BOSTON (CBS) – As the baseball world takes a deep breath for the All-Star break, now is the perfect time to go back in time a few months and try to refresh our memories as to what was being said about the Boston Red Sox before the 2013 MLB season began.

In’s huge season preview, just four of the 44 experts called for the Red Sox to earn a wild-card berth, with the other 40 leaving the Sox out of the playoff picture entirely. ESPN’s overall season preview predicted the Red Sox to finish fifth in the AL East with the Blue Jays leading the way. On Grantland, Jonah Keri had the Red Sox finishing the season at 82-80 and in fourth place

USA Today predicted the Red Sox would finish third in the East, while Bleacher Report called for a last-place finish for Boston. Of the six experts over at Hardball Talk, zero predicted the Red Sox to finish higher than third, with four predicting fourth-place finishes and one predicting a fifth-place finish.

On this very site, WBZ’s Dan Roche and Steve Burton represented bastions of positivity calling for 90 and 89 wins, respectively, while Andy Gresh predicted 85 wins, John Wallach predicted 84 and Scott Zolak predicted 81.

Suffice it to say, at the All-Star break, most everyone in the baseball world whiffed when it came to making a prediction on the 2013 Red Sox.

Of course, it’s baseball, and a lot can change over the final two and a half months of the season. But as it stands now, the Red Sox are 58-39, owners of the best record in the American League and third-best record in all of Major League Baseball, on pace for possibly their best finish in over 30 years. They sit 2.5 games ahead of the Rays for first place in the AL East, a division against which the Red Sox have won 60.5 percent of their games.

And now, though it was once thought to be crazy to even mention the Red Sox as a fringe playoff contender, it’s now worth wondering how high expectations should be on the Red Sox for the second half of the season as well as the postseason.

Namely, are the Red Sox a World Series contender?

Such a suggestion would have gotten you laughed off talk radio stations in February, March and April, but it is – against all odds – a legitimate question in July.

The first factor working against the Red Sox is the AL East itself. The fourth-place Yankees are just six games out of first, or essentially one great week away from climbing right back into the thick of it. The Orioles, who are 5-2 against the Red Sox, are just 4.5 games out of first. It’s been the most competitive division in baseball all year, and barring a major turn of events, it should continue that way for the rest of the season. The 58-39 record for Boston is nice, but it obviously won’t mean all that much at the end of the year if two other AL East teams leapfrog the Sox in the standings in September.

So while the first half may have been unpredictable, let’s take a deeper look at everything that took place to try to forecast what the Sox will be able to maintain, what is likely to drop off a bit and what has the potential to be much better for the season’s final 65 games.

At Risk For Drop-Off

John Lackey
There’s been no more unbelievable story thus far in 2013 than the tall tale of John Lackey. Not long ago considered by many in the fan base to be everything wrong with the egocentric, lazy Red Sox, Lackey has shown a clear commitment to being a professional since missing all of last season due to Tommy John surgery. It’s paid off too, with Lackey posting a 2.78 ERA and 1.136 WHIP while striking out 8.34 batters per nine innings pitched. All those numbers are wonderful and everything, but the ERA and WHIP would represent career highs in a season, and the strikeout rate would be his second-best.

It’s outstanding that at 34 years old, Lackey’s re-commitment to pitching is paying off in a big way. However, it’s difficult to believe he can continue putting up numbers like that for the full season.

Daniel Nava
The same goes for Daniel Nava. Only a true grump would look at Nava this year and not get caught up in the great story. At 30 years old, getting regular playing time in the majors for the first time in his life, Nava’s been a borderline all-star. He’s hitting .288 with 10 homers, 52 RBIs and an .803 OPS, ranked eighth among AL outfielders in that category. Yet, he’s hitting 45 points above what his career average was heading into this year, and major league pitchers have more video available on him now than ever before. While it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility that Nava simply took a huge step in his development at age 30, it’s just as easy to believe he may not be able to maintain his role as a reliable middle-of-the–order bat for John Farrell.

Jose Iglesias
We’d all like to believe Jose Iglesias can hang around .400 all year long, but few players in the whole sport can do that. The 23-year-old shortstop has seen his batting average dive from .415 at the beginning of July to .367 at the break, a 48-point drop made possible by a .250 average in 13 games this month. Even with that, he’ll be a capable major league player, which is great news for the Red Sox. But the idea of Iglesias as a .350 hitter in a full season is back to being crazy talk.

Koji Uehara
Koji Uehara has always been an excellent reliever, and his 0.894 career WHIP is the perfect indicator of that. While it’s not fair to assume he’ll pitch worse in the second half based solely on stats, it is fair to worry about the veteran righty’s workload. The 38-year-old Uehara has already been called upon to pitch 44 times this season, a pace that would set him up for a career-high number of appearances. They’re high-leverage situations too, with more than half coming in save situations (he’s picked up eight saves and 13 holds while blowing just three saves). Uehara’s been great, and his high fives are legendary, but that kind of workload is not ideal for a reliever at that age. The Sox would be best to not lean so heavily on Uehara.

