BOSTON (CBS) — What a difference a year makes.

Last spring, the Boston Red Sox were celebrated as a team that could perhaps be the best ever. Of ESPN’s 50 baseball experts, 33 of them picked the Sox to win the World Series. The Boston Herald ran a cover headline that screamed, “Best Team Ever!” A NESN writer declared that the “2011 Red Sox Will Challenge 1927 Yankees for Title of Greatest Team in Major League History.”

Instead of all of that, the Red Sox collapsed in September and fell short of even making the postseason. As a result, expectations have changed accordingly for 2012.

ESPN’s season preview has the Red Sox finishing third in the AL East, with Tampa Bay winning the division crown and the Yankees finishing second. Of course, under the new playoff system, such a finish could still earn the Red Sox a berth in the one-game, wild-card play-in game, so all hope is not lost.

ESPN lists a best-case scenario involving bounce-back years from Clay Buchholz and Carl Crawford, but the worst-case scenario is so bad that it’s almost comical.

“The Great Collapse of 2011 continues despite Valentine, and by season’s end, the Boston fan base is calling for tar-and-feathering, or at least a shake-up of the Pedroia-Youkilis-Ellsbury core,” says the worst-case scenario. “The countdown continues to 2017, the end of Crawford’s monster contract.”

It’s certainly hard to imagine a case much worse than that.

Sports Illustrated also offered its MLB predictions this week, and SI, too, picked the Red Sox to finish third in the division with a 91-71 record (a one-win improvement over last season’s actual record). SI has the Red Sox missing out on the playoffs, with the Yankees, Tigers and Angels winning their respective divisions, and the Rays and Rangers securing the wild-card spots.

SI selected the Angels over the Giants in the World Series, while ESPN has yet to release its expert picks.

What will it all mean in October? Absolutely nothing, as we learned last year. It is pretty clear, though, that these Red Sox are heading into a new year without any of the added pressure that weighed on them last spring.


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