After winning the World Series in 2004 and '07, the Red Sox looked poised to add more championships in the immediate future. But they lost Game 7 of the '08 American League Championship Series, got swept in a '09 AL Division Series and then missed the playoffs the next three seasons.
Boston endured the biggest September collapse in baseball history in 2011, losing 20 of its final 27 games to blow a nine-game lead for the Wild Card over the Rays. The next season was even worse, as the Red Sox won just 69 times and posted their worst record since 1965.
In his second year as general manager, Ben Cherington was forced to remake his club for 2013. Boston signed seven free agents during the offseason, and all of them have met or exceeded expectations. Add in bounceback years and the return to health of several players, and the Red Sox rebounded to post the best record in baseball this season.
That turnaround may have surprised a lot of baseball observers, but Cherington said the Red Sox fully expected to be competitive in 2013.
"We thought we'd have a chance to compete for a playoff spot," Cherington said. "We thought the team was deeper than in the past and we had some young talent closer to helping as depth, if not regular roles. We felt more protected, even if we didn't have as many high-profile names as we had in previous years."
Part of the reason that Cherington and the Red Sox liked their chances this year was that they figured that not as much could go wrong as it did in 2012.
2005 (1st supp.)
A year after finishing runner-up in the AL MVP voting, Jacoby Ellsbury hurt his right shoulder trying to break up a double play in mid-April and was sidelined or ineffective for much of last season. The lineup lost another regular in mid-August when a 95-mph Esmil Rogers fastball broke Will Middlebrooks' right wrist. On the mound, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester stayed healthy but posted the worst full-season ERAs of their careers by more than a full run.
They all bounced back in 2013, with Ellsbury leading the Majors in steals, Middlebrooks recovering from a midseason slump and demotion to become one of Boston's most dangerous hitters in the second half, and Buchholz and Lester regaining their previous frontline-starter form.
All four of those players were products of Red Sox Drafts. Lester ($1 million as a second-round pick in 2002) and Middlebrooks ($925,000 as a fifth-round pick in '07) are examples of the Boston's aggressiveness in the Draft, as the team repeatedly exceeded MLB's unofficial slot recommendations to sign talent before the rules changed in the current Collective Bargaining Agreement. Ellsbury ($1.4 million, first round) and Buchholz ($800,000, supplemental first) also received lucrative bonuses as part of a bumper 2005 crop in which the Red Sox had five picks before the second round and turned them all into big leaguers (Craig Hansen, Jed Lowrie and Michael Bowden were the others).
Lester and Ellsbury were Boston's top picks in their respective Drafts, just as perennial All-Star Dustin Pedroia was when he signed for $575,000 as a second-rounder in 2004. Those three all established themselves with the team and helped the franchise win the World Series in '07, and the Red Sox were counting on them to spur a turnaround this year.
"As difficult as 2012 was, we really were very optimistic about the state of the organization, even though we knew we had a lot of work to do," Cherington said. "We still had a core of homegrown guys on the Major League team in their prime years and under control. Our farm system was developing not just depth, but also guys percolating to the top of the system."
In addition to their success with the Draft, the Red Sox have had success internationally. Among the 10 playoff teams this year, only the Dodgers can match Boston's total of three homegrown foreign players on its playoff roster.
Felix Doubront, who likely will shift from the rotation to the bullpen for the postseason, signed for $150,000 out of Venezuela in 2004. Junichi Tazawa created a stir in Japan in '08 when he asked Nippon Professional Baseball teams not to draft him -- he likely would have been the No. 1 overall pick -- -and instead signed a $3.3 million deal with the Red Sox. Boston also found the game's best all-around shortstop prospect in Aruba in '09, inking Xander Bogaerts for $410,000.
In the last two seasons, Doubront has become the first international pitcher who has come through the Red Sox's system to hold a regular spot in their rotation since Rogelio Moret in 1975. Bogaerts likely will become a full-time starter in 2014, making him the first foreign homegrown player to do so for Boston since Carlos Quintana in 1991.
The Red Sox acquired just four members of their postseason roster via player trades, the lowest total among the playoff clubs. (If you're scoring at home, Mike Carp and Franklin Morales were picked up in straight cash purchases.)
Acquired via trade
Jarrod Saltalamacchia arrived from the Rangers in July 2010 for Chris McGuiness and Minor Leaguers Roman Mendez and Michael Thomas. Craig Breslow, who spent 2006-07 in the organization after signing as a Minor League free agent, returned last July in a deal that sent Matt Albers and Scott Podsednik to the D-backs.
Boston swung two deals with the White Sox this July. It sent outfield prospect Brandon Jacobs to Chicago for Matt Thornton, and shipped Jose Iglesias to the Tigers and Minor Leaguers Francellis Montas, Cleuluis Rondon and J.B. Wendelken to the White Sox in a three-team trade that netted Jake Peavy. And in July, they dealt Clayton Mortensen to Kansas City for outfielder Quintin Berry.
Of course, it would be foolish to suggest that trades didn't play a significant role in making the 2013 Red Sox. The team would look drastically different if not for a blockbuster transaction last August.
With Boston spiraling toward last place, it shed a remarkable $264.7 million in salary commitments in one fell swoop. The Red Sox sent Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto to the Dodgers. Beyond salary relief, Boston also managed to add two blue-chip pitching prospects in Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster, as well as three position players (James Loney, Jerry Sands, Ivan DeJesus Jr.) no longer with the organization.
"The payroll flexibility created with the Dodgers trade helped us to add a number of players," Cherington said. "Our offseason would have been a lot different if we hadn't made that trade. I still think we would have been better. That team could have been very competitive, too."
For 2013 alone, the Red Sox saved $58.25 million in salary by trading Gonzalez, Crawford, Beckett and Punto to Los Angeles. With those contracts off the books, Boston signed seven free agents who totaled $53.1 million in salary for this season.
Acquired via free agency
Shane Victorino (three years, $39 million) got the largest guarantee, followed by Ryan Dempster (two years, $26.5 million), Jonny Gomes (two years, $10 million), Stephen Drew (one year, $9.5 million), David Ross (two years, $6.2 million), Mike Napoli (one year, $5 million) and Koji Uehara (one year, $4.25 million). Uehara has been sensational while filling the closer void that had existed in Boston since Jonathan Papelbon left, and the other six have delivered roughly as anticipated.
While much has been made of an improved Red Sox clubhouse atmosphere, Cherington points out that skill mattered more than makeup when it came to targeting free agents.
"A lot has been made of the character of the players we signed, but we really started with talent," Cherington said. "There are certain player attributes we look for and we sign that. It's important that we find guys who want to be in Boston, who are willing to ignore skeptics and believe in themselves as players and in the team, on top of their talent. But we weren't just looking for character."
Three earlier free-agent signings also have paid off for Boston this season. David Ortiz joined the Red Sox after the Twins non-tendered him following the 2002 season, and he just produced his seventh 30-homer season, second in franchise history to Ted Williams' eight. In the fourth year of a five-year, $82.5 million contract, John Lackey finally has been the solid No. 3 starter Boston thought it was getting.
The most valuable free agent, dollar for dollar, has been Daniel Nava, who cost the Red Sox all of $1 when they purchased him from the Chico Outlaws in the independent Golden Baseball League in January 2008. Placed on waivers (and unclaimed) in 2011 and projected as an extra outfielder this year, Nava instead found regular at-bats and produced the third-highest OPS on the club.