My sense is that among the knowledgeable, statistically literate baseball pundits (exemplefied by the Rob Neyer/Baseball Prospectus crowd), the consensus is that the Sox are not a contending team. Even if they back down a little from the forecast of a 90 loss season, most of the people I respect are picking the Sox for a non-contender in the very difficult AL Central. The basic thesis is that the excellent 2006 run production is going to decline because it was based on exceptional performances by a few aging and/or injury prone hitters while the mediocre run prevention is unlikely to improve significantly.
The way I see it, we are going to need something like 94 wins to make the playoffs. Even with all the good teams in the Central, someone is going to win a bunch of games so you're not going to steal the Division with 91 wins. By the same token, the second place team in the East is going to be pretty good, so the Wild Card isn't going to sneak in with a crappy NL-type record. So make 94 wins the target. I don't have resources at my fingertips to calculate this, but I'd guess that means a run differential of at least 95 and probably more like 105. Call it 100 runs better than the enemy as a fair target for the playoffs. (And, yes, I know that that the Pythagorean predictions aren't perfect but they serve as a pretty good baseline for this purpose.)
The question is, where are you going to get those 100 runs?
As Smiling Jack Ross said in A Few Good Men, "These are the facts and they are undisputed:"
2005 741 scored (9th), 645 allowed (3rd), (96 diff.) 99-63 (91-71 Pyth.)
2006 868 scored (3rd), 794 allowed (10th), (74 diff.) 90-72 (88-74 Pyth.)
I don't see us scoring 868 runs again. It would be a pleasant shock to me if Dye/Thome/Konerko/Crede were as collectively healthy and awesome as they were in 2006. Could it happen? Sure, but that's not the safe way to bet. Plus, I don't see anyplace in the lineup where the slack is going to be made up. Is Toby Hall going to make up the difference between Dye 2006 and Dye 2007? No. Do even the most optimistic of us seen Anderson and Uribe being alot better than they were in '06? I'm afraid I don't.
So, we're scoring less and every run we don't score, we're going to have to get back on the prevention side, plus 26 more runs prevented on top of that. Can we do that? Well, we did in 2005, but we were much, much worse in 2006 (an increase of 149 runs allowed!). I can see the bullpen, rotation and defense each getting a little better, if things go right, but I don't see any single factor that is going to dramatically improve our run prevention. We didn't acquire Johan Santana. Our bullpen is going to have good and bad patches. Iguchi is not going to turn into Homer Bush. But if we get incremental improvement in all phases of run prevention, we can shave the runs down by more than we lose in runs scored.
And that's what it is going to take, in my view. So, for example, Buehrle has to pitch more like Buehrle. Masset and Haeger have to be better than Cotts and Politte. Anderson and Erstad/Podsednik have to catch the ball better and/or hit enough to stay in the lineup. If we win on enough of those kinds of bets, we can offset the likely offensive decline and contend. But that is alot of things that have to go right and anytime you're betting on a series of contingencies, you are betting against the odds.
So, what do you think? Are my assumptions flawed? Am I missing a source of likely improvement? Or do you agree with me that it is unlikely that the Sox will make the playoffs?