So apparently there's still some thought that this team as presently constructed can compete for a division title next season. Baseball being what it is, it certainly could happen. But it simply can't happen without a great deal of luck.
First, let's clarify what's meant by luck. A typical team season will see unexpected breakouts, injuries, sudden declines, the success or failure of new pitches, etc. all spread across the 25 player team. Usually these things more or less cancel out over the long run that is a 162 game season. The end result is an approximately luck-neutral season.
I say approximately because there's actually a lot of variance around a team's talent level. Everyone remembers that year the Royals fluked their way into contention for a while. The Indians last year were such beneficiaries. It's just a part of baseball that sometimes the luck all goes your way. If you combine that with actual talent you get pure dominance. See 2005. But the thing is, if a team needs that kind of luck just to compete, it's in trouble. And that's where the team is after last season's absolute debacle.
When fans try to talk themselves into 2012, they start with pitching. The Sox have consistently churned out great pitching since Don Cooper started coaching them. Even in 2007, despite bad defense and a tough home park, our staff as a whole came through to perform admirably. Yeah, the relief corps was a tire fire, but Coop kept it from spreading to the starters. As the team exists now, that kind of downside is pretty unlikely.
With no further changes after Santos' departure, there are still plenty of veterans to anchor a solid if not dominant pen, along with some upside in Addison Reed. Meanwhile, the starting five is still in good order. Buehrle is of course a big loss, but Chris Sale is a good bet to provide most if not all of Mark's expected production. And with his stuff, it's possible he could break out and become a legitimate ace. The downside is that Zach Stewart is now the emergency fill-in rather than Sale if a major injury were to occur. Between Reed and Sale, most of the bases that are usually covered in a Sox staff will be. But it'll be a bit more flimsy than usual and not likely to be dominant.
The real problems are in the field and at the plate. Everyone knows about Rios and Dunn, of course. Even a substantial rebound from both leaves them respectively below average. Morel and Beckham are still more promise than substance and to expect either to be average isn't rational given their performance. Useful, sure. Not average. De Aza hasn't played a full season at the major league level. Predicting some kind of injury, even given Herm Schneider's wunderbarheit is fairly reasonable, as is regression. Expecting him to be average on the other hand? I would bet against. AJ is still AJ, except a year older. If you want to call him average, fine. But not Quentin. Too injury prone. Viciedo? You're wish-casting at this point.
That leaves us with Alexei and Paulie. The two legitimately above average position players on the whole roster. Does that sound like enough to carry a team to you? Keep in mind neither are legit MVP types. Paulie hits a ton, Alexei plays great defense and hits well enough. They can't make up for blatant holes at nearly every other position. Mediocre plus two still equals mediocre.
So here's the final tally: below average non-pitching. Above average but not dominant staff. Baseball is comprised of hitting, defense and pitching. Position players are responsible for 2/3 of that equation and that's exactly where the Sox are lacking. If I had to peg it right now, I'd call this version of 2012 an 82-83 wins in true talent. Moreover, the presence of Santos and/or Buehrle on this team do remarkably little to change that.
I actually talked myself up from 80-81 while writing this thing, so maybe things are a little better than I expected. But it's certainly not enough to head off the case for rebuilding. Even without Buehrle, this team costs $110M. How does it make any kind of sense to pay that much money to only sorta kinda maybe hope-and-a-prayer compete? And remember, Kenny has literally used the word "rebuilding". If he backs out now, it'll only be because he's not fielding anything other than lowball offers, which would change the math significantly. If Heyman is right that the Yankees consider one of Betances, Banuelos or Montero to be fair value for John Danks, then Kenny needn't worry. The rebuild is going just fine.