Here we are, on the eve of another Red Sox season. Tomorrow at 5:15 pm, Pedro Martinez will take the mound at Tropicana Field in Tampa, Fla., and begin mowing down the Devil Rays.

As he does, it’s time to stop and take stock in the 2003 edition of the Olde Towne Team.

One year ago, I predicted the Sox would be a better team, in large part because Derek Lowe would have a great year as a starter. Lowe won 21 games, but that wasn’t enough to get the Sox to the playoffs.

Will they make it this year? Have they improved? Will Pedro spend the summer sulking because management hasn’t picked up the option year of his contract yet?

Yes, yes, and no.

The Sox are a strong playoff contender for several reasons. First and foremost, they should have an improved offense. Tomorrow’s lineup should feature Shea Hillenbrand — an All-Star in 2002 primarily because of his bat — batting sixth. Todd Walker, batting in the two-hole behind Johnny Damon, will be a vast improvement over the bat of Rey Sanchez. Yes, Sanchez surprised everyone by hitting better than .300 through the first two months of last season, but that was with Grady Little shielding him in the ninth spot of the order. Walker will hit better — and with more power — than Sanchez, and he’ll do it near the top of the order where offense can create more production.

After the meat of the order, Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez, Kevin Millar should see a great deal of time as the No. 5 hitter. He’s disciplined at the plate and should hit with enough power to fill the void left by late-season acquisition (and off-season defector) Cliff Floyd. Hillenbrand comes next, followed by the designated hitter du jour, Jason Varitek, and Trot Nixon.

Bill Mueller — a solid defensive third baseman with a swing made for Fenway — will take over late-game third base duties for Hillenbrand, who will probably finish a lot of games at first base. Jason Giambi, a good hitter against lefties, will play some left field against southpaws, with Ramirez moving to right. And David Ortiz will see time at first and DH.

Besides the offense, the bullpen is better. The relief corps never recovered from the collapse of Rich Garces last season. This year, newcomers Ramiro Mendoza, Chad Fox and Mike Timlin should solidify things. Bobby Howry, picked up mid-season from Chicago in 2002, should be ready for a solid season in Boston, and Alan Embree is a quality lefty who throws heat.

The “bullpen by committee” plan embraced by the Sox has been widely criticized this winter, but makes some sense in theory. If Fox can regain his pre-injury form, he has the best chance to emerge as the closer.

Certainly there are question marks. There are too many players platooning at too many positions, an eerie reminder of the final days of Jimy Williams. But that trend often takes care of itself with the inevitable barrage of early-season hamstring pulls. Last year, the team’s lack of quality bodies hurt the Sox after injuries to Sanchez, Ramirez and Carlos Baerga. This year’s team should have more depth.

As always, the Yankees pose a problem. Clubhouse chemistry in Gotham may be a question, but there’s no denying the talent George Steinbrenner has assembled. They are once again the team to beat, and the Sox have 19 shots to do just that during the regular season.

More importantly, they have a chance to beat up on Tampa Bay, Baltimore, Toronto and Kansas City early in the season, as 26 of their first 35 games are against those four teams. They should be able to jump out to a great start.

Of course, last year’s team was a painful reminder that finishing strongly is more important than starting strongly. With better depth and relief pitching, the Sox should be able to handle the next six months better than the 2002 edition.

Lewiston native Tom Caron is studio host of Red Sox telecasts on NESN.

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