The Boston Red Sox actually did achieve something in 2012. The club's payroll got up over $175 million, eclipsing the franchise's previous high by darn near $10 million.
Aside from that, the 2012 Red Sox indeed weren't much for achievement. The vibes were bad from the beginning, and the white flag was waved when the team jettisoned several star players and more than $200 million in salaries in August.
It was a demolition job, one designed to give the Red Sox a clean slate on which to build a new team. And for this one, they decided to go a bit cheaper.
Many months later, we can say the following with some conviction: Good thinking.
After opening the season with a still-high-but-relatively-subdued payroll of around $155 million, the Red Sox clinched the American League pennant on Saturday night. Game 6 of the American League Championship Series resulted in a 5-2 victory over the Detroit Tigers, sending the 38,823 in attendance at Fenway Park into a state of glee, a sight last seen in 2007.
Shane Victorino provided the big hit, digging the Red Sox out of a 2-1 hole in the seventh inning by sending an 0-2 curveball from Jose Veras over the Green Monster for a grand slam. The inning had started with a leadoff double by Jonny Gomes. That came moments after Stephen Drew had ended the sixth inning by robbing Miguel Cabrera of an RBI hit with a diving play at shortstop.
The game ultimately ended with Koji Uehara on the mound, where he struck out former Red Sox infielder Jose Iglesias swinging for the final out.
One thing these four players have in common is that none of them were property of the Red Sox this time last year. And that leads us to the second thing they have in common: Each of them is a product of Boston general manager Ben Cherington's shrewd thinking.
In that regard, they're not alone.
Uehara was the cheapest of the aforementioned investments. The Red Sox picked him up as a free agent for only $4.25 million guaranteed, a signing that barely moved the needle.
All Uehara did was rescue the Red Sox's closer situation with a 1.09 ERA and 21 saves in 24 tries. He's allowed one earned run in eight postseason appearances to this point, and he was awarded the ALCS MVP after saving three of the six games. He was the winning pitcher in another.
Gomes, meanwhile, only made $5 million in 2013, the first year of a $10 million deal. He gave the Red Sox a solid .771 OPS in the regular season, and his double in Game 6 is one of two big doubles hit by him so far in October (the other being a two-RBI double in Game 1 of the ALDS).
As for Drew, Cherington picked him up on a one-year, $9.5 million deal that seemed like a borderline overpay for a guy who had posted a .657 OPS in 2012 after coming off a brutal ankle injury suffered in the 2011 season. But he had an .824 OPS in his last 82 games, and his diving play in the sixth inning of Game 6 was just the latest feat in a season full of defensive wizardry at shortstop.
Then there's Victorino. The three-year, $39 million contract the Red Sox gave him was their biggest investment of the offseason, and it drew criticism from all corners. ESPN's Keith Law was among the more notable critics of the contract, writing that it was doomed to fail.
It didn't. Victorino posted an .801 OPS, and his outstanding defense helped him become the fifth-most valuable outfielder in baseball by FanGraphs' reckoning. And while he was a non-factor for much of the ALCS, he quickly became a factor with that swing in the seventh inning.
That covers the Game 6 heroes, but how about the other offseason additions who made good on relatively small investments?
Mike Napoli is one. He initially agreed to a contract identical to Victorino's, but health issues allowed the Red Sox to talk him down to a one-year contract that guaranteed him only $5 million.
Though Napoli did bump his 2013 earnings up to $13 million via incentives, that's still a decent price for an .857 OPS and 23 homers. Napoli's solo home run off Justin Verlander won Game 3 of the ALCS, and his homer off Anibal Sanchez in Game 4 was a difference-maker in a game that ended in a 4-3 final.
David Ross also had a hand in that outcome, going 2-for-3 with an RBI double. He's in Boston on a two-year contract that paid him only $3.1 million in 2012.
And let's not forget David Ortiz. He was also a free agent over the winter, and Cherington brought him back into the fold on a two-year contract that paid him $14.5 million in 2013. In a day and age when there are dozens of players making as much as $15 million per year, Ortiz's $14.5 million salary actually made him the second-most expensive player on the Red Sox.
