Red Sox content to follow last season's template
By finding parts that fit well together, Boston hopes to duplicate winning formula
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When the history of the 2013 Red Sox is written, Ryan Dempster may only get a couple of paragraphs. After all, he won just eight of his 29 starts and had a 4.57 ERA. Dempster pitched all of three postseason innings.
All of which shows you how things sometimes aren't as they seem. The Red Sox went from worst to first for a long list of reasons, beginning with manager John Farrell's leadership and second baseman Dustin Pedroia's fire and productivity.
It's never one thing or even a dozen things that put teams in position to win a championship. John Lackey and Jon Lester re-established themselves as front-line starters, David Ortiz was again healthy and Koji Uehara morphed into baseball's most reliable closer.
Yet, there was something more at play with the 2013 Red Sox. Remember what they'd looked like a year earlier? They were a 69-93, last-place mess -- both in results and attitude.
When general manager Ben Cherington remade the roster, he wanted productive players -- but he also wanted a certain type of player. He wanted guys who understood and embraced the Boston experience, and he wanted guys with the reputation of getting along with others and setting the right kind of tone.
The 2013 Red Sox won because the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, and that's not meant to undersell how well Jacoby Ellsbury, Pedroia, Mike Napoli and others performed.
Yes, it's a cliche to point to intangibles -- because only the men in that room truly know how these things work. What seems clear is that those intangibles mattered -- and, in this way, Dempster played a role much more significant than his 4.57 ERA.
"In times of need, he stood up and answered the bell," Farrell said. "He contributed to a larger group that maybe changed the atmosphere and the accountability."
Or, as catcher David Ross put it, "If you have him on your team, you're going to be a better team."
Dempster and Ross were two of the seven bargain-basement free agents Cherington added to the club before last season, and no general manager ever did a better job at changing and upgrading a club.
Every single one of them -- from Jonny Gomes to Stephen Drew to the others -- contributed in ways large and small. So on Sunday, when Dempster announced he would not pitch in 2014 and that his 16-season career might be over, he was universally praised for both his contributions on the field and in the clubhouse.
Dempster's teammates, manager and general manager lined up outside Boston's clubhouse to watch him announce his decision and then to offer a standing ovation when he was done.
Teams are fragile things. Hall of Fame NFL coach Joe Gibbs once said that really good teams have a magical quality.
"Honestly, you don't know how it happens," Gibbs said, "and you don't know when it's going to go away. You just know that when you have it, you'd better ride it as long as you can."
Dempster's departure is a reminder that things never stay the same. Then again, the Red Sox were going to be significantly different in 2014 -- with or without Dempster. For one thing, they resisted long-term financial commitments, which is exactly what they said they'd do after dumping three big contracts during the 2012 season.
When the Yankees offered more for Ellsbury than the Red Sox felt comfortable paying, they thanked him for his contributions and held the door. So far, they've also declined to meet Drew's asking price.
Instead, they seem comfortable allowing the club to evolve -- for top prospect Xander Bogaerts to take over at short and young third baseman Will Middlebrooks to establish himself once and for all. Most significantly, they're turning the center-field job over to another hotshot kid, Jackie Bradley Jr.
In a perfect world -- that is, a baseball man's perfect world -- they'll open the season with homegrown players like Middlebrooks, Bogaerts and Bradley in the lineup. That's a gutsy call for a champion, but good organizations assign a value to every player. Sometimes they also have to be prepared to walk away from a player, even one as good as Ellsbury, if they're uncomfortable with the asking price.
That's what the Cardinals did with Albert Pujols, and the Red Sox apparently did so without reservation -- even after Ellsbury landed with the Yanks.
"Some might say you're looking to repeat or looking to do something special with two young guys up the middle," Farrell said. "If we didn't feel confident in their abilities and who they are as people, it might be a different approach to the players that are here in camp. But we feel good about the people that they are and the talents that they have."
The Red Sox made a change at catcher, too, signing veteran A.J. Pierzynski to replace Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who signed with the Marlins.
Now, about repeating. The Red Sox haven't won the World Series in back-to-back seasons in 98 years. In the last 35 years, baseball has had two repeat champions -- the 1992-93 Blue Jays and the 1998-2000 Yankees, who won three in a row.
Boston's players began encouraging one another to turn the page on 2013 and begin thinking about winning again as soon as they began their offseason work.
"You've got the bull's-eye on your back," Pedroia said. "You want to get everybody's best. I think it's going to be a fun challenge for everybody. Should be exciting."
Considering the quality of their rotation and the pitching depth in the Minor Leagues -- and especially considering Pedroia's relentless will -- it would be a mistake to think the Red Sox can't win again.
"The main message -- and I think the challenge that we will have -- is to challenge ourselves mentally to get back to a building-block approach," Farrell said. "Spring Training, we can't skip any steps along the way. I'm confident in the mentality and the attitude of this group, that it's not a complacent one, that it's not one that takes anything for granted. That was evident through a full season last year. And being up to date on a lot of the conversation, they're eager to get here and work towards an opportunity to do something very special."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.