Five reasons the Red Sox will contend this year . . .

Five reasons the Red Sox will contend this year . . .
April 1, 2013, 7:30 am
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NEW YORK -- It's Opening Day, when optimism reigns and  a logical case can be made for most baseball teams when it comes to contending.

But when a team - in this case, the Red Sox -- is coming off a 93-loss, last-place season and hasn't made the postseason for the last three years, optimism isn't as easy to come by.

So, which is it? Are you a glass half-full fan? Or is that glass half-empty?

Either way, we've got you covered. You can click here to find five reasons why the Red Sox won't contend, or read on to find five reasons why they will:

1) The starting pitching is improved.

John Lackey is healthy again and Ryan Dempster, signed as a free agent over the winter, brings innings and experience. But the biggest reason to feel good about the rotation is the work of Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz in spring training.

Lester reverted to his old delivery, standing more upright on the rubber, which allowed him to command his fastball in the lower half of the strike zone, something he didn't do enough of last year. Buchholz, meanwhile, is a year-and-a-half removed from the stress fracture in his lower back and is no longer thinking about the injury on the mound. A year ago, for the first two months, Buchholz seemed afarid to get on top of the ball and couldn't drive the ball on a downward plane the way he needed to.

2) John Farrell is here and Bobby Valentine isn't.

The one-year failed experiment with Valentine in charge is mercifully over. In his place, serving as the third Red Sox manager in the last three seasons, is Farrell.

It would be hard to find two more different personalities. While Valentine used to send messages indirectly or through the media, Farrell is a good communicator and came into the job already having the respect of the veterans who were here when Farrell served as the team's pitching coach.

There was a looseness in the clubhouse this spring that was absent a year ago when most of the players seemed uncertain of what was expected of them and spent most of the season waiting for the other shoe to  drop.

Farrell will work better with the front office -- he's known some of the staff for more than a decade -- and understands what it's like to work in Boston.

3) The bullpen is deep and will get deeper when injuries subside.

Last year, the Sox lost closer Andrew Bailey in the final week of spring training and didn't get him back until mid-August, some four months later. This year, Joel Hanrahan is the new closer, with Bailey serving as the eighth-inning set-up man. Couple them with Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa and the Sox have four late-inning options, all of whom can get swings and misses.

When Franklin Morales (back) and Craig Breslow (shoulder) come off the disabled list and join Andrew Miller, the Sox will have three trustworthy lefties in the pen and Farrell will have additional matchup capabilities to help him navigate from the sixth inning until the final out.

4) The lineup will feature the most speed it's had in some time.

In addition to leadoff hitter Jacoby Ellsbury (189 career steals) and perennial 20-steal man Dustin Pedroia, the Red Sox have added Jackie Bradley Jr. and Shane Victorino. Victorino has a career success rate of 82 percent in the big leagues.

Those four alone should give the Sox some offensive options with the lineup and help make up for the fact that the Sox likely won't hit as many homers as they have in the recent past.

5) The defense -- especially in the outfield -- will be signficantly improved.

On Opening Day, the Red Sox will start three center fielders in the outfield: Bradley, Ellsbury and Victorino. Those three will cover a lot of ground and save some runs.

The middle infield will be well covered, too, with Pedroia (a former Gold Glove winner) and Stephen Drew, an upgrade over last year's shortstop, Mike Aviles. And until Drew returns from a concussion issue, shortstop will be manned by Jose Iglesias, who can cover as much ground as any shortstop in the game.

Only at first base (Mike Napoli, transitioning to the position full-time) will the Red Sox have a below-average defender. The improved defense will aid the pitching staff and take some of the pressure off the offense to carry the club.