The popular narrative about the success of the 2013 Red Sox relates to the drastic change the club underwent in the offseason, the remarkable success the team achieved with one free agent signing after another who helped the Sox shed the horrific legacy of the 2012 club in order to produce a 97-65 juggernaut.
"[There were] nine new names before the first game was played, either through free agency or trade," Red Sox manager John Farrell noted on Thursday afternoon. "The roster went through a major overhaul."
Yet while there was truth in the numbers involved in the overhaul, a strong case can be made that an equally, perhaps more, significant decision was one to maintain continuity. For while the Sox altered the dynamic of their supporting cast, the decision to retain their remaining core after the Dodgers blockbuster deal last offseason represented a critical, defining element of the team.
That is not to downplay the significance of the moves that general manager Ben Cherington and the Red Sox baseball operations department made. The task of turning over more than a third of the roster in a single offseason -- bringing on three starting position players (Mike Napoi, Stephen Drew, Shane Victorino), two key reserves (Jonny Gomes, David Ross), a starting pitcher (Ryan Dempster) and two relievers (Koji Uehara, Joel Hanrahan) is a colossal undertaking.
Yet even with Victorino and Uehara having outrageous years, and everyone else except for the injured Hanrahan performing essentially to their career norms, a strong case can be made that the biggest impact occurred when the team decided not to gut its core -- a path that was not always a given in the offseason.
Because of the downward spiral the Sox endured last year, two unfamiliar occurrences became a part of last offseason. Other teams -- who typically wouldn't have wanted to waste the Sox' time even by mentioning players who seemed obviously untouchable (like Jon Lester and Jacoby Ellsbury -- recognized the Sox as a team in a state of transition, and felt like they could call to ask about the availability of centerpiece players. And because the Sox were coming off of their worst season in almost a half-century, they were in a position to listen to proposals involving their longtime cornerstones.
Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz had all been All-Stars for the Sox as recently as 2010. All were key members of the Sox' last playoff team in 2009.
Yet aside from Ortiz (whose All-Star campaign in 2012 was cut short early in the second half by an Achilles injury), all had fallen far short of All-Star performance in 2012. And so, as the Sox plotted their path forward from the depths of last season, they had to make a decision about whether to retain all of those players or to consider an even more drastic roster overhaul than the one that occurred with the Dodgers trade.
Of that group, Lester and Ellsbury emerged as the likeliest to be traded given that the team's remaining years of control over them prior to their reaching free agency were dwindling. Lester had one guaranteed season and one option year left on the five-year, $30 million deal he signed before the 2009 season, while Ellsbury was entering his last year before becoming eligible for free agency. And both were coming off of disappointing campaigns, Lester having gone 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA, Ellsbury having hit just .271 with a .313 OBP and .370 slugging mark in a year where he missed roughly half the season due to a shoulder injury.
As much as the Sox managed to improve drastically in 2013 through the moves they made, the decision to retain all five of their stars -- who were mostly coming off of down years whether due to injuries or just poor performance -- proved immense.
Meet the new Red Sox stars, same as the old Red Sox stars.
"I think you always have your doubts, especially after a year like that, but I feel like once we kind of made the moves we did this offseason, it kind of put us in a better position. Not giving up on the core guys I think was big," said Lester. "They could have very easily traded me away, traded Jake away, so for them not to do that and bring in other parts is I think just kind of speaks for the confidence they had in us to rebound from last year."
The team has gotten tremendous contributions from a deep, talented roster that has a wealth of newcomers. But the return to form of Lester, Buchholz, Ellsbury, Pedroia and Ortiz to elite levels served as the engine of the Sox' turnaround.
The fact that Lester will be on the mound for Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Friday serves as a reminder of the Sox' pivotal decision regarding its core during the offseason. The left-hander was perhaps the most likely to be dealt, given that he had two years left before he became a free agent and, as he entered his age 29 season, given his track record and the fact that he remained in his career prime, he represented an excellent bounceback candidate.
And so, when rumors of trade talks about Lester emerged as a trade candidate for then-Royals outfield prospect Wil Myers, the idea passed the sniff test. At that point in November, the Sox had signed Jonny Gomes but still had not added a right fielder. Lester was, at the least, curious.
