The blueprint: Defining the path to the 'next great Red Sox team'

by: Alex Speier on Tue, 02/12/2013 - 1:00am

Tuesday represents a sort of day of baseball renewal, the first official workout of the spring for pitchers and catchers. The guiding mission of the players who will take part in it and the organization they represent now is straightforward: Build the next great Red Sox team.

But what does that mean? What are the on-field implications of such a lofty ambition, and what was the process that led the team not only to establish that goal but also to define it?

Those questions feature multidimensional answers. The matter of when the Sox gained the freedom to pursue that goal does not.

It should come as little surprise that the pivotal date in the making of the current Red Sox blueprint was Aug. 25, 2012, the day when the Sox completed the blockbuster trade that sent Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto to the Dodgers for five players, most significantly right-handers Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster. It was on that date that Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington first publicly mentioned the notion of "the next great Red Sox team," a term that now has become a familiar part of the Sox' vernacular.

But it was no spur of the moment notion. It was not merely the product of a team wielding a sledgehammer in order to begin the resculpting of its roster.

Instead, it reflected the first public admission of a concern that had been amplifying over the course of the season. Prior to the trade, the organization's ambitions to produce a great team were confined by the inability of the 2012 team to sustain strong play and by the financial reality that the club possessed little flexibility to overturn its personnel.

And so, for much of 2012, Cherington -- in conversations with his baseball operations staff as well as with team owners -- was trying to figure out a way to make the necessary tweaks that might turn a marginal contender into a force with which to be reckoned, a franchise that could reclaim the swagger that prevailed for much of the previous decade.

"We were always looking up. Because we were always looking up, we were having these conversations about why we were looking up, and that included ownership and baseball ops," said Cherington. "But there weren't formal meetings set prior to the trade, a formal self-examination."

The revelation is unsurprising. After all, through the trade deadline, the Sox occupied a sort of long-term no-man's land even as they harbored some short-term competitive hopes.

The team entered the season believing that September 2011 was a remarkable outlier, that the roster nucleus still ranked as the equal of any in baseball and that the 2012 club would shed the humiliation of the previous year's collapse. Though the team struggled at the outset of 2012 and never enjoyed a sustained run of excellence through July, it remained close enough to contention that blowing up the team was never a clear-cut path.

As late as July 19, the Sox were just one game out of the second wild card spot. Of course, typical of the 2012 team, the Sox lost six of their next seven contests, but still, with four straight wins to end July, they arrived at the trade deadline with a 53-51 record and within reach (3.5 games out) of the second wild card spot. The potential return of David Ortiz from his Achilles injury and a return to form by Jacoby Ellsbury, the team thought, could allow a pole vault over the tight grouping of teams jostling for the second wild card spot.

As the deadline approached, the team explored drastically different possibilities. It looked into potential roster upgrades, but for the first time in recent memory, the team also examined the possibility of moving centerpiece players by July 31.

At the time, however, the right possibilities to shed players didn't present themselves. The team was willing to listen to offers, for instance, on Ellsbury, but potential trade partners weren't putting forth the sort of offers to motivate the Sox to part with the 2011 runner-up in the American League MVP race. Meanwhile, there was no market for a player like outfielder Carl Crawford, at a time when he had more than $100 million remaining on his contract after a brutal first year and a half in Boston.

July 31 came and went, and the Red Sox stood pat. The team was without clear direction -- too close to the postseason to abandon hope, too far to compromise the future for the sake of investing in 2012.

That rapidly changed. The team lost four straight and seven of nine following the trade deadline. Just days into August, contention became unrealistic. With hopes for 2012 circling the drain, Cherington directed his focus toward the bigger question of "the next great Red Sox team."

"Because every year in Boston is precious, we don't give up on a year easily. But as it got into August and towards the middle of August, it was too hard to ignore that it wasn't working and that we had to do something about it," said Cherington. "I'd spent a lot of time over the course of the summer trying to figure out who we were and reached the conclusion, I would say in early August, that it just wasn't working.

"The crux of those conversations was, 'Let's not settle for a chance to be good. Our standard is higher than that.' As we got into August, I think we came to the conclusion that we couldn't be great in the way that we wanted to be great over a long period of time unless we made some more fundamental changes."