Predictably, the Red Sox got their money's worth. Ortiz had a .959 OPS and 30 home runs during the regular season, and his grand slam in Game 2 of the ALCS propelled the Red Sox to a stunning comeback victory.
Achievements. Achievements aplenty. How about some perspective to go along with it?
Seven players were just name-dropped above. All seven signed with the Red Sox as free agents over the offseason, and the seven of them were guaranteed only $54.35 million.
That's a fraction of a lot of things. It's about a third of Boston's Opening Day payroll. It's about a fifth of the roughly $250 million the Red Sox dumped on the Los Angeles Dodgers in last August's mega-trade. It's about a third of one of the contracts involved in that deal. It's a little more than a third of another contract involved in it.
"Money well spent" is a phrase that we seem to rarely use in conjunction with baseball. It couldn't be used in conjunction with the 2010 Red Sox, who opened at a little over $168 million. Nor the 2011 Red Sox, who opened at almost $164 million. It certainly couldn't be used with the $175 million monstrosity that was the 2012 Red Sox.
But it can be used with the 2013 Red Sox. Emphatically so, at that. If the Red Sox teams of 2010-2012 were a monument to the horrors of big spending gone wrong, the 2013 Red Sox are a monument to careful spending gone right. That's known in some circles as "smart spending."
The same compliment can be bestowed on the team the Red Sox are about to face in the World Series. The St. Louis Cardinals have a payroll significantly lower than Boston's, and part of the reason it's not higher is because the club decided not to meet Albert Pujols' price tag after the 2011 season.
Pujols went to the Los Angeles Angels on a $250 million deal. The Cardinals responded by using some of the money they saved to sign Carlos Beltran and extend Yadier Molina. More recently, they extended Adam Wainwright. And of course, the draft pick they gained from Pujols' signing with the Angels turned into none other than the 2013 NLCS MVP, Michael Wacha.
For those who appreciate major league front offices that don't need ginormous checkbooks to build great teams—and I think that's all of us—this year's World Series matchup is one for the books.
Now, to be fair, it is possible for big spending to work. Look at what the 2009 New York Yankees were able to do after signing CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett. And as I wrote on Friday, the 2013 Dodgers have proved that they can win with a big-spending model.
But spending big and winning baseball games is so much harder than it should be. Escalating payroll didn't help the Red Sox. It didn't help the Philadelphia Phillies. It's sending the Angels backward rather than forward.
And alas, it's possible that the foe the Red Sox just vanquished will soon be joining the parade of cautionary tales.
The Tigers' highest-paid player now and next year is Prince Fielder. He signed a $214 million contract in 2012, and the Tigers have witnessed his power go down in two straight regular seasons. They've also seen him look hopeless in the postseason both years.
Before long, Justin Verlander will be Detroit's highest-paid player. While he did pick things up at the end of the year, he also looked lost for much of the regular season. Not a good omen considering that the really expensive years of his $180 million extension don't kick in until 2015.
If these two contracts blow up in Detroit's face, the Tigers will learn the same lesson the Red Sox learned. Throwing money at big-name players can seem like a good idea at the time. Heck, it might even seem like a good idea a short while later.
But when big deals go bad, they go really bad. Worse, there's generally no getting rid of them.
It should be granted that the Red Sox were fortunate to find a way out of having to live with their bad deals. With the Dodgers loaded with cash and hungry for star power, the Red Sox were in the right place at the right time last August. They got lucky.
While luck may have saved the Red Sox, however, it wasn't luck that brought them back. It was having learned their lesson that brought them back.
Rather than "giving in to that monster," as former Boston GM Theo Epstein put it last year, the Red Sox created their own monster via measured thinking that resulted in a series of low-risk, high-reward maneuvers that augmented a roster that already had some talented pieces in place.
The monster not only lived, but thrived.
And now it wants the Cardinals.
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