Would Red Sox Not Bringing Back Free Agents Hurt Championship Chemistry?

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Would Red Sox Not Bringing Back Free Agents Hurt Championship Chemistry?
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The Boston Red Sox were a fizzing, bubbling chemistry experiment that produced outstanding results in 2013: 97 wins, an AL East crown and, ultimately, a World Series championship.

But back at the drawing board is where you'll find Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington these days. One of the tasks at hand is for him to somehow maintain the chemistry that helped make the Red Sox's 2013 such a roaring success.

It's likely he'll be forced to do so without some key variables that fit into the 2013 formula. Six Red Sox are free agents: Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, John McDonald and Joel Hanrahan.

There's at least one Red Sox player who wants the band to stay together so it can keep on rocking.

“I’d like to see them keep everyone around. It works,” Clay Buchholz told ESPNBoston.com. “Everybody’s good with each other, we all get along. Like to be around each other, and obviously we’ve got a good team too. I’d like to see it stay the same.” 

But what if Buchholz doesn't get his wish? What if Boston's free agents find new homes this winter? Would the chemistry that the Red Sox enjoyed in 2013 be damaged beyond repair?

My honest answer: Meh, I doubt it.

This is, however, definitely a case where at least asking the question is justified. In light of how it came to be and how the club's key free agents contributed to it, what will become of the 2013 Red Sox's chemistry this winter is a legit talking point.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Former Mets, Braves, Cardinals, Yankees and Dodgers manager Joe Torre shared an interesting take on the origin of clubhouse chemistry to ESPN.com a couple years ago.

"Winning creates chemistry more than the other way around," he said.

Most will probably agree with that sentiment. Members of the 2013 Red Sox, however, would probably say otherwise. They had good clubhouse chemistry before they won a single game.

Which, of course, was the whole idea.

We all remember The Great Nick Punto Trade of 2012, yes? In sending Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Punto and about $250 million in salaries to the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Red Sox were signing up for lots and lots of payroll leeway and, well, something else. 

Leigh Montville of Sports on Earth referred to the trade as "an exorcism, a cleansing, a purge" of "perceived villains." It was meant to give the Red Sox a clean slate on which to build a new clubhouse culture, and Cherington didn't cut any corners in doing so.

He fired poisonous manager Bobby Valentine the day after the 2012 season ended, replacing him with former Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell soon after. When he was introduced, Farrell expressed that he wanted Boston's clubhouse to be a "positive place" where players truly wanted to play.

Cherington did his part. Rather than going after super-duper-stars like Josh Hamilton or Zack Greinke, Cherington targeted guys like Jonny Gomes, David Ross, Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster and Napoli; good, solid players with reputations as quality clubhouse guys.

"They've really solidified their team on the field, and all the toxins should be removed from the clubhouse because you're adding some really top-of-the-line human beings," one front office exec told John Perrotto of Baseball Prospectus.

It was obvious as soon as spring training that the efforts weren't going to be for naught. John Tomase of the Boston Herald via Hardball Talk wrote that the vibes were "eleventy-billion times better" than they had been in either of the two prior seasons.

This feeling never did go away in 2013.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Boston's 8-2 thumping of the Yankees on Opening Day was the most tone-setting of tone-setting victories. If the tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombings in April didn't bring the Red Sox closer together, it certainly made them more determined to make the 2013 season a special one.

Eventually, the beards came. Silly as they were, they came to characterize a run to the World Series that launched a thousand columns and TV segments about the guys they belonged to.

"I think we all motivated each other,” Victorino told the Boston Herald. “I can go on and on about this whole team. I can name every single guy, and every single guy stepped up all year long.”

Had Victorino actually named every single guy, he would have gotten around to Boston's free agents eventually, and likely put a special emphasis on the key four: Ellsbury, Napoli, Drew and Saltalamacchia. In addition to being highly valuable playersBaseball-Reference.com says they combined for 15.9 WAR in 2013—they each fit into the fabric of the team's culture in their own way.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Napoli arrived in Boston with a built-in reputation as a good teammate, and can be credited as a co-founder (along with Gomes) of the Red Sox's bonding-through-beards movement.