As that notion crystallized for Cherington, the team was presented with a startling opportunity. In the days leading up to the trade deadline, Sox CEO/president Larry Lucchino had received a call from Dodgers president Stan Kasten, with whom he had enjoyed a working relationship for more than 25 years.

"[Kasten] made an unusual phone call -- 'Larry, I can't believe I'm making this phone call; in all my years of baseball, I've never made a phone call like this, but we have money to spend and we're looking to take on some high-priced, high-quality players, so if you're thinking of moving any of yours, don't forget us,' " recalled Lucchino. "That prompted a specific review of that alternative."

There was, according to multiple team sources, a sense that the team had at least a chance of contending in 2013 with subtler alterations to the status quo. Maybe the team would enact an offseason trade involving one of its higher-salaried players -- Beckett seemed a candidate to offer some salary relief -- and, with the right signing or two and a return to form by some of the underperforming members of the 2012 team, the Sox might contend.

Still, the alternative to a blockbuster deal with the Dodgers most likely represented an exercise in slapping lipstick on a pig -- just as had proven the case with the team's cosmetic moves of the previous offseason. With the Sox having accepted that they would not contend in 2012, a more formal, precise conversation between baseball operations and ownership commenced.

If the Sox could leverage the Dodgers' startling wealth into an opportunity to reconfigure, what would the team do with its newfound financial flexibility? What were the mistakes that precipitated the Sox' willingness to shed three players who less than 24 months earlier had seemed like pieces of the team's foundation, and how could those be avoided if the trade was consummated? What characteristics would define the team's efforts going forward?

It quickly became clear that the trade represented a way forward. Yes, the team was putting itself in a challenging position at first base by parting with Adrian Gonzalez prior to an offseason where replacement options at the position were few, but that represented a step back in order to take three leaps forward. At a time when Crawford would be out for the rest of 2012 and a considerable portion of 2013 and Beckett showed clear evidence of decline, compromising one position seemed a small price to pay for an upgrade to the entire roster.

THE SELF-EXAMINATION

There was substance to those conversations in the days building to the trade, to be sure. Still, those were mostly focused on the extent of the issues facing the team, on embracing the stark reality that the roster as constituted in late August was unlikely to offer a sustainable championship-caliber team in the years to come.

In the days that followed the Dodgers trade, Cherington's notion of building "the next great Red Sox team" took form as a defining aspect of the organization's mission. The term served as both an acknowledgment ("We don't have it on hand," noted Lucchino) as well as a clearly defined aspiration.

After Aug. 25, the focus turned from the present to both the past and the future. Cherington began conversations at numerous levels of the organization to try to determine what had gone wrong and what needed to be done while trying to underscore the fact that conceding 2012 represented a means for getting better going forward, starting in 2013.

Prior to the press conference to discuss the trade, Cherington met individually with a number of key players to discuss that rationale behind the trade and to discuss what the team wanted to build going forward. Thereafter, in a number of individual and small group meetings and conference calls, he talked with members of his baseball operations staff as well as scouts and player development officials about what the team wanted to accomplish through the trade.

"Ben did a really good job of making us go back and go through the steps that got us there to make sure we learned from the experience," said one team official. "Once that trade was made, he impressed upon all of us that we have a huge opportunity to mold this now more into what we want. ... It brought a new vigor and enthusiasm to the organization."

Cherington is methodical by nature, and so in many ways, the questions that emerged in the aftermath of the trade were well suited for his typically comprehensive approach. In the last days of August and throughout September, a series of meetings commenced at the front office and ownership levels to define the team's direction.

"We did this, now what? What do we need to do to build this back up? What things are we looking to do, what attributes are we looking for, what can we learn from the things we've done before and mistakes we've made? There was a series of candid conversations with ownership and baseball ops about where we've been, how we've gotten here, how we move forward," said Cherington. "When you're examining something like what went wrong in 2012, there has to be some criticism in those conversations, but it was always about how do we get this thing right.

"These are the people that will help us get this thing right, we're behind you but we have to get it right. It was a very clear message that, we have to get this thing right. We're the Boston Red Sox, and this is unacceptable. Let's talk about it, present to us how we're going to get it right, and we're behind you. Let's get it right."

