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A Ring Don’t Change a Thing: The Four Year Transitional Plan of the World Champion Boston Red Sox

You don’t rebuild In Boston, you transition. The August 2012 salary dump that resulted in the departure of Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez to the Dodgers was the beginning of a movement that most fans in Boston were not excited to embrace. Beer- drinking, chicken-eating starting pitchers were now villains, as was the manager hired to “reform” them. The team was in a free fall, and you had to assume Boston would use the subsequent off-season to reload by spending their new-found riches on free agents like Josh Hamilton, Zach Greinke, and B.J. Upton. Instead, the Sox held back, and opted for depth, shorter deals, and blah-blah-blah… every casual baseball fan that watched three innings of the World Series knows where it goes from there. Now the Red Sox are in the middle of a new off-season with a much different feel. They are champions. The villains have become heroes and, for most Red Sox fans, the 2012 season is all but forgotten.

The most surprising element of this worst – to-first saga is that the steadfast plan set forth by Ben Cherrington in 2012 has not changed. The Sox remain in a period of transition that not even a World Series ring has compromised. The patient and calculated plan of a basement dwelling, injury- plagued team remains intact. Ellsbury’s gone, Saltalamacchia left, and Ortiz doesn’t seem to be on the verge of signing a 2-3 year extension any time soon. Once again this off-season, the Sox are sticking to their plan. No Tanaka, McCann, or Choo; instead, the Sox have been quiet and there is good reason for that.

The Yankees had to spend, because they have not developed the young talent through their farm system like the Sox have. The Yankees made the right moves given their situation but they were out of options. Overspending on free agents was the only choice they had left if they wanted to stay competitive. The Red Sox landed 9 players on MLB.com’s recent “top 100 prospect list”, giving them a plethora of options to supplement their roster in the next few years. Sure for every Mike Trout there is a Jesus Montero; and, highly touted prospects don’t always meet expectations, but that doesn’t take anything away from their current perceived value. With the depth of the Sox’s farm system, if half of them can eventually contribute at the major league level, it is a great success. This abundance of young talent not only expands Boston’s options in the trade market, it also enables them to save money on cost-controlled players that can open up payroll for future free agent spending. The Red Sox reluctance to spend big on free agents and instead opt for depth and team chemistry has been portrayed by the media as a brilliant exploitation of new-found market inefficiency. But maybe that’s not the plan.

I believe the Red Sox will spend big, but they are simply waiting for the right time. With Bogaerts and Pedroia locked down for the ongoing future, the Red Sox have sealed up premium positions that are much harder to find and more expensive on the free agent market then say a first basemen or corner outfielder. Currently Bogaerts gives the Sox the flexibility of sticking at either 3B or SS, which gives them even more options in future trades or free agent signings. Next off-season’s free agent market looks even weaker than this year. The Marquee names like Hanley Ramirez, Max Scherzer, and Ben Zobrist are all suspected to sign extensions with their current teams before they hit free agency, with the Rays having a 7.5 million club option on Zobrist (that they seem very un-likely to turn down).

The 2016 off-season is a much different animal; and is when I fully expect the Red Sox to put all this cautious spending/team chemistry BS behind them and pounce. The 2016 free agent market will include an abundance of players at positions that the Red Sox have not currently locked up long-term. Premium Corner outfielders like Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, and Yeonis Cespedes should be on the market with youth still on their side, provided they aren’t locked up by their respective teams. Starting Pitching will be incredibly deep as well, with Hisashi Iwakuma, Doug Fister, David Price, Kris Medlen, Jeff Samardzija, Johnny Cueto, Matt Latos, and Jordan Zimmerman all set to become free agents. By 2016, the Sox will have had time to develop their prospects. There will be opportunity to throw them against the wall and see who sticks or use them as valuable trade chips for the likes of rumored players being shopped like Giancarlo Stanton, Carlos Gonzalez, or Troy Tulowitzki.

You could actually make the case that if the Red Sox struggle in the next few years that it might be even more beneficial towards the long-term development of the team. There would be greater justification to trade veterans for youth and give more playing time to develop home-grown players. The only win now move you could really criticize the Red Sox for making is the trade for Jake Peavy. Jose Iglesias is a defensive phenom, but with Bogaerts, Cecchini, Middlebrooks, and possibly Stephen Drew, the Red Sox have plenty of depth on the left side of the infield. The key advantage to this move was that the Sox get Peavy for an additional year. If the Sox are competitive this year they have a solid starter going into another postseason, and if they’re not, they have a valuable trade piece for a team that is. The Sox have $96 million in payroll coming off the books next season and by 2016 Napoli, Victorino, and Lackey’s contracts will also expire enabling Boston to lock up the prospects they wish to keep, and overspend on premium free agents (which is almost a given in the declining free agent market).

I was like everyone else going into last season. I wasn’t expecting much. The Sox front office made it clear this was a transitional period and they had a great deal of confidence in their farm system. Patience was implied, and I was completely onboard with what they were doing. The Jays cannot be faulted for their philosophy going into last season. They saw an opportunity that hadn’t existed in many years. The AL East was faltering. The Orioles were coming off 2012 on the heels of a successful season in which they were outscored by their opponents with a remarkable, albeit fluky, record in one run games. You had to expect some regression. The Rays were solid, but as usual had little margin for error due to low revenue and payroll. The Yankees looked like aging rock stars whom had grown a little too chubby for tight jeans. Anthopoulos and company saw the opportunity and pushed their chips in; but, unfortunately things didn’t work out. I’m sure a lot of Orioles fans would kill for a move like that. The Orioles seem to stand idle, while their core players hit their primes and seem poised for a re-build when players like Weiters, Davis, and Markakis hit free agency in a few years. I won’t pick the Red Sox to make the postseason again this year. I see the Rays taking the division and the wild cards coming out of the west and central, but I am excited as hell to watch the future come together. Baseball Dynasties don’t always add up to multiple championships.

In the expansion era’s expanded playoff environment, some of the greatest multiple year team runs have resulted in no rings at all. In a sport where the best team in baseball has a statistical probability of beating the worst team in baseball roughly 65% percent of the time, a postseason series does not accurately reflect the overall greatness of a team. However, most baseball fans( including myself) aren’t about to start a petition to cancel the World Series and play out the season like English premiere league soccer any time soon. I consider the mid-90’s Cleveland Indians a dynasty, and they never flew a World Series flag. Same goes for the Late 90’s/ early 00’s Mariners, and you could argue the Rays are in the middle of one right now. The Atlanta Braves only won one title in their decade-long run and I consider them one of the greatest dynasties of all time.

I’m not going to make the argument that the Red Sox are going to win three more rings in the next 10 years, but I do believe they are creating something special and they will be one of these teams that build and sustain long term success. The 2016 opening day roster is going to be scary even by Red Sox standards. I’m sure if Boston  under-performs this year and or next, the fans will panic like they always do. I urge you to remain calm and hold on tight. The future is bright for Sox fans, and we are in for one hell of a ride down Yawkey Way!