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March 30. 2013 7:55PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: There are low expectations for the 2013 version of Red Sox

It was only a year ago when - even after the previous September's collapse, after revelations of rampant dysfunction, after Terry Francona's firing, after Bobby Valentine's hiring, and after making no major changes to the product on the field - the Red Sox were still considered a contender. Maybe even a favorite.

It was only a year ago when Baseball Prospectus, a stats-based site that looks at the game through the lens of Sabermetrics, published its predictions for the 2012 season, and 18 of the 27 participants projected the Sox to make the playoffs. Five had them winning the American League East, in fact, while nobody had them finishing any worse than third in the division.

A year later, though, BP's soothsayers see things quite a bit differently. Of the 42 prognosticators, only four see Boston reaching the postseason. Only one thinks the Sox will win the East. As many people think Boston will finish fourth as think they'll finish first, second or third - 18 each - and six more think the Sox are headed for the division's basement. Again.

Those aren't pessimists or outliers, either. Peek around at various predictions, and it's obvious that after going 76-113 in their last seven months of baseball, expectations for the season that starts in the Bronx on Monday are as low for the local nine as they've been in at least a decade. For the first time since 2002, or maybe longer, the Sox aren't looked at as a legitimate championship contender.

And their fans should embrace it.

They shouldn't embrace it because it would become an us-against-the-world, nobody-thought-we-could-do-it story. They shouldn't embrace it because any level of success after a 69-93 campaign would inevitably feel something like a tale of rags to riches.

Rather, they should embrace it because for the first time in a long time the pressure is off. After hanging on every outcome, every inning, every pitch for the better part of a decade, and obsessing over every stumble, Red Sox fans finally have an opportunity to enjoy baseball for what it is again - understandingly riding the ebbs and the flows, living with the failures while loving the successes, and appreciating the process as much as the payout.

This isn't to suggest Red Sox Nation should be any less passionate, or that winning should be any less of a priority. Instead, it's simply to suggest that without the burden of pennant-or-bust expectations fans can once again find daily pleasures in following the team through spring and summer without the angst and worry that come with knowing they'll ultimately be unsatisfied if it doesn't all end under a champagne shower come fall.

The consensus is that this one won't for Boston - but most believe they should at least be competitive. And as long as that's true they should actually, in spite of their shortcomings, be more likeable than some of the other recent iterations.

Though certainly more talented, Red Sox teams of the past couple seasons have provoked questions about the players' commitment, and how much they cared, but Meriden-bred general manager Ben Cherington made a point this offseason of acquiring players who have built their careers on passion and character.

He targeted guys, like Jonny Gomes, David Ross, Ryan Dempster and Mike Napoli, who not only have the attitude and approach it takes to be successful in a baseball-crazed city like Boston - but who actually want to be here.

They should help reset the culture of a clubhouse that was sour by the end of 2011, then a circus for much of 2012, though that process will be first and foremost spearheaded by John Farrell. Tactically speaking he left Toronto with questions about his ability to manage a game, but he commands respect as an authority figure, is willing to be aggressive in both his strategy and his thinking, and in replacing Valentine he represents a beacon of hope for any fan who wants the Red Sox to be more than merely a nightly docudrama.

The emphasis of his first spring training has been putting the focus on the field - on baseball - and given the way this team has struggled with fundamentals and seen good players swallowed by the scene in recent years, that approach has a chance to render some refreshing results.

If it does, the stories and the storylines will be about what happens between the lines, instead of what's unfolding behind the scenes - and with the Sox those might be the compelling subplots of all. There's Jon Lester looking to return to form. There's Clay Buchholz's quest to build on last year's strong second half, and leap into the elite. There's Jacoby Ellsbury trying to prove his MVP-caliber 2011 campaign was more rule than exception. There's Dustin Pedroia's never-ending mission to prove people wrong.

There's Will Middlebrooks trying to take the next step. There's Joel Hanrahan trying to show he can close in the AL East. There's Andrew Bailey trying to show he can close somewhere. There's John Lackey looking for redemption. There's Napoli and Stephen Drew each playing for his next deal. There's Shane Victorino and David Ortiz each trying to earn his current one. There's Jackie Bradley Jr. attempting to forge a bridge for a new generation of Sox now just a year or two away.

Chances are all of that isn't going to happen. If it does, Boston might actually prove those naysaying prognosticators; and even if it doesn't, it should still stick around a while in a mediocre division.

Just don't go in expecting the Sox to win it.

The summer will be much more fun that way.


Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.

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