The conversations started almost immediately after the trade, and indeed, helped to create a considerable amount of public misperception at one point.

The Red Sox went on a nine-game, nine-day West Coast swing following the Dodgers blockbuster. With team principal owner John Henry, chairman Tom Werner and Lucchino parachuting in, a sense prevailed that the ax could fall on manager Bobby Valentine at any point. In fact, the owners were joining baseball operations officials on a fact-finding mission meant to gain a better sense of the ills plaguing the team and to determine a path forward.

Of course, the fact that Valentine remained in place created its own challenges. Still, while there were regular fires to extinguish through the duration of 2012, the Sox' attention remained on the bigger picture as the team gained clarity about what kind of organization it wanted to be beyond 2012, how to improve the decision-making processes to make better personnel moves in the future and what kind of players it wanted to add.

The team looked back at the decisions that turned the franchise into a powerhouse from 2003-08, and the ways in which it had strayed from a decision-making model that had yielded tremendous success -- while also acknowledging that, even with a ton of newfound financial freedom, the team would not be able to repeat precisely the set of moves that had created the most talented Red Sox teams.

"We couldn't just go back and replicate what had been done before, the decisions that led to success in '03-'04, '07-'08," said Cherington. "Certainly there are elements to those teams that we do want to do again, but if we just try to replicate that, that probably doesn't work either. It's a new day. Every team is different, the landscape is different, the division is different, the market is different."

Throughout September, Cherington and his baseball operations staff met regularly to scrutinize the strengths and weaknesses of the team's decision-making model and to define both team needs and potential options in a new world that featured ample payroll flexibility. The team engaged in a blanket exploration of potential free agents while also looking at potential contracts it could absorb through trades.

Those conversations informed a meeting on Oct. 4 -- the day after the brutal 69-93 season reached its end -- at principal owner John Henry's house, when Henry, chairman Tom Werner, Lucchino, Cherington and Valentine sat down both to fire the manager and to reflect on the 2012 season.

"I opened a little black book and put it on top: 'Lessons learned,' and suggested we have a candid discussion of what we learned from this extremely disappointing season," said Lucchino. "You can't prescribe a course of treatment until you successfully diagnose the problems. It continues. It just began that day.

"We added specific items: large, small, profound, insightful and obvious, at all different times," he continued. "It became the basis for action items, too. It wasn't just deep philosophy."

'LESSONS LEARNED'

Areas of discussion ranged from what Lucchino described as the "thunderingly obvious" to more subtle tweaks. The result was a clearly defined sense for the Red Sox this offseason about what the problems that existed and the way to correct them.

Among the revelations in Lucchino's "little black book" and in the internal self-examinations of the baseball operations department:

THE MANAGER

As part of the Oct. 4 meeting at Henry's house, there was a candid discussion that included Cherington and Valentine of what Lucchino described as "the critical relationship that exists between the manager and general manager, and how important ease of communication is in that dynamic."

The decision to fire Valentine and replace him with John Farrell represented a very apparent course correction.

THERE WAS (AND IS) A CORE IN PLACE

Early in the offseason, the Sox had a decision to make. Which players who remained on the roster represented potential core members of the next great Red Sox team?

Dustin Pedroia was obvious -- a player who, in production and comportment, represents everything for which the Sox want to stand. Will Middlebrooks represented another such player with his emergence last year. David Ortiz seemed like a no-brainer to re-sign, given his transformative impact on the lineup and his importance in the organization.

There was at least a shade less certainty when it came to Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, both of whom endured disappointing seasons in 2012. In recent offseasons, the idea of the Sox engaging in conversations about either pitcher would have seemed far-fetched given their talent, age and cost. This offseason, however, was different.

Other teams "sniffed blood," according to a major league source, sensing that the Sox might be open to parting with other established big league players even after the Dodgers trade.

The Sox weren't in a position to dismiss immediately the idea of trading anyone on their roster. At the same time, ultimately, members of the front office suggest that the conclusion that they reached regarding Lester and Buchholz was nearly unanimous.

Those two pitchers were not just capable of bouncing back but were likely to do so. The team was willing to pin its hopes for a return to contention on 2013 on the idea that they can still excel.

