It’s hard not to be giddy with anticipation right now if you’re a Boston Red Sox fan. 

Coming off a frustrating season in which the team finished 7 games back in the AL East and had to watch the playoffs on their flat-screen TVs just like the rest of us, the Red Sox went out and acquired Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, two of the most coveted players in the game, both in the early part of their prime. 

Red Sox Nation has not seen such a major retooling of the lineup since the early 2000’s, when the team added Manny Ramirez (’01) and David Ortiz (’03), and in the process established themselves as a perennial 90-plus win team and championship contender.  And this time it happened in just a matter of days instead of several years.

Sure, the Red Sox still face some minor offensive questions heading into spring training.  Will Crawford bat leadoff or third?  Where will Jacoby Ellsbury hit in the lineup?  Will Boston have some struggles against left-handed pitching, given that Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis are their only dangerous right-handed bats?

But these concerns truly are minor.  The Red Sox are going to score runs, and they’re going to score runs consistently.  They were second in all of baseball in runs scored last season, and the combination of Gonzalez, Crawford, a healthy Ellsbury, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia should at least rival the production the team received from departed free agents Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre, along with the array of outfielders that frequently found their way into the lineup last year (Bill Hall, Darnell McDonald, Ryan Kalish, Jeremy Hermida, Mike Cameron, and Daniel Nava). 

The real reason the Gonzalez and Crawford additions should be celebrated is because they set the Red Sox lineup up well for the long run. 

Both players are under 30 years old, while Martinez and Beltre are on the wrong side of 30.  Crawford brings across the board production and skills, while Martinez becomes more and more one-dimensional as he gets older and is able to catch fewer and fewer games.  Gonzalez’s production in San Diego was held back by the worst ballpark for hitters in the majors, whereas Beltre, much like in 2004, is coming off a career year as he went in search of a new contract. (Beltre surpassed 100 RBIs and a .320 batting average in both his 2004 and 2010 contract years, but has not driven in 100 runs or hit above .276 in any other season since 2001.) 

But while GM Theo Epstein did very well to acquire two major assets who should serve the team well for years, the Red Sox 2011 season will all come down to the performance of the pitching staff, and the starting rotation in particular. 

The Red Sox finished 22nd in baseball in ERA in 2010. Few saw it coming, the Sporting News’ 2010 Red Sox preview, for one. The Sporting News wondered if the Red Sox “have enough offense” and their main concern with the pitching staff was “Who will be left out of the rotation,” since Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield, and Clay Buchholz all seemed like strong options.  The Sporting News preview gave the Red Sox pitching staff an A grade–an evaluation which was the norm among baseball experts at the time.

Lester certainly held up his end of the bargain, and Buchholz developed into a dominating ace-caliber starter faster than even the most optimistic fan could have predicted.  Wakefield and Matsuzaka’s struggles should not come as too great a surprise.

The real problem was that Lackey struggled mightily in his move from the AL West to AL East, and no one anticipated that the bottom would fall out completely for Beckett.

The Red Sox also ranked near the bottom of the league (23rd) in bullpen ERA, which came as a major surprise after they finished in the top 10 in 2009.   While Daniel Bard established himself as the team’s closer of the future, Jonathan Papelbon had a sub par year, and no other reliever registered an ERA under 4.  Hideki Okajima and Ramon Ramirez, who each played key roles in the bullpen in 2009, fell off considerably. 

Papelbon should rebound heading into a contract year.  And the Sox beefed up the bullpen with their offseason acquisitions of Dan Wheeler and Bobby Jenks.  Wheeler makes for a very solid addition.  He knows what it takes to succeed in the AL East, and has done quite well in each of the last three seasons in Tampa Bay.  While Jenks’ name recognition probably rates higher than his actual value at this point, it would not be surprising for him to register a strong year pitching in middle relief rather than the pressure cooker of the ninth inning. 

In the end, despite all of Epstein’s impressive moves this winter, the Red Sox 2011 season will be largely determined by two players that were already on the team last year: Lackey and Beckett.  There are real questions about whether each is breaking down physically and can return to their former level of performance. 

If Lackey and Beckett each continue to falter, Sox fans will have to hope for many 11-9 victories this summer. But if at least one of them can turn things around, the Red Sox have to be considered a World Series favorite. 

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