It is difficult to exaggerate the franchise-altering significance of the Red Sox-Dodgers trade that took place one year ago Sunday. For the Red Sox, the deal represented a crumpling of one blueprint, an opportunity for general manager Ben Cherington -- then in his first year -- to reshape an ambitious but fundamentally flawed design with a very different one in which the various components proved a more natural fit.
The mere idea -- get rid of the team's three most expensive players and shed roughly $270 million in payroll -- remains so audacious that even a year later there are those in the Red Sox organization who struggle to believe that it actually took place at all -- never mind that it did so in an August waiver period that is famous for its hindrance to deals.
"I honestly didn't think it was going to happen," said Sox chairman Tom Werner. "It was complicated. Guys had to clear waivers. I'm always a little bit sober about things. So many things that you hope for never come to pass. I couldn't have been more delighted that this was executed."
While the details of the trade and its impact have been considered in numerous ways, one way of measuring its significance has been largely overlooked: What were the alternatives? Had the Dodgers not approached the Sox at the owners' meetings with such determination to add first baseman Adrian Gonzalez that they also expressed a willingness to absorb the contracts of Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett and Nick Punto while also giving up a pair of high-ceiling prospects among a five-player package, what might have happened?
For the Sox, the alternatives were unsavory.
"It was such an anomaly, that opportunity, to do what we did," observed one team source. "The alternative to doing something like that was about 50 rungs below that on the ladder -- or not even on the same ladder in terms of the return."
What sorts of buildings might those ladders have tilted against? At a time when the Sox are preparing to take on the Dodgers in Los Angeles, in a series that will coincide with the deal's one-year anniversary, it's worth exploring that question.
STANDING PAT/REPEATING THE 2011-12 OFFSEASON
The Sox had always understood what they were getting into when they added Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez in the offseason of 2010-11. The team had made its long-term bet. There would be no real hedging on other numbers.
While there was some discomfort inherent in that position, the team felt so strongly about the talents of the players it was acquiring -- in concert with its belief in its returning core of players like Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Josh Beckett -- that it felt it was positioned for long-term success.
Once the collapse of 2011 yielded to the mediocrity of the the first few months of 2012, that belief was eroded, but not destroyed completely. At the trade deadline, the Red Sox twisted awkwardly in an ill-defined position. They were a fringe contender, 3 1/2 games back for the second wild card, armed with a 53-51 record on July 31. They had at least a shot at the playoffs -- not much of one, but a shot.
July 31 came and went without the Sox making a significant trade to change their core. August arrived, and with David Ortiz out and Will Middlebrooks lost for the year soon after, it quickly became clear that the season had been lost.
But did that mean that future seasons were lost as well? The Sox had to consider that the poor play that had started in September 2011 simply represented a nightmarish aberration.
"We looked at it objectively, and looked at, this is the performance we expect from the group, combined with the rest of the team, our payroll picture, what it would be this offseason, these commitments, stripping out 2012, these are what our needs are, with this group of players what we expect them to be in 2013," said Cherington. "We didn't look at it as a zero percent chance of [competing].
"We looked at it as, we're going to have to be creative around the margins and we're going to need a little bit of luck. And then, we're going to have to do some other things well.
"There was a chance we could have done that," added Cherington. "There was more of a concern that, at what point will there really not be a chance to be a good team if this group continues to age. You never know. It's very hard to predict. Players come back and do really well when you're not expecting them to. It may not have worked out the way we thought. We thought there was a chance that we could make a run, but long term, we thought we had a better chance [with the trade]."
Indeed, in retrospect, some in the organization shudder to think what life might have been like had they not made a payroll-stripping trade. After all, they'd already lived that unsavory existence.
The Sox payroll was already largely maxed out in the offseason that followed 2011. Yet the team had almost no room to maneuver and address needs. Hence, instead of even considering a run at Yu Darvish, the team sat by and had to seek buy-low solutions to fill out the last two spots of the rotation behind Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, signing the likes of Aaron Cook and Vicente Padilla and Carlos Silva. The creative strategy to rotation-building necessitated by payroll limitation (a squeeze that was intensified by the absence of John Lackey for the year) paid off in one sense with the emergence of Felix Doubront but had horrifying consequences in another sense with the unraveling of Daniel Bard's career.
