It has been an offseason in which the pendulum swung in dramatic fashion.
The Red Sox were left with an empty feeling at the end of the 2010 season. A once-promising club with grand postseason ambitions instead was left to disperse on the final day of the regular season. October baseball never made it to Fenway.
The start of the offseason engendered skepticism from the fan base. The Red Sox owners – in the form of the Fenway Sports Group – invested hundreds of millions of dollars in purchasing the Liverpool Football Club. A press release announcing that the soccer team would not divert resources from the Red Sox initially proved unconvincing, particularly when the Red Sox let catcher Victor Martinez depart via free agency – with a feeling that third baseman Adrian Beltre was not far behind.
As much as perhaps any time since the current Red Sox ownership group – now entering its 10th season in Boston – had purchased the club, there were questions about the direction in which the team was heading.
And then Adrian Gonzalez happened. And then, in the same week, Carl Crawford happened. And suddenly, the skepticism about the Red Sox’ commitment to winning in 2011 and beyond evaporated.
“We made this investment [in Liverpool] as a way to diversify. We felt it made FSG healthier, stronger. It would allow us to weather a rough sea from time to time,” suggested Red Sox chairman Tom Werner. “It was ironic, because when we acquired Liverpool, I think there was a lot of concern in New England that in some way we were going to be diverting resources for players for the Red Sox.
“Then after the two acquisitions we made to stock our player roster, those kind of comments were less in Boston but more in Liverpool. People in Liverpool were saying, 'Well now that you've spent tens of millions on players in Boston, now what about us?'”
No one was asking that question at a Red Sox Town Hall meeting in WGBH’s Calderwood Studio on Monday night. Instead, it was an evening in which the Sox were in position to reflect on a wildly effective offseason that saw them add two players in Crawford and Gonzalez whom GM Theo Epstein referred to as being among the best in the game, and also saw the team overhaul a bullpen that represented a glaring weakness.
The team does not pretend that a bunch of premier winter acquisitions can guarantee anything once the season begins. CEO Larry Lucchino said that the Sox were able to claim some short-lived “hormonal satisfaction” from their effective winter, even as he noted that such a sentiment would mean nothing once the 2011 regular season begins.
Even so, Epstein – typically inclined to temper expectations – could not hide his satisfaction with the winter when asked how close this offseason came to the fulfillment of “Plan A” for the Sox.
“This was pretty darn close. It worked out well. We had some unique challenges. We were looking to get better. At the same time, two of our better players (Martinez and Beltre) were hitting free agency,” said Epstein. “We had to find a way to either retain those guys and still get better, or maybe get a little bit younger and even more dynamic if possible.
“Being able to acquire two of the best players in the game who are both getting ready to enter their age 29 season I think was a good way to replace those guys -- as good as they were for us, and we wish them the best going forward -- to replace those guys and at least get younger and more dynamic as an organization.”
In the coming year, the Sox will be as close as they’ve been in years to the Yankees’ payroll stratosphere. The magnitude of the commitments they have made – presuming that Adrian Gonzalez agrees to an extension with the club, an outcome that is viewed as a foregone conclusion, the Sox will have invested more than $300 million in the players acquired this winter – is staggering.
In contrast to the belief that the Sox owners might be ready to pull back from the club, the robust investment offered a reminder that the organization – while not exhibiting the caprice of the George Steinbrenner-era Yankees – does not take losing particularly lightly.
The devastating loss in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS led the Sox to add a new manager (Terry Francona), ace (Curt Schilling) and closer (Keith Foulke) who proved pivotal in the 2004 World Series. When the team missed the playoffs in 2006, they spent liberally to acquire Daisuke Matsuzaka, J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo, all of whom offered important October contributions en route to the 2007 World Series.
And now, the team has reacted to missing the postseason for the second time in eight years with another injection of talent.
“It just makes us hungrier. We've been in the postseason six out of the last eight years, and we want to be playing baseball in October, not watching it,” said Werner. “So we're pumped about this season. We think we've got a terrific squad.”
