Red Sox Paying a Premium for Chemistry, Depth

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Red Sox Paying a Premium for Chemistry, Depth
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Crowd-pleaser Shane Victorino is the latest acquisition for the Boston Red Sox during a busy Winter Meeting.

In 2011 and 2012, the amount of bats in the lineup was not the problem that doomed the Boston Red Sox to missing the playoffs. Nobody would argue that the Red Sox did not have enough hitting in recent years.

On paper, the people in charge in Boston have done all they can to keep the pitching staff competitive. Homegrown talents Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz were hoped to be enhanced with some out-of-town additions like John Lackey and the human tall-tale that is Daisuke Matsuzaka. In 2012, the pitching rotation buckled under its own weight, eventually snapping and leaving the Boston's many fans to do the same.

Needless to say, personnel was not necessarily the problem with the Boston Red Sox. The problem, as has been reported at unreadable length, centered around two key issues:

  1. The Boston Red Sox had very little depth, meaning that injuries could (and did) easily reverse any momentum the team could gain.

  2. The clubhouse was reportedly dysfunctional in every possible way, starting with the “chicken and beer” stories that surfaced after 2011 and culminating with the Red Sox quitting on manager Bobby Valentine sometime around June.

This offseason, the Red Sox have been working hard to address both of those items, rather than going for the crowd-pleasing big splash. (If anything, a real showman saves the big splash for the end of his routine, and Mr. Cherington is not yet there.)

This is how a team can pay a premium for Shane Victorino coming off of Victorino's worst statistical season to date. This is why a team with several catchers on the roster would go after Mike Napoli with such a passion. This is how Koji Uehara became a higher priority than patching up the rotation.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
John Farrell is getting a roster with more character than it had a year before.

It's all about chemistry and depth. More on the nose, it's about giving John Farrell a real chance to succeed where Bobby Valentine failed so spectacularly.

Shane Victorino is exactly the kind of player the Red Sox have been missing in recent years. He might not be approaching his career peak anymore, but it's likely that he'll still bring his passion to the field.

It was evident during Philadelphia's juggernaut run these past few years that Victorino is not a complainer. He is not a fighter. He is a tireless worker who has fun on the field and wouldn't be caught giving up if he were getting paid to do so. Pretty good example to set, given that the Mayan calendar was apparently trying to warn us about Boston's 2012 season all along.

Veterans with leadership qualities cost money. Big market teams need to pay a premium for “chemistry guys,” in part because they can, and in part because big markets come with pressures that demand clubhouse leadership.

Boston needs guys like Shane Victorino, because not everybody enjoys being bombarded with question after question on and off the field, but the Flyin' Hawaiian never seemed to mind in Philly.

Chemistry contracts don't always look good at first. When the Washington Nationals signed Jayson Werth to a long-term deal, people laughed about how much they over paid. Werth then immediately went on to set an example for a talented, young team to follow to a division title.

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His impact is visible and clear. He plays hard every inning of every game, and the rest of the Nationals are following suit. They bought leadership. Werth is an on-field COO, helping mentor players whose careers are likely to outshine his own such as Bryce Harper.

Jonny Gomes' one defining characteristic has been his clubhouse presence. Gomes has never been a top-level everyday player, but then again one could have said the same of Nick Swisher before the New York Yankees got so much out of him. (Or Kevin Millar before he arrived in Boston, for that matter.)

Mike Napoli can play catcher and he can play first base. The same is true of Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Ryan Lavarnway is getting to a point where he's going to need to play in the majors.

So why bring in Napoli?

Because people who do not play baseball regularly, often forget that catcher is a physically demanding position. Not only are catchers susceptible to injury, they're also unlikely to hurry back from an injury, as they need to be very close to 100 percent to play at all. Having the option to rest a catcher by giving him a few games at first base is something worth paying for.

When it comes to depth, the most difficult place to get it seems to be the bullpen. Bullpen pitchers are inconsistent from year to year for many reasons. Young relievers with promise are often transitioned to the rotation, while older pitchers in the bullpen are nearing the end of careers that mostly began in the rotation.

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As Koji Uehara has been effective in the bullpen for more than one year, he's a reasonable sign that could help shore up the always-volatile bullpen.

No, it's not a trade for Felix Hernandez or a big contract for Josh Hamilton, but those moves without these less-splashy ones wouldn't improve the team. With Victorino and Gomes, the idea of the Red Sox becoming fully dysfunctional and giving up on their manager becomes much less likely.

With Napoli and Uehara, the fear that a couple of key injuries would sink any hope the Red Sox might have in 2013 is lessened.

If this all sounds at all familiar, it's a tactic that Theo Epstein tried very shortly after getting the job in Boston. The Red Sox went out of their way in the winter before the 2003 season to land Kevin Millar, a player known for his clubhouse presence who had gotten so little attention that offseason that he was nearly on his way to Japan when he signed with Boston.

Giving a contract to David Ortiz, at the time a well-liked player in Minnesota who hadn't yet met his potential, was another similar move.

Millar and Ortiz (and Johnny Damon, who like Victorino could have been described in '03 as a hard-working player who exudes personality and can hit in the leadoff spot) combined with some players already on the team who had similar qualities. Jason Varitek became a better player for it, as did Trot Nixon.

The rest is a fond memory in Boston.

Once a team has built a foundation that can both play the game and get along while doing so, it is only then that they can chase the final pieces of the puzzle.

Now, the Red Sox can make their new acquisitions part of their pitch to bigger names. Gomes and Victorino are well-liked in MLB circles, and teams occasionally land a big free agent because that guy wants to play with an old friend or a tough former opponent.

Napoli has his ups and downs, but nobody can really doubt the mental fortitude of a catcher cast aside by a manager who himself was once a catcher because of the way Napoli plays the position.

Since Mike Napoli was sent away from Anaheim, he's hit the cover off of the ball and improved a fair degree behind the plate. These are the kind of players that good players want to join, and these moves suggest the Red Sox will be a more pleasant team to play for in the future than they have been in the last couple of years.

Even if this is all Ben Cherington does through the offseason—or at least the bulk of it—fans can be assured that the 2013 edition of the Boston Red Sox will most certainly not be the joyless non-factor that the 2012 version turned out to be.

It's not a championship-winning set of moves, perhaps, but it's a team far less likely to embarrass an organization and disappoint the millions of people who support it.  

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