Without the scorched earth of Bobby Valentine and 2012, the revitalization of the Red Sox in 2013 may not have been possible.
That fascinating, counterintuitive premise has loomed on the margins of the Red Sox' magic carpet ride through 2013, but it came to the foreground again this week, when the Cubs fired manager Dale Sveum after two seasons on the job.
Sveum, of course, emerged as the early frontrunner in the Red Sox' managerial search following the dismissal of Terry Francona after the 2011 season. Once it became clear that the Blue Jays would not permit the Sox to explore a fit with John Farrell, Sveum became the leading candidate for the position, someone who the baseball operations department thought could emerge, despite his limited prior managerial experience, as one of the game's next great managers.
When Sveum sat down with team owners in Milwaukee during the 2011 GM meetings, however, there was a moment of hesitation. The owners felt that it made sense to explore candidates with more experience, and the baseball operations department (led by GM Ben Cherington) agreed, permitting the Cubs to jump into the fray and hire Sveum. In turn, the groundwork was laid for the hiring -- and subsequent season-long, slow-motion train wreck -- of Valentine.
Managerial performances typically are circumstantial. Terry Francona was an idiot in Philadelphia, a genius (for a time) in Boston, a failure (for a time) in Boston and now a culture-changer in Cleveland. Farrell, likewise, was a bull's-eye for criticism in Toronto but has been a perfect fit in Boston. That being the case, there's a danger in trying to imagine what Sveum would have been in Boston.
Perhaps, as was the case in his role as interim manager of the 2008 Brewers, he would have represented a strong balance of discipline and focus to create a winning atmosphere. Or, perhaps even with a very different roster and very different expectations, he would have had the same challenges with creating and maintaining a winning clubhouse culture that he experienced with the Cubs, where 100-loss seasons were expected over his two-year tenure.
Given that reality, it's difficult if not impossible to guess what the outcome might have been had Sveum or, for that matter, Gene Lamont (the eventual runner-up to Valentine) been hired.
But two things are known. First, the Sox always envisioned Farrell as the ideal candidate for their job, and so if Sveum or Lamont had been hired but hadn't enjoyed considerable success, there was the potential for a very awkward situation in Boston at some point regardless of whom the Red Sox hired after 2011. Secondly, Valentine stewarded a team that went off a cliff in a 69-93 campaign, and there was a sense that the constant controversies and conflict that permeated his tenure hurt player performance.
So, what would have happened if, under another manager, the Red Sox had performed to something closer to their talent level in 2012? What if they had been neither a playoff team nor terrible, a team that reached a wins total in the 80s, maybe even remained in contention for the second wild card but didn't bottom out?
There's a very good chance that, had the Sox not failed so spectacularly, they wouldn't have been able to blow up the team. After all, they'd rebuffed the Dodgers' trade inquiries about Adrian Gonzalez as recently as the July 31 trade deadline; ditto the Rangers' conversations about a deal involving Josh Beckett and Jacoby Ellsbury.
Market demands are real. The Sox likely could not have taken a team that was a fringe contender, or even just mediocre, and executed the fundamental reshaping that occurred with the trade that sent Beckett, Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto to the Dodgers.
The team may well have remained caught in the same roster straightjacket -- an inflexible payroll with talented players, albeit several of whom were in stages of decline in the middle of long-term contracts -- in which they found themselves during the 2012 season.
But because the Sox bottomed out, with Valentine steering the team in its most drastic downward spiral since at least 2001, the idea of taking a wrecking ball to the roster -- typically unfathomable -- forced the Sox to acknowledge that the emperor had no clothes.
They could make the blockbuster with the Dodgers and use the liberated funds to create a new business model, signing a core of solid players (rather than big-name options) to short-term deals while buying more time for their prospects to develop. They could fire Valentine and get the manager they wanted in Farrell. They could build a culture of collaboration, in which ownership and the front office, the manager and coaches and players, seemed more united than had been the case in years.
