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Red Sox still face steep climb in AL East

David Ortiz and the Red Sox are seeking to improve on a last-place finish last year.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

David Ortiz and the Red Sox are seeking to improve on a last-place finish last year.

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Welcome to Camp Low Expectations.

Around every corner there’s a question. Around every issue there’s a multiple answer. Around every positive there’s a negative. Ask anyone about the Red Sox and you get a shrug. What are they? Who are they? What can they be?

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Did they do enough to get out of last place? They brought in character guys, and that should be great for the clubhouse. Now we will see whether they help on the field.

We hear about how 93-win Baltimore did nothing this offseason. Did it have to?

We hear about the aging Yankees, the possible breakdowns of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. We know Alex Rodriguez likely will miss most of the season with hip surgery.

The Rays have no hitting, but they’re a pitching factory, always around the 90-win mark.

On paper, the Blue Jays are the team to beat. They made the blockbuster deal of the offseason (acquiring pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle and shortstop Jose Reyes), a deal Boston passed on. The Red Sox had the same opportunity they did in 2006, when they gambled and dealt top prospect Hanley Ramirez, pitching prospect Anibal Sanchez, and two relievers for Mike Lowell and Josh Beckett. That deal won the Red Sox another championship in 2007.

That’s the type of deal the Blue Jays made. Gutsy. Don’t think the Jays, who also acquired NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, are the last-place team in this division.

So that leaves us the Sox.

They won 69 games last season. They beat out John Farrell’s Blue Jays by four games for the bottom spot in the division. They made the most moves, getting Ryan Dempster, Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, David Ross, Stephen Drew — solid, reputable players.

The Red Sox think they’re good.

“If it’s broken, it can be fixed” is the motto.

They think they now have a good major league player at every position. They think they have players with proven track records.

Napoli, Victorino, and Drew are coming off subpar seasons, but you can argue they are hungry players who will have a chip on their shoulder and be out to prove people wrong. That’s always good.

The Red Sox did a lot of ballpark fitting. Napoli and Gomes were picked for their Fenway strokes, and Victorino because he can cover a lot of ground in an expansive right field.

The Red Sox are doing what a lot of teams do. They are projecting.

They project Jacoby Ellsbury will stay healthy in his walk year and be productive.

They project that Napoli’s season two years ago — when he hit .320 with 30 homers — wasn’t an aberration, and that he can do it again in a ballpark that’s suited for him.

They project that Victorino can change positions, from center to right, and be a very good outfielder who brings high energy to the team.

And they project Drew to do what Cody Ross and Adrian Beltre did — play with a one-year pillow contract that Scott Boras is famous for, and re-establish his value.

The Rays seem to do the best job of projecting. They project that losing James Shields in a trade to Kansas City will not hurt them a great deal. They project that Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore will pick up the slack in the rotation, that Alex Cobb will be a year better, that Jeff Niemann or Roberto Hernandez or Chris Archer will emerge at the end of the rotation.

They project that young Wil Myers, the slugger acquired in the Shields deal, will emerge in May or June and be a fixture in their lineup. They project that shortstop Yunel Escobar will save the pitchers runs with his defense.

In Baltimore, Dan Duquette projects that young pitchers Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman will add more quality to the rotation. The Orioles project that a healthy Brian Roberts at second base will be very much like a top free agent acquisition.

They project their bullpen will continue to perform at a high level and that center fielder Adam Jones will get even better as he gets older. And that they’ll have a healthy Nick Markakis for a full season.

The Yankees still have a very good rotation with CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes, and Hiroki Kuroda. There’s age here, yes, but the quality is also top-notch, especially if Pettitte still can pitch at a high level.

They still have a lineup that can hurt you.

While Jeter is returning from a broken ankle, his recovery time from injuries has been something to marvel at. How much they get out of Kevin Youkilis, and their unsettled catching situation with Francisco Cervelli and Austin Romine, remains to be seen.

Mark Teixeira is still a force in the middle of the lineup. His numbers gradually have declined, but when the game is on the line, are their many other players in baseball you’d rather have stepping up to the plate?

Curtis Granderson, a 40-homer guy, is entering his walk year and very motivated. Robinson Cano is one of the best overall players in the game. If DH Travis Hafner stays healthy, good luck pitching to the middle of the Yankees order.

And so you come to the conclusion: Is there any reason to pick the Red Sox anywhere but fifth place?

While baseball people believe the Red Sox have improved their team, they are hard-pressed to answer the question of which team will finish last. You get the anti-Yankee sentiment because of the age game, and some will insist the Orioles’ season was a fluke.

There is an advantage to low expectations, of course. As David Ortiz puts it, “It’s better to be the underdog.”

Las Vegas has the Sox’ over-under for wins at 79½, while PECOTA has them at 86 wins. Vegas isn’t wrong very often.

For the first time in a long time, there is really no pressure on this team. President/CEO Larry Lucchino referred to the Red Sox as “scrappy underdogs” which might be the case, though I must admit, I’ve never heard a team with a $170 million payroll described that way.

The low expectations allow them to fail and still build hope that the future is bright with Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Matt Barnes, Deven Marrero and their other good-looking young players. The Sox could trade some of their acquisitions at midseason and perhaps pick up extra draft picks.

For the team’s sake, the young players they’re protecting had better be good. They’ve been hyped as much as any crop of Red Sox youngsters in recent memory.

The worst of times appear to be over. But are better times here?

Hard to find the answers at Camp Low Expectations.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.
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