as a possible everyday left fielder, but he doesn’t really have the offense for that (see DH above). The outfields in Baltimore (led by Adam Jones and Nick Markakis) and Toronto (with Jose Bautista and Melky Cabrera) will probably be more productive, but at least the Boston outfield isn’t as old and broken down as the one in New York with Curtis Granderson (broken arm) and Ichiro Suzuki (40 in October).

Starting pitching

Jon Lester – 2012 stats : 9-14, 4.82 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 166 K; 2013 projected: 14-8, 3.85 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 175 K

Clay Buchholz– 2012 stats: 11-8, 4.56 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 129 K; 2013 projected: 13-9, 3.70 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 135 K

Ryan Dempster – 2012 stats: 12-8, 3.38 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 153 K; 2013 projected: 12-9, 4.20 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 160 K

For Boston to make the long climb from the AL East cellar into contention, the starting pitchers will have to lead them. Lester and Buchholz have both looked sharp this spring and seem ready to bounce back from disappointing 2012 seasons under the direction of new Manager John Farrell, who had success with both of them during his time as Boston’s pitching coach. Dempster had a great year in 2012 and appears a good fit as the No. 3 starter, but he still has to adjust to pitching in Fenway Park. Felix Dubront, the No. 4 starter, showed positive flashes before faltering at the end of last season, and John Lackey, the No. 5, at least looked fit during spring training, even if he did give up 12 hits in 11 2∕3 innings of work.

This group has the potential to be very good, especially under the strict watch of Farrell. But even if they do pitch to their abilities, they could be the fourth best rotation in the division. Toronto brought in big guns R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle to complement the young arms of Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero. The Rays have one of the game’s elite pitchers in David Price and three more of the best young arms in Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb. And the Yankees, for all their troubles, still have a formidable rotation with C.C. Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Phil Hughes, Andy Pettitte and Ivan Nova.

Bullpen

Joel Hanrahan – 2012 stats: 36 saves, 2.72 ERA, 1.27 WHIP; 2013 projected: 30 saves, 3.40 ERA, 1.30 WHIP

Alredo Aceves – 2012 stats: 2-10, 25 saves, 5.36 ERA, 1.32 WHIP; 2013 projected 50 appearances, 3.90 ERA, 1.30 WHIP

Koji Uehara – 2012 stats: 36 innings pitched, 1.75 ERA, 0.64 WHIP; 2013 projected: 55 IP, 2.00 ERA, .90 WHIP

Most agree the bullpen should be a strength for the Red Sox. Hanrahan was brought in to close after a successful 2012 season in Pittsburgh, but if he falters, Andrew Bailey is an option, as is the versatile Aceves. Uehara was sensational for Texas last year and could be the most underrated acquisition of the offseason. Junichi Tazawa was also impressive last season (1.43 ERA, 0.96 WHIP in 37 appearances) and at age 26 should keep getting better. And Andrew Miller seems to have fixed his control issues (two walks in 8 1∕3 IP this spring) and could be a left-handed force out of the ’pen for Farrell. These relievers look especially good when you compare them to the group in Toronto, where the two top arms (closer Casey Janssen and Sergio Santos) are coming off surgeries. As good as the Blue Jays are, things could turn ugly if they start blowing late leads.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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