The Sox were looking at a similar reality -- buy-low solutions and/or a need to trade away talent (Marco Scutaro) to free up payroll space for low-dollar signings (the Cody Rosses of the world) -- if they stood pat. Moreover, the team wouldn't have had the financial freedom to address fully its in-season needs. Cherington noted that a trade deadline deal like that for Jake Peavy this year simply wasn't possible given the payroll constraints that the team faced in the absence of the trade.
TRADE DEADLINE ALTERNATIVES
There was one rumor that turned a lot of heads, but there wasn't great deal of substance to it. Yes, the Red Sox and Marlins discussed the possibility of a deal that would have sent Carl Crawford to Miami in exchange for out-of-favor shortstop Hanley Ramirez, in what looked at the time like a swap of one bad contract for another.
It never got close. One source who was familiar with the talks said that the Red Sox would have swapped Crawford for Ramirez straight up, but the problem was the salary offset required by the Marlins to bridge the gap between the $37 million-plus owed to Ramirez through 2014 and the $110.5 million that the Sox owed Crawford through 2017.
Another deal had more legs. The Red Sox were in a different position than they'd been in other years. At a time when the second wild card seemed to be creating more buyers than sellers in the trade market, the Sox were one of the few teams that looked, as July 31 approached, like they might be in position to sell. That, in turn, led to different sorts of conversations with other clubs than had existed in the past.
The Sox were listening. And they found that there was some interest in right-hander Josh Beckett -- interest that they filed for later use, just in case. The Dodgers, for instance, were looking for pitching at the deadline and showed some interest in Beckett. The Sox remained mindful of that.
More interestingly, some of the conversations about Beckett as the deadline approached took on different dimensions. Most notably, according to multiple industry sources, the Rangers and Red Sox explored at some length a number of permutations. Among them were some head-turners, including a deal that featured a framework of Beckett and Jacoby Ellsbury going to Texas with the Red Sox getting left-hander Derek Holland back.
But the talks surrounding Beckett never gained enough traction, Beckett told WEEI.com's Rob Bradford, for the team to discuss the possibility of the pitcher waiving his no-trade rights.
Indeed, the Sox' position on the margins of contention led the Sox to tinker on the edges of the roster (swap right-hander Matt Albers for left-hander Craig Breslow; exchange minor leaguer Lars Anderson for minor leaguer Steven Wright) rather than have a major overhaul.
STRAIGHT-UP TALENT TRADES
The Dodgers had made known their interest in Gonzalez starting in May, when Los Angeles also engaged the Sox as one of the two most interested teams in the possibility of acquiring Kevin Youkilis. At that time, the Sox weren't interested in discussing Gonzalez.
They still thought that, at $22 million per year, Gonzalez represented a middle-of-the-order slugger whose contract was eminently reasonable given what he projected to deliver at first, particularly given the $200 million-plus deals conferred upon other first basemen like Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Joey Votto.
The Dodgers expressed their interest anew in Gonzalez as the trade deadline neared. Again, the Sox said no -- though in this case, at least, there was at least a bit more consideration to whether there might have been a match.
But if the Sox were to deal Gonzalez straight up, it would have to be the sort of 4-to-1 or 5-to-1 prospects-for-star type of deal that is increasingly rare -- and at the time, the Sox didn't feel that the Dodgers had the chips to make such a deal happen. They liked the top three pitchers in the system (Zach Lee, Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa) -- indeed, the team liked Lee the best of all three, though they had him graded only slightly better than Webster and De La Rosa -- but beyond them, the team didn't see the necessary impact to reach a deal that involved only the first baseman, particularly given the team's view that first base would be a very difficult position to fill in the offseason given the paucity of first basemen who wouldn't get qualifying offers (thus requiring a draft pick to sign them) from their clubs. (The Sox expected at that time that Mike Napoli would get a qualifying offer, thus diminishing considerably the team's interest in signing him.)
