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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Baseball can be wonderfully unpredictable, and never more so in this era of parity, where, from one season to the next, teams can go from last place to the playoffs (Baltimore in 2011-12), or, conversely, almost in the playoffs to dead last in the standings (the Red Sox, same time span).
That's one way of saying no one knows what's going to happen in 2013.
But we do know this much: These five storylines will be worth following with the Red Sox:
1) THE STARTING ROTATION
A year ago, no single factor helped sink the last-place Sox than their poor starting pitching. The rotation's ERA was 5.19, 10th in the league, but worst in franchise history.
Jon Lester saw his win total sink to nine, while every other statistical indicator (ERA, strikeouts-per-nine-innings, WHIP) trended in the wrong direction. Clay Buchholz, meanwhile, pitched well in the middle two months, but not at the beginning or end of the season.
This spring, both Lester and Buchholz pitched well, indicating that some mechanical adjustments have been made.
There will be plenty of focus on Ryan Dempster, who has pitched all but two months of his major league career in the National League and now must navigate through much stronger and deeper lineups.
Depth could be an issue, though the Sox believe that Allen Webster may be ready to help by midseason.
Still the Sox will succeed or sink on the basis of their veteranstarters. If Lester and Buchholz can combine for 30 or more wins, the Sox could be a surprise contender; if not, they may not be very interesting in the second half of the season.
2) THE NEW FREE AGENTS
In the recent past, a number of the team's high-profile (and big ticket) free agents have struggled in adapting to Boston. Carl Crawford never felt comfortable, and though his performance was better, neither did Adrian Gonzalez.
It may help that Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes and Stephen Drew got the kind of huge contracts given to Crawford and Gonzalez, thus alleviating some of the internalized pressure to perform.
Still, acclimating to a market like Boston -- especially for someone such as Drew, who played previously in Oakland and Phoenix -- can be a challenge.
Perhaps a bigger concern is how well this new group jells together. Chemistry is a delicate thing and integrating so many new players -- once Drew is healthy, four of the everyday nine players will be new to the team and the city -- is a challenge.
If nothing else, the clubhouse would appear to a more comfortable atmosphere this spring, which should help ease the transition somewhat.
3) THE SIGNIFICANCE OF A STRONG START
Poor starts have become almost the norm the past three seasons.
In 2010, the Sox were 6-10 after the first 16 games. A year later, they were 5-11. Last season, the Sox were 6-10, and, worse, eventually 12-19.
In both 2010 and 2011, the slow start contributed to the team missing out on the postseason. (They finished six games out of the playoffs in 2010 and an agonizing single game out in 2011.)
A year ago, the team's stumble out of the gate set the stage for plenty of drama, from which the team never recovered. It wasn't until May 29 that the team got over .500, and by then, it was purely academic.
Given how competitive the division is, no team can afford to fall behind in the standings early. If nothing else, a decent start will rekindle interest in the team, take some of the pressure off the newcomers and give John Farrell and his staff a chance to evaluate under less dire circumstances.
A repeat of the last three years, by contrast, could sink the team quickly and lead to a mid-season sell-off of the roster.
4) HEALTH AND HAPPINESS
A year ago, the Red Sox sent a club-record 27 player to the disabled list for 34 separate stints. They can ill afford that same sort of luck again this season.
Even before the opener arrives, there are ominous signs. Two lefties scheduled to be part of the bullpen -- Franklin Morales and Craig Breslow -- will open the season on the disabled list, depriving the team of some
flexibility and depth.
Worse, some eight months after first injuring his Achilles heel, David Ortiz is still not completely healthy, having failed to get into a game all spring.
No single offensive player is more important to the Red Sox lineup than Ortiz. He's the lone game-changer in the batting order, the one hitter opposing teams are mindful of. If Ortiz has to battle the injury throughout
the season, the Sox lineup becomes far less of a threat.
It's imperative, too, that the veteran starters remain healthy, especially in the first half. Later in the season, the Sox might be better positioned to provide some starting pitching depth (Webster, Rubby De La Rosa), but for now, the team needs its established starters to take the ball for every turn.
5) ON THE WAY
Already, Jackie Bradley Jr. has forced his way onto the team, way ahead of schedule, and could be an important contributor -- both early in the season when he gets playing time, and perhaps, throughout the season if he plays well enough to remain in the big leagues.
It's conceivable that Webster could have a role after the first two months. The Red Sox would like him to get some starts at Triple A -- he's yet to pitch above Double A during the regular season -- before plugging him in tothe rotation in Boston. But if Webster displays the stuff and improved command he showed in the spring, he could provide a significant boost.
Finally, there's Xander Bogaerts, whose exposure to the major league staff was cut short by his participation in the WBC. But remember that Bogaerts was probably considered closer to the big leagues than Bradley was before the season began and it wouldn't shock anyone if he got a look in the second half of the season -- especially if Drew is hurt or ineffective.