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Deep pitching sets up Red Sox for success

Talented arms give Cherington trading chips to strengthen other areas of need

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Jacoby Ellsbury flew the coop, along with Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Stephen Drew could be the next to leave.

And the Red Sox are set to roll on.

Drew, whose home run off Michael Wacha in Game 6 was the cherry on top of the World Series for the Red Sox, could still re-enlist at Fenway Park. But whether he stays or leaves, the defending champions will be just fine.

After a busy week in which they agreed to re-sign Mike Napoli and added A.J. Pierzynski and an under-the-radar impact arm in Edward Mujica, the Red Sox are enjoying a lack of urgency as they evaluate their next moves at baseball's Winter Meetings.

While manager John Farrell says the World Series "euphoria has definitely left,'" the key for the Red Sox is what their success in 2013 has done to change the narrative around the organization.

With Theo Epstein in charge, this was a desperate organization when baseball executives last came to Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resort. That was three years ago, when the Red Sox pulled off a blockbuster trade for Adrian Gonzalez and took Carl Crawford away from the Rays with a seven-year, $142 million contract. And somehow the level of angst kept increasing offseason by offseason, until Ben Cherington, Epstein's successor, cherry-picked high-character, low-risk guys like Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, Napoli and Drew off the free-agent market last winter.

This autumn, thanks both to the changes that Cherington made and the player-development machine that he and many others helped Epstein create, the Red Sox are remembering what confidence feels like. They believe their storyline in 2014 will be more like the one in '08, when they followed a World Series with a 95-win season and a postseason run that ended in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series against Tampa Bay, than '05, when they were swept in the Division Series by the White Sox after breaking the curse.

During the nine years of the Epstein regime, the Red Sox developed an internal target of 95 wins a season. Given that they had reached that level only six times from 1916 through 2002, you wouldn't have thought that realistic but look at them now.

Boston has won 95-plus seven times in 11 years, and it is in great shape to do it again next season. That's because the Red Sox have the most important commodity in baseball -- and one that Epstein badly lacks with the Cubs -- that is, pitching.

With Clay Buchholz healthy again and midseason acquisition Jake Peavy signed for one more year, the Red Sox are six deep in veteran starting pitchers. And the cast behind Jon Lester, John Lackey, Felix Doubront, Dempster, Buchholz and Peavy includes Brandon Workman, Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa, all of whom would be in the rotation picture immediately for a second-division team.

"You consider Webster, De La Rosa, and that next young wave coming, we're in a very good place from an organization standpoint with the health of pitching and power arms," Farrell said.

Look below Webster and De La Rosa, who were acquired from the Dodgers in the manna-from-heaven deal that tripped the reset button, and you will see that Farrell is understating the Red Sox's strength. Matt Barnes, Henry Owens and Anthony Ranaudo are in the high Minors, one strong Spring Training away from creating the kind of buzz that preceded Lackey and Buchholz to Boston.

If the 2014 season started tomorrow, the Red Sox could have three unproven players in their lineup -- Jackie Bradley Jr. in center field, Xander Bogaerts at shortstop and Will Middlebrooks at third base. Farrell says he could be comfortable with this if the three are "playing to their capabilities."

That's a telling qualifier, and a concept that doesn't really matter. The Red Sox will either re-sign Drew or use one of their veteran starters -- most likely Peavy or Lackey -- to get them a shortstop or third baseman.

With Chris Owings and Matt Davidson seemingly ready for the big leagues, the D-backs might part with Martin Prado or Didi Gregorius for Peavy. Or Cherington could set his sights on a guy who would have been a high-value target last October -- switch-hitting third baseman Chase Headley of the Padres, with Lackey or younger pitching (not Peavy) in play.

Listening to Farrell on Monday, it sounds like the Red Sox believe the 23-year-old Bradley can become a solid center fielder, if not a stats-accumulator like Ellsbury, and love everything they've seen with Bogaerts, 21. The jury's out on Middlebrooks, although Farrell said he's working out daily at Fenway Park in order to get back on track in 2014.

"This is a guy who still has very good raw talent,'" Farrell said. "He had some challenges this year, but there's no reason to think he can't regain some of the form he [showed when he] came to the big leagues in 2011. This is a talented guy who collectively we have to get back on track more consistently."

Well, either that or toss him into onto one of those strength-in-numbers trades built around pitching depth. Cherington is in a position of strength, and this time around the Red Sox seem certain to just keep building better and better teams around David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia. That's what you do when you build a winner the right way.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for
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