The first two moves of the Red Sox' offseason hardly inspired immediate visions of a turnaround. Indeed, bafflement was the most common reaction when GM Ben Cherington opened the offseason (after re-signing David Ortiz) by signing first David Ross and then Jonny Gomes last November -- two role players -- at a time when starters remained undefined at first base, shortstop, right field, perhaps left field and one spot in the rotation.
At the time, both moves seemed like overpays for players who failed to address more significant needs. A two-year, $6.2 million deal for Ross -- a player who was expected to serve as a backup catcher, albeit one with slightly larger-than-traditional responsibilities -- and the two-year, $10 million contract for Gomes (characterized as a platoon player who would get starts in left field against lefties) both received criticism as aggressive overpays at a time when more significant vacancies existed.
It is Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Friday. The Red Sox trail, 2-0, and after Wil Myers' inexplicable misplay of David Ortiz's flyball into a double created a second-and-third situation with no outs, a Mike Napoli pop-up leaves the Sox in danger of wasting the opportunity.
Gomes does not let that happen. He leans all over a Moore fastball, slamming it off the Wall in left field for a two-run double. Then, still on second with two outs, in an echo of a similar play on Opening Day against the Yankees, Gomes races home from second on an infield single to first by Stephen Drew, giving the Sox a 3-2 lead in a bold fashion that prompts Fenway Park to erupt.
"Today was the reason why Jonny chose to come to Boston," gushed Sox manager John Farrell. "And he demonstrated why this is where he wants to play. And he fits what we do so well. And the way he goes about the game rubs off on other players in our clubhouse."
With the benefit of hindsight, the additions of Ross and Gomes at the start of the offseason look drastically different. Two moves that were characterized in many ways as wasteful redundancy at the time now look almost inspired, an early harbinger of two of the signature elements that have positioned the 2013 Red Sox as favorites to win the World Series.
"That's what I said when we clinched the division. It all started with the first free agent signing of the offseason," beamed Ross, before breaking into a cackle. "Just kidding around, obviously."
Last November, when the Sox remained in search of so many everyday players, nobody was discussing roster depth and clubhouse character as the attributes of a champion. But now, symbolically, the fact that Gomes and Ross were the first two additions offers a revisionist narrative of a team that emphasized building a championship-caliber club from the ground up.
"Everyone on the road right now has insurance. Everyone who owns a house has insurance. You can't buy your car, you can't drive your car and you can't live in your house without insurance. That's basically Ross and me," said Gomes. "What if one of your corner outfielders goes down? Do you want to call someone up from Triple-A or do you want someone who's an established big leaguer? What if your catcher goes down? Do you want to call someone up from Triple-A when you're in a race, or are you going to have an established big leaguer? There's something to be said for having some insurance.
"I got dropped by Tampa, so when the Reds got me, when Washington got me and when Oakland got me, I heard the same crap," Gomes recalled of the reaction to his signing. "This guy strikes out. This guy sucks at this. This guy sucks at this. Well, here's your pennant. Here's your pennant. There's something to be said about guys that play the game right, guys who have accountability for that and guys who expect the same out of everyone in the clubhouse."
And in that regard, it is fascinating to note that the first two direct calls Cherington made to players last offseason were to Ross and Gomes in an effort to gauge their willingness to come to Boston after the mess of 2012. Both players immediately expressed a receptivity to the idea, something that the Sox GM found heartening at a time when that was taken as anything but a given. Cherington was unquestionably looking to fix a number of on- and off-field elements that had gone off the rails with the Sox, and the two players fit what the club was looking for.
Ross represented a player with a formidable track record against left-handed pitching (thus making him a terrific complement to Jarrod Saltalamacchia) and a sterling reputation as one of the best defensive catchers in the game. For a team that had to fix its pitching -- how scouting reports were getting interpreted and then translated to pitchers during games -- he represented an important aspect of the foundation, someone who could give the Sox' younger catchers more time to develop while improving what the team viewed as a critical position.
The Sox were interested in re-signing Cody Ross, but in November, they weren uncertain that they'd be able to find common ground on terms for a new deal with the corner outfielder. The team felt it needed a power-hitting threat from the right side who could take advantage of Fenway Park, and beyond that, the Sox had heard from many corners of the industry: The influence of Gomes on a clubhouse was remarkable.