As for Salty, Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe noted that there were "few complaints" from Red Sox pitchers about throwing to him. In addition, he contributed a "winning attitude" to the clubhouse.

Once singled out by the Boston Globe's Bob Hohler as a guy who "contributed little to the clubhouse culture" of the 2011 Red Sox, Ellsbury was "all in" with the 2013 team, according to Jackie MacMullan of ESPNBoston.com. Rather than a loner, he was one of the guys.

And while you wouldn't think that such a mild-mannered player like Drew would be one of the guys as well, Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe says otherwise:

Stephen is not as demonstrative as some, but is clearly part of the clubhouse gang this season, growing a beard and shaving lines into the back of his head. He even enjoys trash-talking with Dustin Pedroia.

Boston's chemistry could withstand the losses of Hanrahan and McDonald. Hanrahan was lost for the season in early May when he had to go in for Tommy John surgery. According to Rob Bradford of WEEI.com, he was rarely around the team after that. McDonald, meanwhile, was acquired in late August and only played in six games with the Red Sox.

But Napoli, Salty, Ellsbury and Drew? They were part of the chemistry experiment from beginning to end, and they each had a part in keeping it churning. Losing them to free agency would absolutely leave cracks in the clubhouse culture that defined the 2013 Red Sox. And cracks, of course, can spread.

So why say "Meh, I doubt it" at the prospect of Boston's 2013 chemistry being damaged beyond repair if these guys walk?

Well, how about we start with a head count of the players who aren't going anywhere?

Elsa/Getty Images

There's David Ortiz. He's the longest-tenured player on the team, and he knows how and when to present himself as the face of the franchise and as an authoritative voice among his teammates.

There's Dustin Pedroia. He's the other face of the franchise, as well as the Red Sox's resident leader-by-example.

There's Shane Victorino. He's another guy who came to Boston as a reputation as a good clubhouse guy, and proceeded to establish himself as a central part of the Red Sox’s chemistry mix from day one.

There's Jonny Gomes. All he does is bring clubhouses together, and it's a talent his teammates appreciate.

There's David Ross. Seemingly everybody he's ever come across raves about his intangibles, and he quickly became one of the most respected players in the Red Sox’s clubhouse.

And let's not forget Koji Uehara. Three words: High Five City

Do you think the Red Sox's 2013 chemistry is at serious risk this winter?

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Boston's manager isn't going anywhere either. Farrell made realizing his goal of creating a positive atmosphere in the Red Sox's clubhouse look easy, and Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal made a good point in highlighting how it shouldn't have been so easy. With such a deep roster at his disposal, Farrell was ever at the risk of alienating talented players who felt they deserved more playing time. He never did.

Another guy who's not going anywhere: Cherington. And from the sound of things, his appreciation for the value of clubhouse chemistry isn't going anywhere either. He told ESPNBoston.com after the World Series:

When you’re around it and feel it, it’s hard to say it’s not valuable. I don’t know if any of us know how to engineer it, but when you’re around it and feel it, you feel the group coming together as it did. I don’t have any doubt it’s valuable, I just don’t know how to predict it.

Changes are going to happen this winter. And if you believe Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.com, those changes will very likely involve Ellsbury and Drew departing for greener pastures. And if the aging Carlos Ruiz can get three years and $26 million on this year's market, Salty could well be priced beyond where the Red Sox are willing to go. The same could happen with Napoli, who stands to benefit from having one thing that's not so easily found: right-handed power.

But even if these guys leave, it will be parts of Boston's 2013 chemistry that will be lost. Not the core.

In the key players the Red Sox have signed for 2014 and beyond, that will still be there. So will the guy who oversaw it. Meanwhile at the upper levels, the guy charged with replacing what's lost has every reason to stick to the same good-guy-seeking model that worked so well last winter.

The 2014 Red Sox are going to be a different team. But given the list of people who are still firmly tied to the organization, there's bound to be a lot about the 2014 team that will feel the same.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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