Springtime Storylines: Does anyone remember that the Boston Red Sox were really good last year?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The Boston Red Sox.

The Big Question: Does anyone remember that the Red Sox were actually, you know, good last year? 

When alien archaeologists come to visit the ruins of our planet — and if they are wise and decide to study the game we extinct humans called “baseball” —  they will likely conclude that the 2011 Red Sox were an abject failure, done in by a manager and general manager not worthy of their jobs and of indifferent players who consumed food that was bad for them.

They’ll think that because that’s the legacy we have left thanks to our obsession with an unfortunate late-season collapse and a couple of articles in which people with the Red Sox organization thought it appropriate to air the sort of dirty laundry that many teams have but so few teams ever share. But the Red Sox were and are more than a team who choked on beer and chicken and then fired the most successful manager and general manager the team has ever known.

They were, for most of the year, the best team in the AL. And they have almost all of the parts that helped them get that way back and much healthier than they were last season. They have Gonzalez and Youkilis and Pedroia and Ellsbury and Ortiz and a pitching staff that, while not ideal, could easily be the staff of a World Series winning team.  They lost their closer. That’s the big loss. And to hear some people tell it, the Red Sox are a mess.

Know what? They’re not a mess. They went and created more drama for themselves than they needed to by firing Terry Francona and bringing in Bobby Valentine — a move that unnecessarily accentuated those late season foibles rather than defuse them — but they are not the sort of disaster area some people like to pretend they are.  Oh, yes, your beer and chicken joke is funny. Laugh? I thought I’d DIE!

I ain’t having it, though. The Red Sox will win a lot of baseball games this year. Maybe by the time Mother’s Day rolls around and they’re doing just fine, thank you, more people will remember that they’re pretty damn good.

So what else is going on?

  • Here’s my thing on Valentine: he seems like a bigger problem than he really is. He gets a lot of headlines and causes a lot of perceived controversy because he is one of those guys who is smart enough to see that empty cliches are not a meaningful form of communication, but not smart enough to realize that there’s a reason why managers use all of those empty cliches. Something will happen and Valentine will make the big mistake of saying something informative and interesting regarding his thoughts on the matter. And then he’ll suffer the lot that those people who try to say informative and interesting things often suffer.  I don’t think, however, that that sort of thing will hurt an otherwise talented team.
  • The rotation has obviously been shaken up. Assuming Josh Beckett’s thumb is OK, the Sox are looking at a rotation of Lester, Beckett, Buchholz, Bard and some combination of Alfedo Aceves and Felix Dubront. Bard may be the key man here. If he transitions successfully — and he has looked pretty sharp this spring — it could be a very good rotation.  If not, the Sox may be taking a second run at Roy Oswalt or someone.
  • For as good as the lineup is, there is a decent chance that David Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury will regress some. At the same time the Sox have to expect that Carl Crawford — once healthy — will look a lot more like the Tampa Bay version of Crawford than the Boston version they’ve seen thus far.
  • Jonathan Papelbon is gone, and that will probably hurt more than a lot of people are saying. Papelbon had a really good year last year but did so very quietly. I wouldn’t have paid him what Philly ended up paying him, but he’s probably underrated now, and Andrew Bailey will be a step back, though certainly not a critical one.

So how are they gonna do?

Very well. They should challenge for the division and/or the wild card. And if they do win the division, they’ll probably end up giving Valentine the manager of the year award, all the while forgetting that, hey, this was basically the same team as last year, only a freak skid didn’t happen to them.

Freddie Freeman exits game after being hit on wrist by pitch

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Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman had to exit Wednesday night’s game against the Phillies after he was hit on the left wrist by a Hoby Milner fastball in the bottom of the eighth inning. Charlie Culberson pinch-ran for him and stayed in the game to play first base.

You may recall that Freeman’s left wrist is the one that was fractured by an Aaron Loup pitch last year. Understandably, there’s some concern here. The Braves should provide an update later tonight or on Thursday.

Freeman went 1-for-3 in Wednesday’s game before exiting. On the season, he’s batting .288/.468/.492 with two home runs, 12 RBI, and 12 runs scored in 79 plate appearances.