Farrell's conviction in that regard proved helpful. His belief that both pitchers can help to anchor the staff going forward offered reassurance to team talent evaluators who felt similarly but who had lived through the puzzle of their inconsistency in 2012.

LOSING THE BATTLE FOR STRIKE-ZONE SUPREMACY

At its heart, there was widespread agreement that the team strayed significantly from two key elements that played a considerable role in determining success or failure.

The team's grinding, disciplined lineup that yielded years of high on-base percentages and high pitch counts (useful for knocking enemy starters out of games early) wilted, as the team finished 2012 with a .315 OBP, 10th in the American League. At the same time, the pitching staff strayed from the strike zone as well, resulting in not just a high walk rate (3.3 per nine innings, 11th in the AL) but also in a painstakingly plodding pace to games that tended to prevent the team from being able to seem as if the assault on opposing teams was relentless on both sides of the ball.

That identifiable weakness had as profound an impact on the Sox' offseason roster moves as any other. Most of the players signed by the Sox this offseason -- Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes, Stephen Drew, David Ross -- were done with a nod to the need to exhaust opposing starters and to avoid quick innings that left the Sox on the defensive. At the same time, the addition of a pitcher like Koji Uehara (whose strikeout-to-walk rate is the best in major league history) highlighted the Sox' focus on this particular shortcoming.

The conversation related to pitching also included the notion that the team needed to bring on different voices to contribute to the evaluations of pitchers. That was accomplished with the hiring of former Angels scouting director Eddie Bane and former players Pedro Martinez and Jason Varitek as special assistants to the front office. The addition of Martinez and Varitek was also in keeping with another conclusion that the team reached, chiefly the desire to add more ex-players to the front-office structure. Such individuals could offer insight to the front office about the players' perspective while also possessing an ability to relate to the individuals in uniform based on past experience.

DEPTH OVER BRAND NAMES; TRADE DOLLARS FOR YEARS

In the days leading up to the Dodgers trade, the Sox became painfully aware of the limited elbow room they possessed as a result of sizable long-term contracts gone awry. With Gonzalez underperforming in the first season of his seven-year, $154 million extension, Crawford struggling with performance and health in the first two years of his seven-year, $142 million deal, Beckett's shoulder representing a considerable red flag in year two of his four-year, $68 million extension and John Lackey out for the third season of his five-year, $82.5 million deal, everything the team wanted to do was constrained by the fact that it was constantly pressed against its payroll ceiling.

The team had holes to fill, but no matter how appealing a player might have seemed, the Sox concluded that they could not re-enter the same predicament that they'd just escaped with their August blockbuster. Massive salaries were one thing; massive salaries for many, many years were quite another.

"In our focus on free agency, we discussed the hobbling effect of long-term contracts as a general proposition, and how we were willing to pay a little bit more money for fewer years going forward," said Lucchino.

That had a few implications for the way that the Sox approached the addition of so many free agents this offseason.

First, the team did not go beyond three years in any of its signings. Second, the Sox staggered the duration of the contracts so that they would come off the books in a fashion that would preserve the team's financial flexibility for years to come. With Drew, Uehara and (after a revised contract) Napoli all added on one-year deals; Ortiz, Ryan Dempster, Jonny Gomes and David Ross brought on board for two years each; and Shane Victorino receiving a three-year guarantee, the team felt that it upgraded its roster without constraining it.

"There's a high level of satisfaction with what was able to be accomplished this offseason, perhaps without the gigantic brand name and long-term free agent signing that perhaps fans look to, but if you look below that, I think you'll see some significant additions to this team that suggest a better, more winning and entertaining team this year," said Lucchino.

Meanwhile, the team's superstar-free offseason strategy also represented a means of achieving depth on the active roster. Rather than concentrating an overwhelming percentage of the team's payroll in a few players, the team wanted to distribute its talent more widely so that its success and failure was not tied too heavily in the availability and productivity of one player.

"We're trying to build a deeper team by using our resources over perhaps a greater pool of players but also by maintaining and building that reservoir of young talent," said Cherington.

(More on the reservoir of young talent in a bit.)

LESS CORNER-CUTTING, MORE RISK-AVERSE BEHAVIOR

Too often, the Sox realized in their self-examination, the team had gotten carried away with what a player brought to the table rather than exercising caution based on his risks.

