11/7/13: Play Guitar Under the Mango Tree

Photo by Rameshng, via Wikimedia Commons.

The August 2012 trade of Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez to the Los Angeles Dodgers was GM Ben Cherington’s formal announcement to MLB that the Red Sox were his team.

Not the owners’.

Not departed GM Theo Epstein’s.

His.

The swap was a singular moment of hope in a deflating 93-loss campaign under the quixotic Bobby Valentine, a sinking ship floating three bloated contracts (one of them conveniently belonging to a bloated starting pitcher) down the river to LA.

The new GM’s offseason work stood in stark contrast to Epstein’s approach during the second half of his tenure, as Cherington eschewed the big splash and made a number of middle-of-the-road deals for veterans Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, Jonny Gomes and Koji Uehara, among others. While none of the vets got big dollars, the Red Sox’ buying power allowed Cherington to address a number of holes at once.

Some of the moves didn’t pan out. Cherington probably overpaid for Ryan Dempster, an aging starter with no American League track record who spent most of the postseason stationed near the now-famous bullpen cop. Other bullpen moves reflected the notoriously fickle nature of such a construction project. Anointed closer Joel Hanrahan got hurt almost immediately, following in the footsteps of holdover Andrew Bailey, who again spent much of the summer with a familiar red cross next to his name.

But, for the most part, the new teammates exceeded expectations beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. The emergence of Uehara cured all bullpen woes. The offense was both thunderous and clutch. The defense was stellar. Cherington’s acquisitions patched a damaged competitive foundation that allowed the Red Sox to once again stand atop the American League and ultimately deliver a World Series trophy.

Epstein’s fingerprints are also visible on that World Series trophy, its silvery luster reflecting the team’s biggest stars: Ortiz, Pedroia, Lester, Ellsbury, Lackey and Buchholz. These were the same guys you hated last year, the same guys who choked away the division in 2011. All, save for Pedroia, under performed or were unable to play out the string under Valentine.

Winning is a good reason to forgive. Health helps. A levelheaded manager like John Farrell helps. One might say a duck could’ve managed the Sox better than Valentine; the managerial position in baseball is often discredited as the least demanding in professional sports. But Farrell’s positive impact was truly beyond measure. There’s a reason why you hated these guys in 2012 and cheered for them in 2013. The team wanted to win for Farrell. In turn, he balanced established stars with incoming talent and utilized the entire roster when he had to.

Daniel Nava was one of those players, among a trio of Pawtucket outfielders (the others Josh Reddick and Ryan Kalish) unable to crack the starting lineup in previous seasons, buried behind the likes of Crawford and J.D. Drew. The 30-year old responded with the best season of his career. Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s ascent over the past two seasons has been refreshing for an organization that held onto Jason Varitek far past his expiration date. Farrell utilized backup catcher David Ross, entrusted Craig Breslow with a late inning role, and got young, capable players meaningful at-bats.

Setting aside “Boston Strong,” as hard as that has been for many journalists, the 2013 World Series champion Red Sox were the ultimate team. The 25 men in the clubhouse took personal responsibility for their performance. For the first time in recent memory, the big guys lived up to their contracts. The role players exceeded expectations. New heroes emerged. A little bit of luck didn’t hurt. The combination of these elements allowed the offense to succeed despite apparent holes, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat on numerous occasions.

And look at the pitching staff: the starters were considered outmatched by their counterparts in each round of the playoffs, yet they kept churning out quality starts, setting the stage for clutch hits in the late innings. Their 38-year old closer, relying on placement, not heat, had one of the best seasons by a reliever since Dennis Eckersley in his prime. While the planets truly aligned for this team, the manager and talent should be credited for producing where recent Sox teams have fallen short.

Cherington’s off season decisions are numerous. Do you sell high on guys? Do you relent to sentiment and offer contracts to popular veterans, or let them walk? Are young players like Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Xander Bogaerts deserving of starting roles on a defending champion? Who will the new teammates be next year? There’s plenty of time for those discussions, but for now, this Red Sox team is remembered as one that got the job done. The result is one of the more refreshing turnarounds in recent baseball history.

This post was originally published to The Fox Hole on WordPress, November 7, 2013.