Possible Improvements

Will Middlebrooks
It wasn’t very long ago that Will Middlebrooks was pretty much the sole undeniable bright spot of the Boston Red Sox. In the miserable 2012 season, it was the glimpse of raw power flashed by the young third baseman that gave Sox fans something to look forward to in the future. That future didn’t turn out too well in 2013, with Middlebrooks batting a miserable .192 with nearly seven strikeouts (60) for every home run (9) he hit in the bigs. It was no doubt a major step backward, and he’s been toiling away in the minors as guys like Jonathan Diaz, Brandon Snyder and Brock Holt have gotten their chances in the majors.

But all is not lost for Middlebrooks, and it’s not unfathomable to see the 24-year-old refocus in Pawtucket and become a contributor for the big club down the stretch. He was the real deal in 2012, and there’s hope still he can rediscover that stroke in 2013.

The one major area of weakness for Boston is the bullpen, which ranks 11th in ERA and has blown the third-most saves in the AL. Andrew Miller’s done for the year, but he is far from irreplaceable, and the team is no doubt targeting bullpen help before the trade deadline. Matt Thornton was a good start, but Ben Cherington likely isn’t done. With additions, the only way for the bullpen to go is up.

Jon Lester
At this point, does anyone really know what Jon Lester is? I guess, if you’re basing your judgment on results, he is a very average pitcher. He has an 8-6 record and 4.58 ERA, he’s allowed five or more runs six times this year and he averages fewer than 6.1 IP per start. However, anyone who’s seen what Lester is capable of knows that this is not it. The idea heading into the season was that Farrell was the perfect manager to step in and get Lester back on track. So far, the two haven’t gotten Lester back to his 2008-11 form, when Lester went 65-32 with a 3.33 ERA while establishing himself as a dominant lefty in the league. While he still may be a long way from regaining that title, he is healthy and he is the type of guy who’s willing to put in the work. It doesn’t take too much imagination to picture the 29-year-old putting it all together.

Capable Of Maintaining

Jacoby Ellsbury  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Jacoby Ellsbury (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The Offense
There’s no denying the potency of the Red Sox offense, and while a couple of aforementioned players might not be able to maintain their current pace, the offense as a whole should be just fine. David Ortiz has defined consistency and reliability, with a 1.008 OPS, 19 homers, 65 RBIs and no signs of slowing down. Dustin Pedroia’s been right there with a solid season (.316 average, .832 OPS), and Jacoby Ellsbury hit .360 in June and has hit .370 thus far in July to get his season average over .300. Shane Victorino looks to be back to his normal self after a down year, Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s making the strides at the plate you’d expect out of a hitter entering his prime, Mike Napoli’s been keeping busy between strikeouts by smashing big hits, and Jonny Gomes has made a case for the idea that there is such a thing as clutch hitting.

Individually, there will be ups and downs. But the Red Sox lead the league in runs scored and rank second in average, and that’s unlikely to change too much.

The Rotation
Remember Clay Buchholz? He’s the guy who went 9-0 with a miniscule 1.71 ERA in his first 12 starts before soreness then a possible strain and then bursitis kept him sidelined for more than a month. He will, theoretically, return to the rotation around the beginning of August, and will, theoretically, provide a major boost. Even without Buchholz for the past month, the Sox have maintained a starters’ ERA that ranks second in the AL behind Detroit’s. The Red Sox have gotten the third-highest innings total out of their starters, and they have the third-lowest opponents’ batting average. It’s been a point of strength for the team, and with five men accounting for 86 percent of the team’s 97 starts, it’s the type of consistency that most teams strive for.

In April, most of us wrote it off as some sort of aberration, but the winning never really stopped for the Red Sox. They’re not overly dependent on any one type of game — for example, they’re 13-9 in one-run games, 5-4 in extra innings and 20-10 in games decided by five or more runs. They are a much better team at home (.660 winning percentage compared to .540 on the road) but they have more home games (34) than road games (31) left on the schedule.

They also haven’t ridden one extraordinarily hot month to their record. Their 18-8 April was a good bit better than their overall clip, but it’s not as if they haven’t sustained their success. After a .500 May, they were six games over .500 in June and are 8-5 in July. They’ve really only slipped for one sustained stretch this season, a 2-9 period in early May that was quickly wiped out with a 10-3 run.

Winning is never easy, and it’s never guaranteed (see: Red Sox, 2011). But this year’s Red Sox team has made winning baseball games its top priority, and they’ve spent the full season pacing the league in the category that matters most. It’s impossible to say with any level of authority that the season will definitely end with the Red Sox in first place, but if they simply keep doing what they’re doing, they’re sure to finish a whole lot better than pretty much anyone could have predicted in March.

Read more from Michael Hurley by clicking here, or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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