Though reports on Crawford's makeup and work ethic were tremendous, there were questions about how he might adjust to the scrutiny of a huge market while wearing the target of a $20 million-a-year player. There were questions about whether adding him and Gonzalez made the lineup too left-handed, or whether stripping some of the top prospects in the system to trade for Gonzalez left the team too thin. There were questions about whether Beckett and particularly Lackey represented too much of a long-term injury risk when they reached expensive long-term deals with the club.

It's one thing to do that with players who represent, say, 7 or 8 percent of the team's payroll for a couple of years. If such players fail to live up to their big league track records, a team with the Red Sox' payroll can cut ties.

But when there are red flags (or in some cases, sirens) for all of the highest-salaried players on the roster, all of whom are signed for four, five or seven years, with some of them tying up more than 10 percent of the team's total player expenditures, the issue can become crippling.

However, the team reached a point where, year after year, it felt so close to being in position to contend for a spot in the postseason that it wanted to upgrade its big league roster even if it meant overlooking issues with some of the players whom it was acquiring. The emergence of contenders in the AL East beyond the Yankees -- most notably, starting with the Rays in 2008 -- forced the team to raise the standard for what it had to do. If that meant trying to wedge some square pegs into round holes, so be it.

But eventually, so many slightly misshapen pieces splintered the structure of the roster.

"Over time, after having a lot of success over a period of time, I think perhaps we -- in pursuit of the next great thing and continuing that period of success -- we started to take some more risks in thinking that, 'We were able to figure this thing out; we'll figure this thing out, too. If this player can help us this much, we'll figure out a way to help him adjust. Or if this player will help us this much, then we'll figure out a way to replace these minor leaguers that we're giving up for him,' " said Cherington.

MAKEUP AND THE CLUBHOUSE CULTURE

Finding players who are considered outstanding teammates was considered secondary to finding players whose skill sets matched what the Sox were trying to accomplish on the field. Nonetheless, after the wreckage of 2012, the team recognized that it needed players who were considered team-first players who would be comfortable withstanding the scrutiny that would greet the team as it tried to re-establish its footing.

"We're not going to build it back up in a vacuum or in a quiet room somewhere where no one's paying attention," said Cherington. "It's going to be done in Boston where people care and there's going to be attention. We know it's not going to be a straight line. We know that there are going to be good days and bad days. Although John Farrell promised me he wouldn't, we're going to lose three in a row sometime probably.

"We need, in addition to talent, the comfort to know there are some people in that clubhouse who are tough enough to get through that time and hang on what we're trying to do for the long term, show up the next day and get ready to go back to work. We're not trying to build a clubhouse of guys who sing together after the game.

"It was not about that. It was really just a recognition that doing this in Boston is not like doing it in other places. The people who are involved in helping us build this the right way are going to have to go through some adversity in order to get to the good times, and they know that the good times in Boston are really good."

Ortiz, Gomes, Victorino, Ross and Dempster all come with the reputation of being tremendous presences in the clubhouse, influential voices who can help foster a winning culture.

PRESERVE DEPTH IN THE UPPER LEVELS

For several years, the Sox had enjoyed an impressive degree of homegrown depth. At its best, the team filled in for injured or underperforming players with up-and-comers who were ready to forge their big league futures.

But starting in 2010, that changed. The team parted with some of its highest-ceiling prospects in Casey Kelly and Anthony Rizzo (along with Rey Fuentes) for Adrian Gonzalez. The team sacrificed right-hander Stephen Fife as one of four players in the deal for Erik Bedard at the 2011 trade deadline. Mark Melancon cost the team Jed Lowrie (a player who offered the Sox either a potential starting shortstop or depth across the infield) and Kyle Weiland (again, a near big league-ready starter prior to his injury with the Astros). Andrew Bailey came at the expense of Josh Reddick, compromising the team's outfield depth.

Meanwhile, financial inflexibility diminished the team's ability to replenish its depth through relatively inexpensive to moderately priced free agents. Add in a number of injuries to the big league team and you had a team whose vulnerability became apparent too easily.

"I think we put ourselves in a position to be dangerously thin, in part, perhaps by trading prospects or young big leaguers, in part because I think we were concentrating our payroll in a core of players," said Cherington. "At least the last couple of years, we may not have been in position to add, even aside from top prospects, the sort of quality of depth that we had in some of our better years with the roster.

