BALTIMORE -- The thought has at least crossed their minds.
While appearing on WEEI Wednesday afternoon, Bobby Valentine first surfaced this notion: the chaos which has surrounded the Sox may affect how potential free agents view life in Boston. Thursday, Jon Lester also relayed such a concern.
"Yeah, it worries me," the lefty pitcher said prior to his team's game against the Orioles at Camden Yards. "I don't know if people can deal … I think people can deal with the fact that people critique you as a baseball player, but now you have people talking about integrity as a person. … Boston has always been able to pay guys well here, so I think you're still going to get guys that will take that chance. But I don't know. We'll have to wait and see. You would hope not because everybody in this room wants to win now and wants to win in the future. If we're not able to get those guys it obviously is going to be a harder road."
Moments after Lester's analysis, Red Sox president Larry Lucchino attempted to dissuade such fears.
"I don't think that’s a long-term danger," Lucchino said. "We’ve been relatively lucky in recent years in changing the image of Fenway first of all. It’s not an old and inadequate place to play. We’ve been able to fix it up for players. I do think there’s probably a little bit of a reservation on the part of some players perhaps with respect to the grueling media coverage. You’ve just got to make sure you pick the right people and personalities to come here to be able to withstand that."
Within the chaos that has encompassed the Red Sox over the past 11 months is (despite Lucchino's assertions) the underlying issue regarding baseball's perception regarding the organization.
The Sox find themselves at 74-87 over the past 365 days, with a new fire to put out seemingly every week. In baseball, players talk, and the Red Sox have -- both in among the media and within big league clubhouses -- been a heavy topic of conversation. They have been the kind of discussions that don't exactly paint a favorable picture for potential free agents.
"I don't know," said Lester when asked if the non-stop wave of off-the-field distractions are going to hurt the Red Sox' team-building strategy. "It's going to be one of those deals where you aren't going to get a truthful answer for a long time because free agents that sign this offseason if they go to another team, they're going to say that was their first choice. So you won't know for years to come if what's been going on the past year or 1 1/2 years is really going to affect what people want to do."
Flash back to a year ago, and such a discussion would be hard to fathom.
The Red Sox were among baseball's best teams, with a seemingly rock-solid foundation and a boatload of resources. A system had been put in place that had resulted in two world championships, and led such free agents at J.D. Drew, Carl Crawford and John Lackey to pick the Sox, with he likes of Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Mike Lowell, Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, Adrian Gonzalez and Lester choosing to stay long-term.
But, then came the team's historically-bad September.
"Everything right now is still because of September," said Adrian Gonzalez. "Because of the way we didn't win and because everything that came out in the offseason. Everything is carried over. But the minute we turn it around and start winning it's all going to be gone. I don't see it being an issue next year, unless, again, we don't win."
But the Red Sox haven't won consistently, so the uneasiness remains.
To Lester's point, how the current plight of the Red Sox will manifest itself in signing players remains to be seen. But one player, Cody Ross, can at least offer a semi-unique perspective. This was a player who signed a one-year deal with the Sox despite the hoots and hollers emanating from September, and continues to profess his desire to return despite what he classifies as "the nightmare."
"No, because I know what this organization wants," said Ross when asked if "the nightmare" has given him any second thoughts about returning. "They want to win and with this year. We haven't played as near as well as we could have liked. Obviously playing better, winning, all that kind of stuff goes away. That's just what I believe.
"There was a lot of talk last year about how the clubhouse was bad. Just a lot of negativity going on about the Red Sox. But I didn't let it affect my decision. I knew a lot of guys over here and I couldn't imagine it being like that, knowing the group, and it hasn't let me down. This is a great group of guys and it shouldn't affect in any way potential free agent signings. Is there more pressure to play here? Absolutely. Is there more focus on the little things and the non-baseball stuff? Absolutely. But I knew what I was signing up for. It definitely takes a different type of player to play here. It definitely won't be an issue going into the offseason."
Maybe not for Ross, but the same might not be said for others being contacted by the Red Sox.
Of the members of the current team that can leave via free agency are David Ortiz, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Ross. The conclusion of Jacoby Ellsbury's contract is on the horizon, with the outfielder eligible to become a free agent after the 2013 season. And then there are those free agents who resemble Ross a year ago, waiting to find the best fit for at least a short-term home.
"Right when I came up every guy in baseball wanted to play, but now with all the controversy it might push some people away," Buchholz said. "It's still a great place to play. It's been a little tough as of late, but that's just something that comes with the game. You just have deal with it and try and move forward."
It's not like the Red Sox haven't gone through stretches of being classified as a questionable landing spot. Usually the reason was due to the team's underperformance (see early 1990's), but ultimately it was the combination of money, altered clubhouse dynamics, and an improved winning percentage (did we mention money?) that pulled the organization out of such an abyss.
Typically, investing in the right players leads to improved winning, which, in turn, helps pave the way for a better clubhouse culture. And all of it offers a better chance to convince free agents Boston is a desirable place to play.
"For me it's always been a great place to play," Lester said. "I think for the last 1 1/2 years it's obviously been a lot harder. It used to just be about your baseball performance and how you answered questions after a game. That's what it was. That was it. Now you're getting critiqued judged as a human being based on what you say to the media after a game. I think that makes it difficult. If this is about baseball, it's the best place to play. It's one of the oldest franchises in baseball, a lot of history, a lot of great players have walked through those doors in Fenway, it's a great atmosphere, sold out every night. But when you have to answer questions about throwing seeds in somebody's face just kidding around in the dugout, it's a distraction. It's something you shouldn't have to worry about."
Soon we'll find out just how much those sort of worries mean to the future of the Red Sox.