FORT MYERS, Fla. -- For all the uncertainty that a new season brings, this much seems clear: the Red Sox can't possibly be as bad as they were a year ago, when they lost 93 games and occupied the A.L. East basement.
But in a jumbled division, it's hard to figure exactly where the Sox will slot in. Could they surprise and return to contention ahead of schedule? Possibly. Could they improve and still finish in the bottom of the division? That, too, is possible.
For now, here's what we know:
MOST IMPORTANT POSITION PLAYER: David Ortiz.
Ortiz doesn't play a defensive position, which, in theory, should lessen his value. But Ortiz is the most essential bat in the team's lineup, the only one proven capable to hit 35 homers and knock in 100 runs. Ortiz changes the way teams approach the Red Sox lineup. Without him, many -- most? -- of the other regulars can be pitched to.
MOST IMPORTANT PITCHER: Jon Lester.
It may seem obvious, but Lester, the Opening Day starter and No. 1 pitcher, is the most critical member of the staff. It's no coincidence that the team's descent from contention mirrors Lester's downward trajectory. When he started to struggle in September of 2011 (one win in the final month), so did the team. And when he experienced his worst season last year (just nine wins), the Sox had their worst season in more than 40 years.
BETTER THAN EXPECTED: Stephen Drew
He won't be in the lineup for Opening Day due to post-concussion issues, and recovery from such injuries is notoriously difficult to project. But assuming Drew fully recovers sometime in early April, he could give the Sox some stability at a position that's had a revolving door attached to it for the past decade. Though not spectacular in the field, he's more than solid and capable of generating extra-base power from the bottom third of the order.
NOT AS GOOD AS HOPED: Shane Victorino
Victorino is coming off a down season, one that was partly impacted by his the uncertainty of his pending free agency. But scouts are concerned about his ability to hit right-handed pitching. He'll contribute strong defense and good baserunning, but he may not be the right choice to hit in the top third in the order anymore.
KEY PROSPECT IN THE WINGS: Allen Webster
The starting pitching depth is, as is the case for most teams, thin, especially with the injury to Franklin Morales and questions about Steven Wright's readiness to help. That leaves Webster as the likely reinforcement in the rotation. If that comes in late May or June, Webster should be ready; anything before that may be rushing him.
TOUGHEST CALL FOR JOHN FARRELL: Bullpen management
This is always one of the trickiest aspects of managing in the big leagues and it can take even the most experienced managers weeks -- sometimes months -- to get relievers in the right roles. Farrell will start the season with just one lefty, which will limit his matchup ability in the first month or so. He'll also have to carefully manage Koji Uehara and make sure overuse is not an issue, while also dealing with the phenomenon that is Alfredo Aceves.
TOUGHEST CALL FOR BEN CHERINGTON: Jacoby Ellsbury
If the Sox are obviously out of the running for a playoff spot in mid-July, the Red Sox should begin shopping Ellsbury to the highest bidder. Ellsbury is a lock to become a free agent after the season and, given his injury history, it's now almost impossible to determine his value. That won't be an easy thing to do, as Ellsbury is popular with the fan base and has immense talent. But it's absolutely the right thing to do for the franchise's future.
WORST POSSIBLE INJURY LOSS: Ortiz.
It's tempting to suggest that it would be Will Middlebrooks, since the Red Sox have no established replacement who could play third base every day and provide anything close to the right-handed power he supplies. But the obvious answer is Ortiz, for all the reasons previously cited: no single player is as irreplaceable to the everyday lineup.
FIRST BASE: Mike Napoli was brought on board for his right-handed power and suitability for Fenway. But questions linger. There's his balky hip and his (relative) inexperience at first, to say nothing of the fact that he's never had more than 453 at-bats in a single season.
SECOND BASE: Dustin Pedroia is the team's soul, and his willingness to play at less than 100 percent is admirable. But at Pedroia nears 30 -- he'll turn that in August -- there has to be at least some concern that his fearless style of play and body type have begun to impact his durability.
