The Red Sox are one win away from winning a World Series championship.
Starting at catcher in Wednesday night's Game 6 will be David Ross. Hitting second and playing right field? Shane Victorino. Most likely protecting David Ortiz will be Jonny Gomes and Mike Napoli. The security-blanket defense at shortstop will be supplied by Stephen Drew. And if the Red Sox have the lead with two outs in the ninth inning, it will undoubtedly be Koji Uehara who will do what Keith Foulke and Jonathan Papelbon did before him -- secure the final out of the baseball season.
What do they all have in common? They comprise -- along with pitcher Ryan Dempster -- the free agent class put together by Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington last offseason.
The 107 wins accomplished by these Red Sox have been made possible in large part because of how these aforementioned players have made this puzzle come together. But what would have happened if the plan fell apart before it had a chance to fall into place?
What if a different offseason route had been taken?
It very easily could have happened. Not to say the alternatives wouldn't have worked, but considering the symbiotic nature this group has exuded, it's hard to imagine such successes would have been accomplished with Plans B or C.
The Sox knew who they wanted, and they went hard after their targets. Some fell into place quickly, while others resulted in flirtations elsewhere.
Per major league sources, the following is how a good chunk of the Red Sox offseason unfolded, with a few examples of where things almost turned out differently.
WHY JONNY GOMES AND NOT CODY ROSS
The Red Sox had a strong interest in bringing Ross back, having been impressed with how his talents played as a left fielder calling Fenway Park his home. But any return would have to be under the team's terms, and those were in the form of a two-year deal.
So the Sox made it clear to Ross' camp that their interest was built on a two-year offer. But the outfielder wasn't budging from his pursuit of a three-year deal, leading to a quick move by the Red Sox on Gomes.
The Sox wanted to gauge the difference between the two, and what they found out was that Gomes would be costing them half the investment with the kind of potential production they were looking for.
Even after Gomes inked his two-year, $10 million deal with the Sox, the club kept in contact with Ross in case the outfielder had outpriced himself on the free agent market. The interest, however, was rooted in Ross playing left, not tying him to the team's interest in Victorino.
Ross found his three-year deal, $26 million from Arizona (which includes a team option in 2016). He battled injuries throughout the '13 season, hitting .278 with a .745 OPS and eight home runs in 94 games.
WHAT IF SHANE VICTORINO WENT TO CLEVELAND?
The Red Sox knew the importance of landing Victorino, a player who could not only man the expanse of Fenway's right field, but fill in at center if need be.
But while Victorino was deciding between the Red Sox' three-year, $39 million offer and Cleveland's four-year proposal, the Sox were talking to another slick-fielding right fielder -- Nate Schierholtz.
The Red Sox came very close to inking the 29-year-old, lefty-hitting outfielder, but the sticking point was playing time. The Sox couldn't guarantee Schierholtz an everyday spot in the lineup with the Victorino conversations continuing and Cherington and Co. exploring various trade options for the outfield.
So when the Cubs offered a guarantee of regular at-bats to the former Giant, Schierholtz jumped to Chicago on a one-year, $2.25 million deal. He made the Cubs' commitment pay off in '13, hitting .251 with a .770 OPS and 21 home runs in 137 games.
If Victorino hadn't agreed to his three-year contract, the Josh Hamilton scenario might have gotten a bit more interesting. But with the Red Sox only willing to go to three years for the slugger, there was never really any momentum in talks (especially after Victorino signed). As it turned out, Hamilton had numbers strikingly similar to Schierholtz, hitting .250 with a .739 OPS and 21 homers in 151 games.
FINDING THAT FOURTH STARTER
The Red Sox were actively engaged in talks with Anibal Sanchez, one of the premier pitchers on the free agent market. But there wasn't a willingness on the club's behalf to approach the level the righty ended up at (five years, $80 million).
There was quite a bit of conversation about former Twins lefty Francisco Liriano, who had started his career with unbelievable promise but had never achieved consistency following an elbow injury. In the end, however, he was just a bit too risky for the spot in the rotation the Sox needed to fill.
So the Red Sox turned to the veteran Dempster, with his makeup and strike-throwing serving as motivation to hand the righty a two-year, $26 million deal.
Considering what Liriano delivered for the Pirates this season on a two-year, $7 million contract, this might have been a miss for the Sox. The 30-year-old not only went 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA in 161 innings, he allowed just three runs in 13 innings during his two starts in the NLDS.
TWO HARD TARGETS, ONE SURPRISE
The first call Cherington made once the free agency period kicked in was to David Ross. The Red Sox were valuing run prevention, and the veteran catcher was a good place to start. (The second call was to pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, who chose to stay with the Yankees for less money on a one-year deal.)
The Red Sox wanted Ross, so as the general managers meetings closed, they finalized a two-year, $6.2 million deal.
Then, on the day before the start of the winter meetings, the Sox locked up another priority -- Napoli. The team had long been interested in the former catcher, having tried to acquire him on numerous occasions, so committing the original three-year, $39 million contact (that turned into one-year, $5 million guarantee due to Napoli's avascular necrosis in his hip, with incentives that pushed the deal to $13 million) was no surprise.
The Red Sox did remain in communication with Nick Swisher, but the first baseman/outfielder was never viewed by the Sox in the same light as Napoli. Swisher (who required the team signing him to give up a draft pick) ended up inking a four-year, $56 million contract with Cleveland, finishing his first year with the Indians hitting .246 with a .763 OPS and 22 homers in 145 games.
If Napoli and Swisher had both fallen through, the Red Sox were prepared to fill their first base need via a trade, with Mike Carp having already surfaced as a potential target.
A surprise for the Red Sox came in the first week of December when Uehara fell to them. Set-up men weren't exactly a priority for the Sox, having seen how warped the market for relievers had become. And they did have some interest in former Royals closer Joakim Soria, who went on to sign a two-year, $8 million deal with Texas. (Soria went on to pitch in a solid 26 games after missing the season's first half while recovering from Tommy John surgery.)
Teams had backed off Uehara due to durability issues. But the Red Sox took a chance via a one-year, $4.25 million deal (with a vesting option for the same money that kicked in for next year). What has resulted is the best free agent signing of the year, with the closer having pitched in a career high 87 innings with striking results.
Uehara has yet to give up an earned run in any of the 19 appearances he's made on back-to-back days.
He has certainly been better than the alternative, as has been the case with most of the offseason signings. And now, the Red Sox are on the verge of a title because of it.