"We weren't satisfied having one good player at a position. We wanted to have two or three. Although we kept trying to do that, because of the lack of ready minor league players and the inability to add good, established, depth major league players, I think we were at a risky point in terms of our roster. I think that showed up -- aside from everything else that was being reported on -- that showed up in September 2011. And it certainly showed up in 2012."

This offseason, the Sox addressed that issue in a couple of ways. Perhaps the most important from a long-term, organization-building standpoint was to avoid depleting through trades the talent reaching the upper minors.

The idea of three-for-one deals involving multiple players who represented key big league depth options was set aside, in part because there wasn't a player on the table (such as a Giancarlo Stanton) to motivate the Sox to move so aggressively, and in no small part because the team didn't want to repeat the sins of the recent past.

So, adding a player like a Dempster who cost the team neither prospects nor a draft pick represented not just a way to upgrade the team's major league roster but also an avenue to increase the team's depth. Perhaps the team could have made a trade for a starter with a higher ceiling (R.A. Dickey or Josh Johnson, for instance), but doing so would have required the team to sacrifice players like an Allen Webster or Rubby De La Rosa or Matt Barnes or Brandon Workman -- perhaps in combination -- and so while the team would have upgraded one potential spot in the rotation, it would have diminished the potential insurance options for all five of its rotation members for years to come.

The absence of players like Kelly, Weiland and Fife, over time, proved a considerable impediment to the Sox' ability to sustain a healthy, productive rotation in the face of injuries. It led indirectly to the wildly unsuccessful conversion of Daniel Bard to the rotation.

The Sox are hoping to avoid a repeat of that upper-levels depletion.

"Holding on to our young players gives us a chance to be deeper. In doing that, hopefully out of that group will come some impact players, too, over time," said Cherington.

This winter, the Sox tried to forge a roster that will be as competitive as possible. Mindful that the team was more than one player away from a roster that could live up to the "next great Red Sox team" standard, volume became critical.

So, rather than depleting depth through trades, the team added to it through free agents. Bringing on Dempster improved the look of the team's rotation depth in Triple-A. Signing Drew meant that the team could boast a strong backup option at shortstop in Jose Iglesias.

By emphasizing free agent signings over the sacrifice of talent through trades, the Sox also gave themselves more time to evaluate potential future core players, and to build further the value of promising players in the lower minors such as left-hander Henry Owens, third baseman Garin Cecchini, shortstop Jose Vinicio and others who will move up the ladder.

DEFENSE

The Sox had outstanding infield defense for much of 2012. The outfield? Not so much, given the constant need to scramble based on the manifold injuries the team experienced in that part of the roster.

"We talked a little about ways of evaluating defense -- how to make the team better defensively," said Lucchino. "One conclusion that came out of it was you need a second center fielder in Fenway Park. You cannot have the expanse of right field covered unless you have a second center fielder playing right field. Two of those three things led to Victorino: the desire to have a center fielder in right field, and the preference for spending more dollars for fewer years."

ACT DECISIVELY, EVEN AT SOME POTENTIAL COST

No one with the Red Sox will deny the notion that they paid something of a premium to follow a blueprint as they signed one free agent after another. Would another team have offered Jonny Gomes a two-year, $10 million deal? Maybe, maybe not. Would another team have given Stephen Drew $9.5 million? Again, tough to say.

But the Sox didn't want to risk losing those players to other teams. It's possible that the Sox could have held firm at, say, $3.5 million or $4 million a year on Gomes and landed him on a slightly less expensive deal. But the potential savings wasn't worth the risk of losing the player.

In the instance of each free agent whom the Sox signed, they asked the same questions: Did they want to sign the player? What was the fallback option? Did the signing prevent the team from doing anything else? Did the team risk losing the player by waiting and haggling?

The Sox didn't want to find out the answer to the latter question. They moved aggressively on one free agent after another, signing players for what seemed to represent full market value as opposed to a discount rate. That was dictated partly by necessity.