SHORTSTOP: Assuming Drew rebounds from the post-concussion mess that caused him to miss the last three weeks-plus of spring training, he could represent a pleasant surprise with his surehanded play at short and ability to drive the ball for extra bases.
THIRD BASE: All eyes will be on Will Middlebrooks as he begins his first full season in the big leagues. His lack of plate discipline is something that could be exploited. But his raw power can be incredible and, as long as he makes the necessary adjustments, he could be a real force at Fenway.
LEFT FIELD: This position will be fascinating to watch. Jackie Bradley Jr. will play there a lot until Ortiz can return. When that happens, expect that Jonny Gomes will get the majority of playing time, with some help from Daniel Nava. Until then, the focus will be on Bradley, who took the camp by storm, forced his way onto the Opening Day roster and upended plans. Bradley's presence along will be reason to pay close attention to the Sox in the opening weeks.
CENTER FIELD: No one is quite sure what to expect from Ellsbury. He had a mediocre spring and his ankle injury in the final week could be troublesome for a player who relies so heavily on his speed. No one doubts his raw ability (see: 2011), but his ability to stay on the field and his fast-approaching ticket to free agency cloud everything.
RIGHT FIELD: Shane Victorino will give the Sox an accomplished right fielder for the first time since a healthy J.D. Drew patrolled the spot, and his efficiency and speed on the basepaths will be positives. But given the commitment the Sox made to him (three years, $39 million) he'd better do more than the .255/.321/.383 he delivered last year.
CATCHING: There were questions at the end of last season whether Jarrod Saltalamacchia would be back, but given the distressingly slow progress of Ryan Lavarnway, the Sox chose to retain him. He will probably never develop into the player that first Atlanta and then Texas dreamed of, and the holes in his offensive game are more than evident (139 strikeouts in 448 plate appearances, back-to-back seasons with .288 on-base percentages), but he's a dependable if not spectacular receiver with enough pop in his bat (41 homers over the last two years) to justify his playing time. And newcomer David Ross is better than your average backup, giving John Farrell more than a simple, rest-your-starter-every-so-often option.
DH: The Red Sox have their fingers crossed that Ortiz can get over the lingering Achilles issue he's battled since last July, and only partly because of the two-year, $26 million deal they awarded him last November. The Sox desperately need his power and presence in the lineup, if only because hitters with his production ability are increasingly difficult to find.
BENCH: As noted, David Ross is probably among the game's best catching backups. Daniel Nava has increased his value by playing some first and remains a nice extra outfield piece. Pedro Ciriaco offers speed and versatility off the bench, though his second-half slide last year has some wondering about his ability to make adjustments. Mike Carp has a nice lefty swing for Fenway, but is limited at first and the outfield.
STARTING ROTATION: Nothing buoyed the Red Sox more this spring than the showings of Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, each of whom appeared to have put 2012 behind them. Lester worked at a quicker pace and succeeded in commanding his fastball down in the strike zone, while Buchholz is finally over the mental hurdle regarding the 2011 stress fracture in his back. If they can duplicate what they last achieved under John Farrell -- then the pitching coach -- the Sox will have taken a sizable step forward. Questions surround the rest of the rotation since Ryan Dempster has only made 10 of his 322 career starts in the American League, and none in the A.L. East. Can he adapt? His ability to command and pitch intelligently will help. John Lackey returns after a year off with Tommy John surgery and improved conditioning and arm strength should make him an inning-eating back-end starter, at the very least. Felix Doubront boasts plus stuff, but conditioning woes and efficiency questions linger.
BULLPEN: At the start of spring, this looked to be a team strength, and it still might be. But injuries to lefties Franklin Morales and Craig Breslow have thinned the depth and taken away some of the matchup ability Farrell was expecting -- at least for the first month or so. Closer Joel Hanrahan seems to be over some of his command issues from a year ago, but this will be different than Pittsburgh was. Andrew Bailey, moved to set-up, had a strong spring. Koji Uehara brings experience and may be counted on to face some lefties early until Morales and Breslow return. Junichi Tazawa has closer-like stuff, but needs some refining. Alfredo Aceves and Clayton Mortensen bring multi-inning ability, but getting both enough work could be a challenge.