Why the Red Sox will win 96 games

Jon Lester will headline a Boston rotation that will be expected to improve from 2011. J. Meric/Getty Images

Let's do some position-by-position analysis for the Boston Red Sox. They won 90 games a year ago. I went through all the numbers and can't come up with a solid reason why they won't win more games in 2012.

Catcher: Jarrod Saltalamacchia

Saltalamacchia and the now retired Jason Varitek provided a mixed bag of offense in 2011. Red Sox catchers tied with the Braves for the major league lead with 29 home runs and with the Diamondbacks with 96 RBIs. On the other hand, they ranked 24th in OBP. You'd like to see improvement in the on-base category from Salty and new backup Kelly Shoppach, and that's actually a decent possibility as the two can be used as a strict platoon from their best sides (Salty versus right-handers, Shoppach versus left-handers). I can see the duo producing close to 30 home runs again but with a slightly better OBP. Plus five runs.

First base: Adrian Gonzalez

Gonzalez created about 129 runs a year ago -- seventh-most in the league -- and did so despite a sore shoulder that didn't allow him to fully power through the ball (he had surgery after the 2010 season). It's hard to imagine him improving on a .338/.410/.548 line, but he did hit 27 home runs after averaging 36 for the Padres from 2008 through 2010. I can see any power increase offset by a drop in batting average. No change.

Second base: Dustin Pedroia

Pedroia is about as consistent as they come: His wOBA the past four seasons: .382, .360, .377, .377. More of the same.

Third base: Kevin Youkilis

Now 33, Youkilis has battled injuries the past two seasons, including a lower back strain and hip issues that led to two DL stints, 42 games missed and a .258 average in 2011. While he's in that permanent "red flag" category, he does appear to be in better shape (for now) and I'll predict a small spike. Let's go plus eight runs.

Shortstop: Mike Aviles

Red Sox shortstops -- mostly Marco Scutaro and Jed Lowrie -- combined for a .279/.330/.401 line, decent production for the position (10th in the majors in OPS). Aviles should get the bulk of the playing time there with Nick Punto filling in. Aviles has been up and down in his career, playing well in 2008 and 2010, but hitting .255/.289/.409 in 2011 between the Royals and Red Sox. ZiPS forecasts a .301 OBP from Aviles, which means a drop in production. Minus 10 runs.

Left field: Carl Crawford

Crawford will miss the start of the season after wrist surgery. There are two ways to look at this: Crawford has to hit better than the .255/.289/.405 slash marks from a year ago; on the other hand, wrist surgery sometimes take a full year to fully recover from. Red Sox left fielders created about 81 runs a year ago. Crawford was over 100 in his best years with Tampa Bay. Let's split the difference and go plus-10 runs.

Center field: Jacoby Ellsbury

The most impressive aspect of Ellsbury's power surge? He actually had a 34-game homeless streak from April through late May. Certainly, some regression would be expected. Projections range from a drop of 20 to 30 runs, prorated over the 732 plate appearances he got a year ago. So there are two issues here: How much decline and how much will he play? (He led the AL in PAs.) Let's go assume good health but still go minus-25 runs.

Right field: Cody Ross/Ryan Sweeney

Boston right fielders were terrible in 2011: .233/.299/.353, about 62 runs created. Ross and Sweeney won't bring back memories of Dwight Evans, but they should do better than 62 runs created. Let's add 13 runs.

Designated hitter: David Ortiz

Now 36, projections systems foresee decline from Ortiz after his big 2011 that included a .309 average (his best since 2007) and 29 home runs. Let's say nine runs worse.

Overall, it's a similar projection of runs scored, just coming in different areas -- 14 fewer runs.

Now to the pitching. We'll begin by breaking down the 2011 rotation into five groups of starters and their average runs allowed per nine innings.

And now to 2012, using projected numbers ...

Last year's rotation pitched 940 innings and allowed 469 runs. Not only was the back of the rotation terrible, but it meant Red Sox starters threw the second-fewest innings in the AL. The five guys listed above give us 138 starts, 824 innings and 367 runs allowed. As you can see, projection systems predict some decline for Beckett off last year's 2.89 -- but remember, that was not only a career-low but it came a season after a a 5.78 ERA. Bard is a wild-card but based on his numbers as a reliever projects as a decent starter. We'll fill out the rotation with the 24 missing starts and project an average of 5.5 innings per start and 5.4 runs allowed per nine innings.

This gives us:

2011: 940 innings, 516 runs allowed

2012: 956 innings, 446 runs allowed

The Boston bullpen was pretty good in 2011, ranking fourth in the AL in ERA (3.67) and allowing 3.9 runs per nine over 517.1 innings. But the club has lost Jonathan Papelbon (2.94 ERA), Bard (3.33 ERA) is in the rotation and Alfredo Aceves (93 innings, 2.03 ERA in relief) will be hard-pressed to match his 2011 numbers. Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon join Aceves at the back of the pen with Franklin Morales likely serving as the top lefty. Overall, I'm going to project a slight decline, mostly due to Aceves' regression. We'll give the pen 501 innings and 4.2 runs per nine -- 234 runs allowed.

Overall, that gives the Red Sox 680 runs allowed to go with 861 runs scored.

That projects to a .606 winning percentage ... or 98 wins. Optimistic? Maybe so. OK, let's say we were way too bullish on Bard and give him 5.0 runs allowed per nine innings -- a full run higher. That's an additional 17 runs overall, which knocks down the win total to 96 wins. Maybe you think Buchholz won't stay healthy; OK, knock off a couple more wins.

Still too optimistic? Two things to keep in mind: (1) Boston's runs scored/runs allowed totals from a year ago project to 94 wins; (2) that was in spite of that ghastly back end of the rotation. The fourth and fifth spots will absolutely be an improvement over what Lackey and Wakefield and others gave Boston a year ago. Yes, there are some wild-cards here, but it seems too many people are focusing on the negatives and ignoring that this team still has a great offense and a potentially good rotation.

Assuming good health from Lester, Beckett and Buchholz, I believe the Red Sox are the team to beat in the AL East.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.