NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Wouldn't it be a kick in the pants if the Red Sox won the American League East next season?
Is it possible? Absolutely.
Is it likely? Let's set that one aside for a moment. At the very least, it's no longer an impossible leap of faith.
After all the turbulence and disappointment of 2012, after all the hand-wringing and dire predictions about the next few years, the Red Sox are having themselves a nice little offseason.
General manager Ben Cherington has reshaped the club in both a tangible and intangible way. First, he has not given a contract longer than three years. Second, Cherington has filled most of his needs. Third -- and perhaps best of all -- he has acquired players known for their toughness and competitive fire, guys who pride themselves on being good teammates and remaining focused on the bottom line.
That's part of changing the culture, and its importance can't be underestimated. As former big leaguer Jack Morris said, "It's huge, probably more important than the media understands. It's one of the things you guys should write more about."
It's the thing new manager John Farrell mentioned when asked about the offseason. When the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 and '07, they may not have had the most talent, but they had guys who showed up every day to play and never lost sight of the big picture. From a collection of people grew a team.
That's where the Red Sox have tried to get back to this offseason. Did Cherington spend more money than he wanted to spend on some of the deals? Yes, he may have. That's what free agency is all about. In the end, Cherington got players he believes will contribute to winning in 2013, and he didn't commit to the kind of long-term deals that got the franchise into trouble in the past.
Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino, who were signed to play first base and right field, respectively, have been to the postseason nine times between them, playing in 78 playoff games. That experience is invaluable. They're both grinders, playing the game a certain way and expecting the same of the people around them.
Outfielder Jonny Gomes, who has been on two playoff teams, including the 2012 A's, who saw him as both a contributor and a mentor, is one of the great clubhouse guys in the sport. He's funny and smart, and his humor plays well over the course of a season.
The Red Sox picked up catcher David Ross, too, and he has been to the playoffs four times, mostly as a backup. Still, as we're reminded almost every season, backup catchers can be invaluable for their insight into the game and their understanding of what's important.
To sum up: Four acquisitions, 15 playoff appearances. As the Red Sox become Dustin Pedroia's team, as Will Middlebrooks and Ryan Kalish fill more significant roles, Cherington's acquisitions seem to fit.
Perhaps Cherington's most important acquisition was bringing Farrell, Boston's former pitching coach, back to manage. Far from the drama surrounding Bobby Valentine last season, Farrell has the immediate respect of his players. He's also a commanding figure who'll insist the game be played the right way.
OK, there's still work to be done. Cherington would like to add another starting pitcher, and he seems inclined to let the market play itself out. The Red Sox have some payroll flexibility but still would like to stay away from a deal longer than three years.
There's also the AL East itself. The Blue Jays have improved dramatically, but there are questions about the rotation. The Yankees and Rays still have significant holes to fill, and the Orioles likely will go as far as their young starters take them.
Third, the Red Sox have questions that aren't going to be answered until well into the regular season. No matter what else Cherington does, he needs productive seasons from Jon Lester, John Lackey and Clay Buchholz, and there's no way of knowing how that's going to play out.
Still, Cherington is off to a flying start. Former general manager Theo Epstein has been gone a year, the Valentine experiment is over and the Red Sox are significantly different. The 2012 season taught us that the difference in talent among the top 20 or so teams is small. Teams like the Rays win, in part, because they take care of the fundamentals, and that's what Cherington hopes people say about the Red Sox this time next year. They've taken a different kind of path back to respectability, but they appear to be getting there, and quickly.
Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.