A few elements stood out about the 2013 American League MVP voting:
-- Miguel Cabrera beat Mike Trout handily (again).
-- Trout is widely understood to be the best overall player in the game (again), a player whose combined impact as a hitter, baserunner and defender is unmatched. A similar player, Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen, was the Most Valuable Player in the National League.
-- The Red Sox were widely understood to be the best team in baseball, finishing the regular season with the best record in baseball and then, of course, winning more games than any other team in the playoffs.
-- The Red Sox barely made a ripple in American League MVP voting, with Dustin Pedroia finishing seventh, David Ortiz finishing 10th and a smattering of votes for Jacoby Ellsbury, Koji Uehara and Shane Victorino.
What to take from all of this?
In a way, these four elements are related in a very meaningful way that says something about ideal roster construction. In the same fashion that Trout is widely understood as the best overall player (rather than, for whatever reason, the most valuable), superior to a batter's box force like Cabrera, the Sox' strength was based on a well-rounded model rather than one that had surpassing strength in one area and deficiency in another. This has considerable implications from a team-building standpoint.
For years -- dating to his time as a farm director and assistant general manager -- current Red Sox GM Ben Cherington (and others in the Red Sox front office) has been adamant that the best teams are those that are strong in every area of the game. It's part of the reason (along with a wealth of homegrown depth) why team officials have often viewed the 2007-08 clubs as better than the 2004 team.
Or, thought of in another way: The David Ortiz/Manny Ramirez model, in which the lineup and position playing roster was structured around two hitters of surpassing brilliance -- neither of whom contributed on the field in any other significant way -- has been replaced. In its stead, the Sox still have one of those pillars (Ortiz), but in 2013 surrounded him with players whose diverse skill sets gave the team numerous paths to victory.
Pedroia was offensively limited due to his torn thumb ligament, but he remained a very good player even when he didn't hit thanks to his ability to hit for average, get on base, play outstanding defense and run the bases well.
Victorino went through ebbs and flows offensively, sometimes hitting for average, sometimes hitting for power, sometimes doing neither, but playing elite defense in right field and serving as a difference-maker on the bases.
Ellsbury had more impact on the bases than anyone else in the AL, both with his stolen bases and his ability to push the envelope and advance an extra base at every available turn, and he played very good defense in center to ensure his value regardless of whether he was, as in the first two months of the year, in a significant slump or whether, as was the case from June through the rest of the year, a very good hitter.
For that matter, even Mike Napoli proved a revelation as the team's first baseman, with his striking defensive strides and aggressive but smart baserunning permitting him to maintain value regardless of whether he was in one of his scorching streaks or amidst a considerable slump.
(Interestingly, Napoli ranked 19th in the American League in wins above replacement (WAR) as calculated by Fangraphs -- a controversial metric but one with value in trying to assess the impact of a player's overall game. He finished behind Ellsbury (8th), Victorino (9th) and Pedroia (10th) while placing ahead of Ortiz (21st), whose entire impact was limited to what he did while wielding a bat.)
The Red Sox roster, in a way, represented something of a hybrid of the Cabrera/Trout model. The team had one surpassingly great force in the batter's box, a player who did not match Cabrera's offensive value but who offered a pretty reasonable facsimile in the form of Ortiz, who hit .309/.395/.564 with 30 homers and 103 RBIs. The Red Sox did not have a single player whose impact could compare to that of Trout, but they had a bunch of players who were, in some ways, in his mold: capable of impacting the game offensively, defensively and on the bases.
Add to that a rotation that, while not the best in baseball, belonged to the upper tier, with consistently solid outings, and a bullpen that featured enough in the late innings, and the result was a team with the diversity to avoid prolonged losing streaks and ultimately emerge as the best in baseball.
There were times when the Sox featured power eruptions and simply throttled their opponents. There were times when the Sox did not hit. They could still win with pitching and defense. There were times when the Sox hit and/or reached base, but extra-base hits eluded them; in such times, their baserunning permitted them to sustain offense. There were times when most of the lineup slumped, but the Cabrera-ish performer (Ortiz) carried it. Yet there was no single head to the hydra: The team kept winning regardless of whether Ortiz or Ellsbury or Victorino or Clay Buchholz was sidelined by injury.
By contrast, Cabrera's Tigers lacked that versatility. When Cabrera was injured, the Tigers went from being one of the best offenses in the majors to one defined largely by mediocrity. In the absence of power, they could not manufacture runs with their legs. They had incredible starting pitching yet a bullpen that proved capable of wasting some brilliant efforts, foremost when Max Scherzer's dominant outing in Game 2 of the ALCS was spoiled when the Detroit bullpen self-immolated while choking up a four-run lead in the eighth inning.
For both players and teams, there is a temptation to celebrate those with one exceptional skill (or perhaps even two) rather than taking stock of the total shape of an individual or club in all phases of the game. It is why Josh Hamilton -- whose value is wrapped primarily around his ability to destroy baseballs -- was valued drastically above Shane Victorino in free agency after the 2012 season ($25 million per year for five seasons vs. $13 million a year for three seasons).
Hamilton's ability to hit for power suffered a drastic slide in 2013 -- in the same number of plate appearances (636) that he had in 2012, he hit just under half as many homers, slipping from 43 to 21. Given his below-average defense in his primary position of right field, he became a detriment to an Angels team that was among the most disappointing in baseball. Viewed another way: Given his lack of impact in the field, when Hamilton's offense took a hit in 2013, he was a far worse player than was Victorino when he suffered through his career-worst offensive year in 2012.
The Sox resisted the Hamilton model when reconstructing their roster after the 2012 season. They focused on building a club that did everything well if not necessarily exceptionally, and the result was a team that never lost more than three straight games in no small part because it had a number of avenues to victory.
It is a model to which the Sox plan to adhere going forward.
"There's a number of areas of the team that performed well," Cherington explained earlier this month. "We had a strong offensive team. That was in large part due to the depth of the position-player group, the lineup, and guys on the bench contributed a lot. The offense was a strength overall until we got into the playoffs and faced some of the pitching we faced. The bullpen became a strength more and more as the season went on. Guys settled into roles, and [manager John Farrell] and the staff did a terrific job of putting guys in good spots. The overall performance of the rotation was a strength, certainly relative to last year, and we got a lot out of that group even with Buchholz missing a chunk of time.
"So our team was having success in part because we were good and strong in a lot of areas and deep more so than elite in any one particular area and weak in another," he continued. "We want to maintain that, that depth, that strength throughout the roster as best we can."
It is, after all, an approach that seemed to pay reasonable dividends in 2013.