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Year of challenges brought transition to Red Sox

In 2012, the Red Sox sunk to depths they never even knew existed.

For a full decade, Fenway Park consistently was the home of a top contender.

Players like Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Jon Lester and Jacoby Ellsbury had no idea what it was like to play an entire season without the hint of a pennant race.

They found out in harsh fashion, which leaves the entire organization eager to get up off the mat after a 69-93 season -- Boston's worst since 1965.

"On a personal level, I've been here 14 years, and we've had some highs and some lows and this is certainly a low," said Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington. "I take it personally. We all take it personally. But as long as I'm here, I'll do whatever I possibly can to help restore the team to what our ownership and fans deserve. It's been hard -- hard on all of us."

By the time the calendar year started, the Red Sox were in a state of major transition. Bobby Valentine was back in the Major Leagues for the first time in 10 years and hoping he could aptly replace Terry Francona as manager. Theo Epstein ended his nine-year tenure as general manager to become the president of baseball operations for the Cubs and Cherington was promoted to GM at a chaotic time.

When Spring Training started, everyone wondered how the Sox would respond to the end of 2011, when the worst September collapse in baseball history had left a bitter taste in everyone's mouth.

Unfortunately for the Red Sox, the answer would come too early. The team stumbled to a 1-5 start and, in hindsight, never recovered.

Valentine was dismissed as manager the morning after the regular season ended. He was replaced by John Farrell, a popular and respected figure around the team during his four years (2007-10) as pitching coach.

Here is one last look at a season that will go down in Red Sox infamy, with the top five storylines.

5. Valentine takes shot at Youk

Never had there been so many reporters in the Red Sox clubhouse a couple of hours before the annual Patriots Day Game, which was slated for 11:05 a.m. ET first pitch. But reporters had no choice but to set their alarm clocks early after a television interview aired late the night before, in which Valentine became embroiled in his first of many controversies throughout the season.

On this occasion, the manager appeared to criticize long-time stalwart Kevin Youkilis when he said the following:

"I don't think he's physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past, for some reason," Valentine told WHDH-TV.

Youkilis was stunned to hear those comments and went into Valentine's office for an explanation. While the manager tried to explain himself, Youkilis never regained trust in Valentine.

Meanwhile, Dustin Pedroia, Boston's spiritual leader, took the side of Youkilis, saying of Valentine, "That's not the way we do things around here."

Boston's clubhouse seemed fractured for the rest of the season.

By June, Youkilis was traded to the White Sox to make room for highly touted prospect Will Middlebrooks, who emerged as one of the bright spots of the season for the Red Sox.

Fenway fans will see plenty of Youkilis in 2013, as he recently signed a one-year contract with the -- gulp -- Yankees.

4. Happy 100, Fenway -- did they really have to play the game?

The most poignant day of the season was April 20, when the Red Sox had their grand 100th anniversary celebration of Fenway Park. Every living player in team history was invited to a stirring pregame ceremony, and so many of them showed up, including Johnny Pesky (who would die in August), Bobby Doerr, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, Dwight Evans, Pedro Martinez and countless others.

Unfortunately, the day lost some of its luster when the 2012 Sox took the field for a game against the Yankees and were soundly beaten, 6-2. The next day, things got even worse, as Boston had a 9-0 lead in a nationally televised game against their rivals and lost, 15-9.

"I think we've hit bottom," Valentine said after the game. "That's what I told them after the game. You have to sometimes hit bottom, and if this isn't bottom, we'll find some new ends to the earth, I guess, or something."

Unfortunately, Valentine was prophetic. His team did find some new ends to the baseball earth, and they weren't pretty.

3. Ortiz belts No. 400; then gets hurt

For David Ortiz, life couldn't seem much better than it did in Oakland on July 4, when he clocked home run No. 400 of his illustrious career. Not bad for a guy who was released by the Minnesota Twins after the 2002 season.

Ortiz's milestone blast was his 22nd of the season. Unfortunately, he would hit just one more the rest of the way. The big slugger strained his right Achilles on the seemingly harmless act of running out a home run by teammate Adrian Gonzalez on July 16. The Red Sox had just started to gain some momentum at the time, and three nights later, Cody Ross belted a dramatic walk-off homer to beat the White Sox.

But Ortiz would play just one more game the rest of the season, and the Red Sox never did get back into contention.

2. Blockbuster trade stuns baseball

When the Red Sox arrived to work on Aug. 24, they still harbored some hope of a miracle comeback. But during batting practice, a bombshell broke. The Sox were finalizing a trade with the Dodgers that would jettison Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and utility man Nick Punto.

In return, the Red Sox got prospects, as well as James Loney, who left as a free agent after the 2012 season. But in one fell swoop, Cherington unloaded more than $250 million of salaries, essentially acknowledging the recent lucrative investments were not translating into the on-field results the team hoped.

While announcing the trade, Cherington vowed that the Red Sox would be more disciplined in the future when adding to their roster.

Though the trade signified the potential for rebirth in the future, it erased any slim chance the Sox had of contending in 2012.

The rest of the season was marked by a youth movement, giving prospects like Jose Iglesias and Ryan Lavarnway a chance to play on a regular basis.

1. Farrell returns; offense reshaped

The dismissal of Valentine was inevitable and happened swiftly. While it was no secret the Red Sox coveted Farrell to be the successor, nobody knew if it could become a reality.

Farrell still had a year left on his contract with the Toronto Blue Jays, where he had managed in 2011-12. At the end of the day, the sides reached a settlement, and the Red Sox sent shortstop Mike Aviles to the Jays as compensation for Farrell. Aviles would later be traded to the Indians.

At his introductory press conference at Fenway Park, Farrell beamed from ear to ear.

"It may be debatable across the country, but Boston, in my mind, is the epicenter of the game," Farrell said.

But you need some hitters to win and the Red Sox went out and got some this winter. First, they kept the one they had to, re-signing Ortiz for two years at $26 million. Cherington then reached a three-year, $39-million pact with catcher/first baseman Mike Napoli, a right-handed slugger. That deal is still pending, and some issues appeared to crop up during the physical.

Boston signed free-agent outfielder Shane Victorino, also for three years at $39 million, hoping his defensive ability in center will make him an ideal fit in right. Jonny Gomes was signed (two years, $10 million) to hit left-handed pitching and get his share of playing time in left field.

The Sox then added shortstop Stephen Drew on a one-year deal. Drew hit .223 last year with the D-backs and A's as he recovered from a major ankle injury, but he is a career .265 hitter, who has averaged 11 homers in his seven big league seasons and gets on base at a .328 clip.

The rotation added a battle-tested veteran in Ryan Dempster. The bullpen got a boost when Boston acquired closer Joel Hanrahan in a six-player trade.

Boston Red Sox, Andrew Bailey, Felix Doubront, Will Middlebrooks, David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Shane Victorino