Meanwhile, to deal a player like Beckett or Crawford straight up, the Sox recognized that they'd have to eat a ton of salary while also getting no better than a modest talent return. That, in turn, would mute any impact of a deal.
The Sox thought they could deal Gonzalez straight up to other teams as well -- the Mariners come to mind as one team that was interested in the first baseman -- but even if a package of players had been worked out, the impact of moving $22 million in payroll, and, in the process, creating a giant middle-of-the-order void, represented a very narrow sort of solution.
GOOD CONTRACTS WITH BAD
That, in turn, forced the Sox to consider the possibility of using good players as vehicles for getting rid of bad contracts. The team had done so, in a sense, when talking about the possibility of packaging Ellsbury and Beckett at the trade deadline to the Rangers. Other such scenarios would have to be considered -- whether using players like Ellsbury, Gonzalez or Jon Lester to get other teams to take on a player like Beckett. (The idea of moving Crawford in such a deal seemed a bit far-fetched.)
Had the Sox moved, say, Ellsbury or Lester with Beckett, then the impact would have been twofold. There would have been some financial breathing room, though with multiple needs thus created (for a starting pitcher and starting center fielder in 2013), the team wouldn't have had a seismic change in its financial landscape. Certainly, there would be more breathing room, but in all likelihood, the team would soon once again find itself pinned against its payroll limits.
Moreover, the Sox recognized that for that somewhat limited financial flexibility, they'd also be compromising the potential return on the players being dealt by including a player like Beckett who was viewed by the industry as a bad contract. Dealing Lester straight up to another team could mean a prospect haul; dealing Lester with Beckett seemed likely to result in considerably less return.
The Sox could have also considered constructing a deal in which they sent prospects to another team in order to absorb some of their bad contracts. But the team had reached the conclusion that it was not going to deal top prospects for anything short of a massive return.
"We'd made the decision long term, we were just going to need to start holding on to [top prospects] and figuring out what they could do," said one team official. "Instead of picking the right guy, keep them all in the tub and let them decide for us. Back when we were good, that's what we did."
The Sox felt boxed in financially, yet the form that an escape from that box might take seemed either unclear or uncomfortable. The potential alternatives for a way out of their predicament largely involved compromising depth rather than adding to it. The idea of a team absorbing contracts, thus giving the Sox the financial flexibility for which they were desperate, AND giving up top prospects, seemed far-fetched -- until the Dodgers offered just such a life preserver.
WHAT WENT DOWN
The Sox stood pat at the trade deadline, but promptly lost four straight games and seven of nine to start August. On Aug. 7, the team sank below .500; it would never reach that break-even point again. Indeed, the season began to blow apart at the seams, particularly with the loss of Middlebrooks for the year on Aug. 10.
But the Sox didn't imagine that there was going to be a way forward until at least the winter. After all, the idea of clearing a massive chunk of payroll in August ... it just doesn't happen.
"Literally right until the Dodgers trade happened, we weren't expecting to be able to do much until the offseason," said Cherington. "We were mostly focused on what we could do in the offseason. We'd gathered a lot of information at the deadline, which we'd thought about -- we'd thought about if we there were ways to reconstruct things in the offseason, reconstruct talks on different things. But as the calendar turned to August, we weren't expecting to be able to do much."
But in mid-August, at the owners' meetings in Denver, Dodgers president Stan Kasten approached the Red Sox anew to see if they would have interest in dealing Gonzalez, with his team not only adding the slugger but also proving willing to absorb other contracts that were choking Boston's payroll.
The Dodgers were motivated by what seemed a perfect storm of a market, unlimited budget, superstar-driven direction, the desire to change their image and find a potential marketing face -- with Gonzalez seeming the perfect fit for everything they wanted to do, both on and off the field.
