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02/23/10 3:40 PM EST

Bauman: Run production a question mark

Upgraded rotation, defense will help Red Sox challenge Yanks

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- In two of baseball's three basic categories, the Red Sox have made clear and substantial improvements. That's a solid winter's work, but now, will .667 get it done against the incumbent champions?

The Red Sox had an offseason focus on improving their "run prevention." That seems to have worked. Their continuing questions may be in the "run production" portion of the game.

Boston won a commendable 95 games last year. Only two teams won more. Unfortunately for the Sox, one of those teams was in the immediate neighborhood. The Yankees were baseball's best in the regular season (with 103 victories) and baseball's best in October and November, as well.

The Red Sox, who had not had to put up with a Yankees World Series championship in nine years, were back in offseason pursuit mode. Boston helped itself notably in two areas, the run-prevention areas, generally known to us civilians as pitching and defense.

Pitching? The Red Sox added a bulldog of a starter, free agent John Lackey. He's been with a winner, knows what it takes, won a World Series Game 7 when he was just a kid, the pressure of pitching in Boston will motivate him a lot more than it will bother him. The rotation should also be better with Daisuke Matsuzaka returning to full health. With the formidable pair of Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, this group has quality and quantity, so much quantity, in fact, that the venerable Tim Wakefield may be battling to retain a spot in the rotation.

The bullpen was already a source of strength and it should not be less so. Takashi Saito has departed, along with Billy Wagner, who provided late-season help. But closer Jonathan Papelbon remains one of the best in the business and has a hard-throwing cast on hand with him. Getting Manny Delcarmen back in top form would be extremely helpful.

Defensively, the Red Sox made definite upgrades. In the outfield, left fielder Jason Bay is gone. The speedy Jacoby Ellsbury will move over from center and Mike Cameron will take over for Ellsbury. Essentially, it's Cameron for Bay, who had been an average defender at best. Cameron was a Gold Glover, and if at 37, he does not have all of his previous range, he will still make Boston's outfield better overall.

At third base last season, Mike Lowell lost range after hip surgery. The Red Sox attempted to trade him to the Rangers, but the deal was negated when it was discovered that Lowell needed right thumb surgery. If Lowell proves this spring that he is once again healthy, the veteran is likely to be traded.

Lowell, who has been a positive presence, tangibly and intangibly, in every facet of the game for the Red Sox, spoke with the media Tuesday and suggested that his situation required no sympathy and that he sees himself as "tremendously privileged." Lowell continues to be a consummate class act.

Now at third base, the Red Sox get Adrian Beltre, also a Gold Glove-caliber defender. Again, from last year to this year, defensive improvement has been made.

At shortstop, Marco Scutaro will step in and be steady rather than spectacular. But steady will be much better than what the Red Sox got last season from Julio Lugo and/or Nick Green.

Scutaro, 34, a relatively late bloomer, had a .379 on-base percentage last year. He may be one of those players whose level gets better as his surroundings improve. He spent recent seasons with the Blue Jays contemplating how difficult it was to get to the top of the American League East with both the Yankees and the Red Sox in the way.

"Now I'm here with one of them and it's going to be fun," Scutaro said Tuesday.

Atypically for a Red Sox club, the questions with this group come regarding the offense. Boston is fine in the first four spots in the order, with Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Victor Martinez and Kevin Youkilis. This is not the most powerful top four in franchise history, but it will generate runs. Scutaro, who could be a top-of-the-order hitter, might make an ideal No. 9 in this group.

"He has the ability to hit at the top or the bottom [of the lineup]," manager Terry Francona said.

J.D. Drew has not fulfilled his run-production potential on a regular basis, but as an on-base guy, he fits the Red Sox's mold. On the plus side offensively, Boston will be helped by having Martinez available for the entire season.

Now, which David Ortiz do you wish to believe: The singular slugger and dynamic clutch hitter from 2003-07 or the man who hit one home run in the first two months of the '09 season? There is no doubt that Ortiz bounced back in the second half and the Red Sox have to take a measure of encouragement in that.

Cameron for Bay in the lineup is a net loss. Both strike out frequently, but Bay pays off with a significantly higher on-base percentage -- .376 lifetime to .340 -- and a markedly higher slugging percentage -- .519 to .448.

Beltre for Lowell at third base would be, considering the two careers, a slight offensive decrease. But if you believe that Beltre's 2009 is also his future, then it's a major decrease. Bothered by injuries, Beltre's production dropped dramatically last season. But he is only 30 and does not have to be in an inevitable slide.

With the first full-squad workouts of the spring on Wednesday, Boston begins in earnest its renewed pursuit of a championship, which now translates directly into attempting to overtake New York. The 2010 Red Sox should be better at run prevention than they were last season, and this strength makes them no worse than a Wild Card team.

The bigger variable could be the run production. A series of questions will all have to be answered "yes" for the Red Sox to push the Yankees off baseball's peak.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.