Off-season patience could position Sox for sustained success

Off-season patience could position Sox for sustained success
October 5, 2012, 10:17 pm
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Just five years ago this month, the Red Sox had won their second World Series in the span of four seasons, the future for the franchise could not have been brighter.

In addition to their recent success, the Red Sox roster was brimming with young starts in the making (Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester), and the minor league system promised more to come (Justin Masterson, Clay Buchholz).

The team was the envy of most organizations and the model to many.

Viewed through that same prism now, the Red Sox are barely recognizable. They just compiled their worst won-loss record in 47 years. They haven't won a post-season game since 2008 and haven't played a playoff game in the last three years.

Worse, for the second time in as many Octobers, the Red Sox will spend the first month of the off-season in search of a new manager.

Sustained success and stability seem like quaint notions from another era.

What happened?

For one thing, the Sox lost their way philosophically. Eager to maintain their high level of success (two World Series titles, two other trips to the ALCS in the previous five seasons), the Red Sox abandoned the practice of focusing mostly on homegrown talent.

The focus on being a "scouting and player development machine'' that former GM Theo Epstein has vowed to adhere to was suddenly discarded, with an eye toward TV ratings, marketing the brand and attracting more casual fans.

Moreover, the pressure to match the previous level of success led them to sacrifice top prospects (Masterson and Nick Magadone) for short-term gain (Victor Martinez).

But a depleted minor league system, coupled with underperforming (and costly) free agents -- John Lackey, Carl Crawford, Mike Cameron -- conspired to lead to a fallow period for the franchise.

In the end, 2012 may be regarded as the year the franchise bottomed out.

When the Red Sox unloaded Josh Beckett, Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Aug. 25, they did more than shed more than a quarter of a billion dollars from current and future payroll obligations.

They were also signaling a return to their roots.

The deal, aimed to give the franchise a re-set, also was a concession that the practice of handing out nine-figure contracts to free agents -- or, in the case of Gonzalez, recently-acquired, soon-to-be free agents -- was a losing proposition.

Even for a big market, high revenue team like the Red Sox, the club's free-spending ways proved particularly costly last winter. The Sox needed pitching to provide some depth to the rotation, but limited by the looming threat of the competitive balance tax (luxury tax), the Sox were unable to compete for such second-tier free agents as Hiroki Kuroda and Edwin Jackson.

When formerly front-line starters such as Lester and Buchholz stumbled badly and depth was in short-supply, the rotation imploded, sending the team on a downward spiral.

The blockbuster with the Dodgers was accompanied by public admissions from ownership and the front office that the Sox had lost their way and needed to return to a more "disciplined'' approach to spending.

It won't take long to put the Red Sox' new-found discipline to the test. The top two free agents this winter should come with warning signs: outfielder Josh Hamilton, a recovering addict, and starter Zack Greinke, who has battled a social anxiety disorder.

A more prudent course would have the Sox looking at more affordable, complementary players who could augment the core of players (Pedroia, Ellsbury, Will Middlebrooks), limit financial risk and help the Sox be more competitive in the short-term.

The organization's best prospects -- infielder Xander Bogaerts, outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and pitcher Matt Barnes -- are considered a year away from being ready to contribute. But some short-term investments are needed to pull the club out of the basement for 2013.

If the team resists the lure of Hamilton and Greinke and returns to its original premise, a rebound might take longer, but could be longer-lasting.