"Maybe the fairest thing to say would be that the 2012 season kind of expedited this process," suggested reliever Craig Breslow. "Maybe it was here and it was going to play out, but maybe it would have played out over two, three, four years, instead of playing out over one day in August and we kind of wiped the slate clean and pressed reset.
"If we finished two games out, we probably don't make the huge blockbuster deal. We probably don't have the payroll flexibility to go out and sign some of these guys. And we also don't have the roster flexibility and those positions to fill. I don't know where that puts us this year."
So, was the Bobby Valentine Experience necessary for the Red Sox to become a good, playoff-caliber team once again?
"The obvious answer is yes because in order to get to this exact team, we had to make whatever trades," said reliever Andrew Miller. "[But] that's overly simplifying it. I think there are a lot of guys in here who maybe learned from last year. Maybe that experience drove them a little bit more in the offseason.
"It would be foolish to discredit that experience for whatever reason, for good or bad, whether somebody got better because of something that happened last year, whether somebody got mad or fired up, whatever it is. Whatever we took away from that apparently helped us out this year because we're certainly a better team," added Miller. "It would be hard to argue the other end, that we're still feeling the negative effects from having a rough year last year and it held us back. We won our division and we're in pretty good shape entering the playoffs right now. All you can do is look at it as a positive. Things didn't go the way that I, personally, or other guys wanted them to at the time. Hopefully it helped make us who we are right now at this time right now."
Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia noted that the answer is not black and white. After all, he suggested, the 2011 Red Sox were the best team in baseball over a five-month span, so it would be a mistake to dismiss the talent of the core that existed (even when it underperformed in 2012).
"You never know, obviously," Saltalamacchia noted about the revisionist exercise. "All I know is that we're at where we're at right now, and that's all that matters."
"I believe that everything happens for a reason, and I guess you could say that [the Sox needed the 2012 mess under Valentine to get to 2013]," said Jon Lester. "[But] what if Bobby comes in here and wins 100 games? You never know. There's always that 'What if ...' Obviously, it didn't work out last year, so it's easy to point the finger and blame things on either an individual or a unit or whatever. I don't like to point fingers, especially at Bobby. It's our job to go out and perform, not his. You can look at it whichever way."
So, instead of speculating, it's worth simply taking stock of the obvious but staggering contrast between the Red Sox of 2012 and their 2013 successors.
In 2012, the team was characterized by palace intrigue and behind-the-scenes backstabbing, fights between the manager and coaching staff that created a confounding dynamic to navigate, a raft of players who struggled or underperformed and the prospect of being stuck with a number of seemingly unmovable contracts at a time when many of the recipients of massive contracts appeared to be entering -- if not already well into -- the decline phase of their careers.
In 2013, the Red Sox are a model of top-to-bottom organizational unity, a team with payroll flexibility in the present (witness not only the team's seven free agent signings but also the deal to acquire Jake Peavy during the year) and future and a clubhouse where the players seemingly have been single-minded in purpose on and off the field, headed by a manager who soothed any frayed nerves from the previous year.
"It's been a blast. This is the most fun I've ever had playing baseball," said Saltalamacchia. "There's no better feeling. This is what we work for. To go where we were last year, be where we're at this year ... I've always wanted to be a part of this. In 2011, we were there and then September kind of derailed and we didn't get it. This is something that every guy works for. You don't take it for granted because you never know when you'll get this opportunity again."
The Sox aren't sure what they might have gotten from a calmer year in 2012 under Sveum or Lamont. But they do know that what they endured under Valentine (regardless of the degree of blame that the manager had for the team's struggles) was a disaster so profound that it permitted a comprehensive organizational (and roster) reset, and that, in turn, laid the groundwork for a Red Sox team that is preparing for the playoffs with the promise of considerable future success.
"There are certain people who got a bad rap last year, I think, who kind of had the finger pointed at them more than others, unfairly in some cases and fairly in some cases. That's too simple to point at. This year is this year," said Miller. "Hopefully we've gotten better from whatever happened last year, whether we learned from it or it pissed us off. Hopefully the guys who experienced that carried it over to a positive aspect this year. It certainly seems like we did."