Moreover, Gomes' interest in coming to Boston was, if anything, amplified by the team's struggles of 2012. The outfielder suggests that Boston topped his wish list even before Cherington made his call.
"I think it's funny when in the offseason, free agency, guys say, 'I want to go to a contender.' Like, Toronto this year? Like the world champs, the Giants? It's not knocking any organization, but where baseball is right now, there are 30 teams and 30 can win," said Gomes. "To me, where I'm at, what I look for in the offseason, where my career has been, the only thing I've looked for is opportunity. I don't look for money, I don't look for location, I don't look for league. I look for opportunity. I thought Boston would be a good opportunity for me so I expressed interest in them. It was mutual.
"I think with all the teams we talked to, a lot of teams talked about me hitting lefties. A lot of teams thought my defense was better than [thought]," he continued. "How the World Series ended really helped me out. With the Tigers having days off, like five days off, and then [getting dominated by left-handers Madison Bumgarner and Barry Zito], that really hurt their lineup. Well, that's what I do all year -- five days down, come in and get the big lefty. And so everyone was like, 'Wow, I guess that little piece does matter.'
"The Sox really came after me. What they were talking about was that I won. We didn't talk numbers, we didn't talk about hitting left-handed pitching, we didn't talk about right-handed, we didn't talk about DH. They just talked about everywhere I've gone, I've won, and they want that."
Now, the narrative that can be crafted looking back at those two initial moves is compelling -- the Sox had depth and makeup at the top of their priority list after the mistakes of the previous offseasons. But it's not quite accurate.
The Sox understood that the best value is typically found in January. But at a time when the team had so many needs -- with Ross and Gomes representing the first two of seven free agents signed to big league deals, eight if one includes Ortiz -- it was important to start the signing process early and move aggressively. And the team viewed Ross and Gomes as players who would be inclined to sign early in the offseason -- with good reason.
"I think I expressed to the Red Sox more than other teams, I was giving all the other teams a shot, but I did want to come here. Without showing my cards. I just told them I want to get something done quick, because it's been three times I've signed in Feburary," Gomes recalled of his mindset last November. "That's what I told the other teams I was talking to. My negotiating takes half an hour. So let's get this half-hour right now."
Ross -- who is expected to start Game 2 of the ALDS behind the plate -- was similarly receptive to early overtures. He recalled that, early in the offseason, the Yankees and Rays were aggressive in trying to bring him into the fold early. He also received calls from the Rangers and Royals, with an understanding that after four years with the Braves, Ross would stay in touch regarding where things stood in the offseason.
"They called the first day they were able to touch base," he said. "My agent called me and said, 'Hey, the Red Sox are interested. They can make an offer.' I just said, 'Well, that's nice -- kind of takes a little bit of the worry away.'
"Other teams called. It got hairy fast. It went really fast early on. Ben called and just said, 'Is this some place you'd be interested in?' I said, 'Yeah, of course.' They put their best foot forward and moved fast," he continued. "The deciding factor was just how much they wanted me from day one. Being a backup catcher on the marketplace, to be the first one the Boston Red Sox go after, that was a good feeling for me. I think as a player, all you want is to be wanted and for someone to appreciate what you bring to a team. Obviously, they must have."
Indeed, Ross will be behind the plate on Saturday against the team that was the runner-up for his services.
"It went fairly fast," said Ross. "It came down to Tampa Bay and here, the two things for me were the pitching staffs -- both were really good. Tampa was a little closer to home. Boston was a little more money. It got to a point where I just decided on who was going to have the best chance to win a World Series.
"At this point in my career, the thing I want to be is happy. Winning does that. Knowing that the Red Sox are a team that, if you've got a chance to win at the deadline, they're going to go out and make the big move. When I was here in '08, for everybody, it was win, and win, and win. Winning is the No. 1 priority here. There's no other agenda around here."
That, certainly, has been the case in 2013. The Red Sox have once again been a team with singularity of purpose and an infectious focus on winning the game and playing the right way. Eleven months after the fact, the Sox' first two signings of the winter -- once lampooned -- now appear to have been important parts of that process of restoration.