In part, the ownership group is mindful of its legacy.
“Somehow, doing it another time is kind of essential to the successful stewardship of our time,” said Lucchino.
Whether or not the Red Sox achieve that standard of success remains an open question. But it is clear that their commitment to strive for such ambitious goals will not come under scrutiny again any time soon.
A Healthy Outlook?
The truth is that no one will be certain what to make of the Red Sox who are recovering from injuries until they are seen on the field. That is one of the reasons why the team wanted to hold off on a contract extension for Gonzalez (shoulder labrum surgery) until seeing him in a game; that is one of the reasons why other teams’ interest in Mike Cameron (abdominal surgery) remained tepid this offseason; that is part of the reason why Dustin Pedroia continues to experience anxiety.
That said, Epstein suggested that all medical indicators for last year’s injured Sox players are promising.
"The health right now is good. What's important to us is that the health is good throughout the course of the season,” he said. “Right now, all the injured players are on schedule or ahead of schedule to be back and to be performing without limitation during the course of the season.”
Epstein said that the discomfort that Pedroia has felt in his foot this offseason was the byproduct of inactivity rather than the surgical procedure to insert a pin in his fractured appendage.
As for Gonzalez, Epstein said that he is recovering so well that the first baseman will visit with the surgeon who repaired his shoulder with the possibility of moving up his timetable for swinging and playing in games.
Trying to Please Ortiz (and other Veterans)
Francona was firm in his response when asked if Josh Beckett – coming off a 6-6 season and 5.78 ERA – needed to reinvent himself as a pitcher.
“No. I think he tried to last year a little bit,” said Francona. “I think he had time to sit when he was hurt, and he was watching [Jon] Lester and [Clay] Buchholz throwing those cutters. All of a sudden, he started doing that. He'd throw one good one, then he'd throw three bad ones. But that happens. They're human. That's a part of what makes the game interesting.”
David Ortiz has struggled significantly against lefties in recent years, and manager Terry Francona knows it. Even so, the Sox manager said that he believes it’s important to continue to play his DH against southpaws, feeling that it contributes to his effectiveness against right-handed pitchers.
Eying the Future
Asked to identify the organization’s top prospects, Epstein cited outfielder Ryan Kalish, who he said likely needed at least a half-year in Pawtucket to complete his development, shortstop Jose Iglesias and starting pitching prospects Stolmy Pimentel, Anthony Ranaudo and Drake Britton.
Werner said that he is “very confident” that Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association will be able to work out a new Collective Bargaining Agreement amicably. The CBA is set to expire following the 2011 season, but unlike the NFL and NBA, there has been little to no talk of a potentially crippling strike between players and owners.
About the Rivals
Less than a week after Yankees GM Brian Cashman proclaimed the Red Sox the favorites in the AL East based on their rotation advantage, Sox officials edged away from that piece of flattery.
“Reverse psychology?” mused Werner.
“They're always the favorites. C'mon. They're the New York Yankees. They're in the biggest market in the world,” added Lucchino. “We're happy to be those guys that they worry about looking over their shoulder. If it were anybody but Cashman, I might say there's plenty of gamesmanship. In this case, he was saying something I hope he believes. I hope he has some respect for us. We have plenty of it for them.”
Epstein, meanwhile, suggested that the Rays are still viewed very much as competitors in the AL East. Tampa Bay will announce the signings of Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon on Tuesday, but it is more than just those moves that have convinced the Sox that the Rays will remain relevant in the coming year.
“The demise of the Rays has been greatly exaggerated. Even before those moves, we never erased them at all from our radar,” said Epstein. “They’re uniquely positioned to lose some really good players and stay and keep their status as one of the best teams in baseball given the strength of their farm system. They lose [Matt] Garza, they have [Jeremy] Hellickson ready to step in. They lose Crawford, they have [Desmond] Jennings and [Matt] Joyce ready to step in. They’re going to be really tough.”