"You obviously hear it. You get the phone calls and texts from people about it," Lester recalled. "[Royals manager Ned Yost is] actually a pretty good friend of mine. I flat-out called him one day and was like, 'Hey, what do you got on this?' He said, 'Yeah, we're trying to make it work.' I just said, 'OK.'
"At the end of the day, it's a game. You enjoy doing it. But when it comes down to it, it's a business. You have to understand that. You can't take it personal. Nothing that [Cherington] has done or that [former Sox GM Theo Epstein] has done in the past have I ever taken personal. That's just kind of the nature of what we do."
In the end, there wasn't a match for a few reasons. The Sox did feel strongly that Lester, especially under Farrell, was likely to bounce back and serve as an anchor for their pitching staff. As much as they liked Myers -- whom they knew well after considering him strongly in the 2009 draft -- they believe Lester could be part of a turnaround.
Moreover, the team got the sense that the Royals were more interested in then-Rays starter James Shields (like Lester, a lock for 200-plus innings a year and two years from free agency; unlike Lester, coming off a tremendous 2012 season).
Additionally, Kansas City ended up pursuing an expanded deal with the Rays that included another big league-ready starting pitcher, right-hander Wade Davis. The equivalent talent on the Sox would have been someone like Felix Doubront, and at that time, the Sox didn't have the rotation depth to consider a deal involving both Lester and Doubront.
So, the deal didn't happen. But while the rumor hung in the air, Lester was confronted with the possibility that his Sox career might come to an abrupt halt on very undesirable terms.
"This is all I've known. If [the trade] was to happen, to go out on that note is probably not what I would have wanted to do," said Lester. "It is what it is. If the trade goes through, you can't say, 'Why the hell did you trade me?' It's not a personal thing. It's a business side of it, and you have to look at it that way.
"I want to be like [Pedroia]," Lester continued, pointing to his teammate who signed an extension that runs through 2021. "I want to be here till they pull this jersey off me and I go home. I don't want to go play for this team and that team and go home, bye. I want to ride this thing out to the very end, be with the guys that I've been with since day one back in A-ball, and that's [Pedroia] and [Ellsbury], [Buchholz].
"To go back to the trade, you're kind of like, '[Expletive] -- I want to go out on a different note if they traded me.' But that's not usually how it works if you get traded. You're not usually having the best season if you get traded. It would have been a sad day, but at the same time, new chapter. Luckily for me, it didn't work out and I'm still here."
So are his longtime teammates, all of whom have been difference-makers in the Red Sox' 2013 turnaround. Indeed, the remaining core was significant in convincing the players whom the Sox did bring in that the Sox' 2012 train wreck represented a one-year aberration rather than a trend.
Though he remained under team control in 2013, Craig Breslow was in position to take stock of the Sox' longer-term outlook when he talked with the Sox about the possibility of signing a two-year extension that would delay his free agency by a year and leave the Sox with an option to cover another season.
"There was a pretty talented core group of guys here. That was very important," Breslow said of his decision. "Free agency is the first time in one's career that they can choose their destination. I know that if I were to forgo that choice by signing away one of my free agent years, I wanted to do in a place that had a chance to win. To look at the totality of the situation, not just dollars on the table, sure, it was nice that they'd appreciated what I'd done and they were willing to give me two years, but you have to think about whether this is a place that you want to spend the next two years.
"And, when you look at this lineup, generally, people are surprised with how quickly we were able to turn this around. When you have a lineup that consists of guys like Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, a rotation with Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, it shouldn't take huge pieces to turn this around very quickly."
That is precisely what transpired. The Dodgers trade proved the endpoint of the Sox' reconstruction, and the starting point of the recreation of a roster that now possesses championship ambitions. That's not to downplay the impact of the additions made in the winter -- those were enormous, both in creating a coherent, unified roster and a clubhouse culture where players once again took joy in their jobs -- but, as the Sox prepare for their first playoff run in 2009, they will be fueled in no small part by the same players who anchored their last run in October.
"You looked at those core guys, and you looked at the fact that they've been here through successful runs and World Series championships, and you realized that they have what it takes to win a World Series in Boston, and they are also going to be the most key contributors," said Breslow, "and you realized that this turnaround should happen fairly quickly."