The team needed so many players and had so many holes to fill that there was value to resolution. The Sox needed to add a first baseman, a starting pitcher and two corner outfielders, while also exploring options to upgrade at shortstop. Beyond that, they hoped to cherry-pick for opportunities to improve the roster in any manner possible, resulting in further bolstering potential areas of roster strength by adding players like Joel Hanrahan, Uehara and Ross.

Given the need for considerable change, there was value in filling holes and defining areas of the roster to focus on a narrower pool of needs and to define what the team needed to do to address those other needs.

For instance, in signing Stephen Drew, the Sox knew that they had a player who offered a measure of balance to the lineup. Without him, they might have had to consider additional moves to try to achieve lineup balance and, assuming that Jose Iglesias was the shortstop, to bolster the team's offense.

Unquestionably, in this area, there was a consistent method that guided the team, a clearly defined decision-making environment. In recent offseasons, there were head-scratching signings made by the Sox, moves that brought on players who someone seemed at odds with the club's team-building philosophy. There were no such moves this winter.

DENOUEMENT: THE GREAT UNKNOWN

Perhaps this will represent a dramatic about-face, with the Sox vaulting from the rubble of 2012 to contend almost instantly.

Perhaps this will prove analogous to the Sox' platform year of 2002, when newcomers like Johnny Damon and the emergence of Derek Lowe helped lay the groundwork for the team's emergence as a perennial force in 2003.

Which is more likely? No one is sure, but for the first time in ages, the team's relative success as measured in wins and losses in 2013 might be secondary to another more important, longer-term concern on the field.

Will there be more foundational members of the so-called next great Red Sox team at the start of this year -- and, perhaps even more significantly, will there be more such players at the end of 2013 -- than there were on the final day of the 2012 season?

In championing the idea of creating the next great Red Sox team, the organization has put a blueprint in front of a timetable. That is an unfamiliar approach to a team that has been guided by a win-now sense of urgency for nearly a decade, but it attests to the club's desire to build something sustainable.

And given the fact that the offseason followed a carefully laid-out design, there is some sense of satisfaction in what was accomplished during the winter, even as there is uncertainty about what it will yeild in 2013.

"If you talk to people who participated in the process, starting with Ben Cherington, I think you will find a high degree of satisfaction as the offseason unfolded," said Lucchino. We were able to improve in a number of areas, including the bullpen, which was an important part for us, and yet not give away prized prospects or future draft picks. I think that was the great accomplishment in this offseason. [Cherington] was able to have one eye on the present and never took the other eye off the longer-term future. I think we have a better, stronger team in '13. We have the capacity to have outstanding teams in '14 and '15."

Right now, there are fewer questions about the Red Sox -- the direction of the organization, unsettled roster spots, an unfamiliar manager and a hastily assembled coaching staff -- than greeted the team a year ago in Fort Myers.

A year ago, the Sox were a factionalized organization characterized by incipient turf wars -- players vs. players in the aftermath of the clubhouse revelations at the end of 2011, front office vs. ownership on the matter of the manager, manager vs. coaches, front office vs. manager on some personnel decisions. In that environment, there was such a cacophony that it was impossible to see a clear purpose.

That is not the case this spring. At an early stage, there appears both evident agreement and unity throughout the organization on what the team is trying to accomplish.

The first steps forward have been created.

"I believe everything that an organization needs to have in place to be successful is in place for the Red Sox," said Cherington, who cited the commitment of the team's ownership, the clubhouse leadership of the manager, coaching staff and players, the state of the farm system and the scouting and player development infrastructure as the basis of such a claim.

"All of the elements are in place. What has not happened recently is winning at the major league level. And that, more than anything, is how we're defined. Until that happens, we'll continue to face scrutiny. But all of the things that need to be there for that to happen over time are there. Now we have to make good decisions at the major league level.

"How have we done that so far? I guess we're a short way into it," he continued. "We now have to do things at the major league level on and off the field, on the field in terms of how we play, off the field in terms of how we make decisions, acquire players and surround our core that work. We need to do that better than our opposition. That's what [Theo Epstein and Terry Francona] did so well for so long, and now that's what John and I have to do."

What that yields in 2013 remains to be seen. All the same, there is a sense of purpose and clarity as the team looks to shed the uncertainty that plagued the 2012 season in favor of a longer-term vision that is ultimately necessary if the team is to reclaim its past success.