And so, the Sox had an opportunity to consider what a deal involving Gonzalez would have to look like in order for it to be palatable. In this case, the answer was a golden wrecking ball.
The Sox would need to shed the contracts of not only Gonzalez but also those of Beckett and Crawford. (Nick Punto, though a player both teams liked, wasn't going to be the deal-breaker on either side.) They would also need prospects. Once that outline was in place, getting the deal to come together actually didn't take that much time.
The Dodgers signed off on the contracts; the only question was whether all the players involved would get through waivers. Los Angeles had also consented to giving up a prospect return. LA wouldn't consider trading Zach Lee, but the Sox were comfortable with Webster and De La Rosa as the centerpieces of the deal. The team also hoped to aim a bit higher than Jerry Sands, Ivan De Jesus Jr. and James Loney as the secondary pieces of the deal, but again, given that some in the organization felt that they had virtually no leverage given the alternatives, the identity of secondary components wasn't going to stall the trade.
Internally, the Sox asked themselves if they might want to wait until the offseason to see if they could revisit talks with the Dodgers while opening it up to other clubs. But, the team felt that it didn't want to jeopardize a shot at developing a clear path forward.
"We decided that if this was something we wanted to do," said Cherington, "that we would try to do it and not risk waiting."
Aug. 25, 2012, thus became a landmark date for the Red Sox.
But the value of the trade would have been eroded -- if not wiped out entirely -- without a clear-minded strategy for what to do with the sudden arrival of financial flexibility and the deepened prospect inventory. Most significantly, Cherington wanted to make sure that the team didn't simply replicate the model that had gotten it into its August 2012 dystopia in the first place.
"The rest of the year was going to be painful, and that puts pressure on different things -- it puts pressure on business, it puts pressure on people within the organization. We wanted to avoid the reaction of filling up the hole right away where we risked going back into the same predicament," said Cherington. "We literally had a conversation at the time, where we told ourselves, 'Look, guys, if we do this deal, we think it's the absolute right thing to do. We're not giving up on 2013, we're going to work as hard as we can to be good in 2013. We want to build something long term. We believe in some of the young players that are coming up.
"But in order to try to be good in 2013, and in order to preserve the longer-term flexibility we've created, and in order to be good and sustain some level of competitiveness for a long time, we have to keep the young guys that we really care about. In order to do all those things, we're going to have to find shorter-term solutions that a) maybe won't pop off the page publicly as much as some others would, but b) we may have to be pay a little bit of a premium in the short term. We felt it was worth a premium if necessary in the short term to preserve what we were trying to do in the long term but still have a chance to be good."
Given the opportunity to pursue a new blueprint, the Sox were relentless in executing it. The team signed one free agent after another in the winter to short-term deals -- Shane Victorino to a three-year deal; Ryan Dempster, Jonny Gomes and David Ross to two-year contracts; Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew and Koji Uehara to one-year deals -- in an effort to build a contender while leaving the team's prospect inventory intact. (The only exception in that regard came in the ill-fated trade for Joel Hanrahan that led the Sox to part with All-Star Mark Melancon along with right-hander Stolmy Pimentel, Sands and De Jesus.) The contracts come off the books in staggered fashion in such a way that the team is unlikely to see its payroll choked by any of those deals at any point. Meanwhile, the players acquired have permitted the Sox to construct a team with a wealth of solid players who have helped to fuel a 2013 season in which the club has spent almost the entirety of the season in first place.
Granted, there has been slippage in recent weeks. The Sox are vulnerable in the division to the hard-charging Rays. Nonetheless, given where they were a year ago, and where they are now, and given the alternatives, it seems safe to say that the Sox have no regrets nearly one year after their landmark trade with the Dodgers.
"We thought it was a good trade then and we think it's a good trade now," said Werner. "It gave us enormous payroll flexibility. We didn't think the group of guys we had last year was going to be the right combination. In retrospect, it looks good.
"We had a couple of different scenarios we were working with," he added, "[but] I think it was very important for us to do what we did, and I still think, two hundred and something million dollars, it will go down as a historic trade."