David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
BOSTON - The Red Sox have made this look easy, right? Change the manager, add a few mid-range free agents, go from worst to first in the American League East and -- boom! -- Las Vegas labels you the World Series favorite.
Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington knows what people are saying about this seemingly overnight turnaround. He hears them talk about how the Red Sox have drafted a new blueprint for the quick fix. But to Cherington, it doesn't feel so quick.
Not after living through that nightmare of a 93-loss season. Not after gutting $260 million in payroll at the trade deadline. Not after firing Bobby Valentine a year after he was hired.
But Cherington also knew that the Red Sox had the framework for rapid improvement, and that is something not easily copied on the fly during one offseason, regardless of how it may appear from the outside.
"Despite how poorly the year went last year, we really saw a very good future for the organization because we thought that most of the elements that need to be in place for the team to be good over time were in place," Cherington said in a dugout conversation at Fenway Park last week. "A stable ownership group, a very committed ownership group, the resources along with the front office, scouting and player development structure all in place.
"We saw a very bright future. But we also knew that everyone deserved a lot better than what they got last year."
The way the Red Sox are adored in Boston, restoring them to contender status almost felt like a civic responsibility. But before Cherington even explored the free-agent market, he was secure with an All-Star core made up of Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury along with two elite starters in Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz.
The Red Sox also had a farm system that produced, among others, Will Middlebrooks and two young shortstops -- one of the hardest commodities to find -- in Jose Iglesias and Xander Bogaerts. Confident in Bogaerts' ability, they traded Iglesias, a Rookie of the Year candidate, in a three-way deal for Jake Peavy at midseason. That's serious minor-league depth, and another pillar for Cherington's rebuild.
"Things that were in place were easy to forget about because we won 69 games last year," Cherington said. "When you win 69 games, it's understandable and an easy reaction to say, 'There's nothing there -- blow it up.' That's not how we felt. We knew that not a lot of work needed to be done."
Sandy Alderson, talking about the Red Sox makeover in June, referred to them as "reformed smokers" who resisted big-ticket items last offseason in favor of spreading money around on shorter deals.
Alderson abhors contracts longer than five years -- David Wright is the homegrown exception -- and mentioned back then that the Mets could take the same approach with his 2014 payroll flexibility. He talked about the "need to be creative" and putting the club in position "where they can get a little bit lucky."
What the Red Sox did was take the fistfuls of cash saved by shipping Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers and use it for their most glaring problem areas.
The biggest investment was for Shane Victorino, whose three-year, $39-million contract raised eyebrows around the league. Observers wondered why Cherington would spend that kind of money on Victorino, who was coming off his worst season in the majors, one that deteriorated after he was traded to the Dodgers (.245/.316/.351).
But the Red Sox saw value there, especially in a Gold Glove centerfielder who would be a perfect fit to patrol Fenway's spacious lawn in right. For that, and the belief that Victorino, at age 32, could rebound, Cherington felt comfortable in paying for him. Victorino jumped to .294/.351/.451 this season and has been the perfect complement to Ellsbury, playing alongside him in the outfield and hitting behind him in the No. 2 spot.
"The thing is, once you identify who you believe the right fits are, then it's a question of reacting to the market," Cherington said. "In free agency, by definition, the team that ends up signing the player tends to be bidding at the top of the market. In some cases, we did what we had to do to sign the player. We weren't really that concerned about the initial reaction because we felt that fit into the overall plan."
The Red Sox also got lucky. They gave Koji Uehara a one-year, $4.25-million deal and he became one of the game's best closers after season-ending injuries to Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan.
Overall, Cherington added nearly $60 million -- also signing Ryan Dempster, Jonny Gomes, Stephen Drew, David Ross and Mike Napoli -- to boost his 2013 payroll to $154 million.
The makeover wasn't an unqualified success across the board. Dempster, at $26 million for two years, finished 8-9 with a 4.57 ERA. Ross got a two-year deal worth $6.2 million, and as the backup to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, played only 36 games and batted .219.
Considering where the Red Sox are now, they're not complaining. It was all part of the right mix to win the AL East and possibly a World Series.
But duplicating what happened in Boston is not like reading a cookbook. Those ingredients are not always available.
"Every team's circumstances are so different," Cherington said. "I don't know that there's a plan that would work for more than one team. You have to factor in the talent you already have, the environment you're in, the market you're in, the expectations, the resources. All of that is different for every team.
"There's some commonality, I guess. The Cardinals are a team that seems to consistently make good decisions, and there are other teams that do that. Tampa Bay is one of them, so of course they're doing something right. But what they're doing makes sense for them and their specific circumstances. I'm not sure you could just replicate it somewhere else and get the same results. I don't know."