The last time the Red Sox took the field for a regular-season game, it was to end one of the most disappointing seasons of the past eight years.

In three days, the team gets back to work after an offseason that replenished a sense of optimism among Sox fans.

The Sox won the offseason, no doubt about it. Now, we’ll start to see if that means they’ll win enough regular-season games to make it back to the postseason for a seventh time in nine years.

Just about everyone is picking the Sox as the team to beat in the East, if not the entire American League. General Manager Theo Epstein made several bold moves this winter, acquiring the most sought-after positional free agent (Carl Crawford) and pulling off the biggest trade (Adrian Gonzalez) of any team since last September.

The Red Sox offense should be better than last season, but scoring runs wasn’t an issue in 2010. They scored the second-most runs in the AL even though Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Jacoby Ellsbury spent significant time on the DL. Any team would want Crawford and Gonzalez, but they come at the expense of Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez, two of the team’s best hitters in 2010.

So don’t expect a dramatic uptick in runs. You can, however, expect a big improvement in team speed. In 2010, Ryan Kalish led the Red Sox with 10 stolen bases. This year, the combination of Ellsbury and Crawford has fans thinking this could be the first time a pair of Red Sox players steal 50 bases apiece in the same season.

If the Sox are going to be better, pitching must improve. It all starts with the rotation, and Manager Terry Francona is counting on the same five pitchers as last year. Jon Lester is the opening day starter, a justified honor for someone who has become one of the most dominant pitchers in the game. He and Clay Buchholz combined for 36 wins last season. They are at the top of the rotation, but the pitchers behind them will have to bounce back from subpar years.

Josh Beckett had a dismal 2010. He won’t take the ball until next Tuesday in Cleveland and will begin the season trying to show that he can win more than six games and lower his ERA (5.78 in just 1272/3 innings in 2010). If he can’t, the Sox won’t be the dominant team we expect them to be.

It’ll be Year 2 in a Red Sox uniform for John Lackey. How you view his first season depends on which stats you look at. Critics point to his 4.40 ERA and say a big-money pitcher has to do better. Lackey points to his 14 wins and the fact that he led the team in innings pitched and quality starts, and says it wasn’t a bad year at all. Truth is, his 2010 was somewhere in the middle … and he’ll need a better 2011.

The Red Sox bullpen led the AL in losses in 2010, so Epstein added much-needed relief depth, with veterans Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler joining the mix. There are also projects such as Andrew Miller and Alfredo Aceves, who could prove valuable over the long marathon of a baseball season.

Back in February, Yankees management and players were quick to say the Red Sox were the favorites for 2011 and that New York was the underdog. Those are words we haven’t heard in a while. Boston spent a decent amount of time trying to tamp down those expectations.

Yet the expectations are there. The process of living up to them begins Friday in the Texas heat.

Tom Caron is the studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network. His column appears in the Press Herald on Tuesdays.