Let’s see. There has been a debate over who should claim the starting shortstop role. A half-dozen candidates were in contention for the fourth and fifth starter spots. Two key pitchers have suffered thumb injuries. And new manager Bobby Valentine has proven a lightning rod. Just imagine what will happen when the 2012 Red Sox play a game that actually counts. Come to think of it, Chad Finn already has. Here are his 10 predictions for the new season.
1. Adrian Gonzalez will contend for the triple crown.
In the first half of his first season with the Red Sox, the sweet-swinging first baseman hit .354 with 17 home runs and 77 RBIs in 89 games. Then came the All-Star break and the decision to compete in the Home Run Derby, which apparently affected his swing. Gonzalez was further affected by a nagging shoulder injury, yet he still finished with a .338 average, 27 homers, and 117 RBIs. He says his shoulder feels healthy for the first time in two years. Even with Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder now in the AL, he could be the league’s dominant offensive force.
2. Someone other than Andrew Bailey will lead the Red Sox in saves.
OK, maybe this isn’t the most daring prediction considering Bailey, Jonathan Papelbon’s successor as the Red Sox’ closer, may require surgery on his injured right thumb. So you’ll have to take our word for it that there was concern about the righthander’s durability despite his 75 saves in three seasons in Oakland. The bet here is that Bailey pitches enough to earn around 20 saves -- just not quite as many as either Mark Melancon or Alfredo Aceves, depending upon who replaces him.
3. Mike Aviles will be an offensive upgrade from Marco Scutaro.
In his second year as the Red Sox’ starting shortstop, Scutaro had a fine season in 2011 (.299 batting average, .781 OPS). When he was traded in January to Colorado for nondescript pitcher Clayton Mortensen, the deal left many Sox fans puzzled. But Aviles, 31, is a better player than he gets credit for -- as a rookie in 2008, he hit .325 with 10 homers for the Royals. He hit .317 after coming to the Red Sox last year, and he’s a lifetime .288 hitter. If he stays healthy, he may be one of the season’s big surprises.
4. Ryan Lavarnway will be a factor in the second half.
The 24-year-old catcher will begin the season in Pawtucket, ostensibly to further improve his skills behind the plate. But no matter whether he eventually cracks the lineup as a catcher, as an occasional designated hitter, or as a potent bat off the bench, the Yale product, who hit 34 homers between Portland, Pawtucket, and Boston last season, is not far from making significant contributions to the offense.
5. Jacoby Ellsbury’s power surge will prove no fluke.
Remember when the optimistic projection regarding Ellsbury’s power potential elicited the name Johnny Damon? Well, no more. Ellsbury’s 32 home runs last season surpassed Damon’s career high (24). And rather than fading in ‘11, Ellsbury was one of few Red Sox who had a fine September, hitting .358 with eight homers in the season’s final month. A former weakness, the inside fastball, is now a pitch he pounds. Anything less than 25 homers this season would be a disappointment, and he won’t disappoint.
6. David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis will combine for fewer than 50 homers.
In 2009, Ortiz and Youkilis had 55 homers between them. Two years ago, 51. Last year? 46. Notice a trend? Ortiz has held up his end of the bargain, hitting 32 in 2010 and 29 last year, but Youkilis’s durability issues have resulted in a power reduction -- he hit 19 homers two years ago, and 17 last year. Even if Youkilis does stay healthy this year and return to the 25-homer range, it’s not a guarantee that Ortiz, who turns 37 in November, will continue to hover around the 30-homer mark. Let’s put ‘em down for 46 again.
7. Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz will combine for more than 50 victories.
Two seasons ago, the Red Sox got exactly 50 wins out their big three of Jon Lester (19 wins), Clay Buchholz (17) and ... er, John Lackey (14). Beckett had just six wins in an injury-plagued season in ‘10, but he bounced back last year with arguably the best year of his Boston career. There’s no reason he can’t be as effective again in ‘12. Nineteen wins is always a reasonable expectation for Lester -- he will get 20 one of these seasons -- and a healthy Buchholz is capable of being much more than a No. 3 starter. I’m putting the Lester-Beckett-Buchholz trio down for 54 wins.
8. Cody Ross will become a fan favorite.
Actually, after a spring in which he hit six home runs -- brashly and entertainingly flipping his bat on at least half, if not all, of them -- he probably already is. But as a righthanded hitter with a swing tailor-made for Fenway Park, a career-long knack for hammering lefthanded pitching (last season excepted), and a personality that almost makes Kevin Millar seem like a wallflower, Ross will be in the middle of the fun at Fenway this summer.
9. The Red Sox will win 93 games.
As I wrote last week, the Red Sox are somewhat reminiscent of their 2002 club. Like their counterparts of a decade ago, these Sox have a roster top-heavy with elite talent, but there are depth questions at the end of the rotation and in the bullpen. The ‘02 Sox won 93 games and missed the playoffs. The first edition of Bobby Valentine’s tenure as manager will win 93 games -- and make the postseason, thanks to the second wild card.
10. And lose in the ALCS to the eventual champion Rangers.
How’s this for a scenario? Three AL East teams will make the postseason, with the Angels’ overrated lineup beyond Albert Pujols causing them to fall out of contention in the final week. The Red Sox will beat the Yankees in the one-game wild card matchup, then dispatch the Tigers in the Division Series. But the run ends against Adrian Beltre, Yu Darvish and the eventual World Champion Texas Rangers in the ALCS. All in all, not a bad first season for Bobby V., despite the 324 different controversies along the way.