BOSTON — The Boston Red Sox didn’t just build a World Series champion in 2013.
They also created a blueprint for the team’s next title.
The Red Sox took advantage of last August’s salary purge to add middle-market free agents like Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino and Koji Uehara — all key contributors to the World Series championship. As he looks to this offseason, general manager Ben Cherington will need to replace some big parts of the ’13 team — including center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury — without making the free agent mistakes of the past.
“To be in this position, given where we’ve come from, reflecting back a year ago at this time, there’s been a lot that’s happened in 13 months,” manager John Farrell said after the game.
“Ben Cherington deserves all the credit in the world for what he has done for this roster. To come in and see the energy and the commitment that the (players) had, the buying into a team concept every single day, and the one thing that really stands out more than anything is just their overall will to win. And that was no more evident than in this entire postseason.”
The Red Sox were still smarting from their 2011 collapse when they traded Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and more than $250 million in future salaries to the Los Angeles Dodgers last August. Although the team finished in last place, with the franchise’s worst record in almost half a century, the rebuilding had already begun.
Instead of showering money on the biggest names to replace the high-priced talent that had departed, Cherington opted to take smaller risks on mid-range players.
It paid off with Uehara, the team’s third or fourth choice as closer, winning the AL championship series MVP and closing out the last three wins in the World Series. It paid off with Victorino, who hit a game-winning grand slam in the ALCS and a three-run double in the Series clincher. And it paid off with Napoli, who had a three-run double in Game 1, and Gomes, whose three-run homer won Game 4.
“I’m a believer,” Gomes said, adding that he knew the team had potential when he first reported to spring training. “As soon as we went to Fort Myers, (I knew) the movie’s already been written, all we had to do was press play. And this is what happened.”
But now it’s time for the sequel.
Ellsbury is a free agent and agent Scott Boras is expected to demand a nine-figure contract. Napoli is also unsigned for next year, along with shortstop Stephen Drew and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. The team will almost certainly prevent pitcher Jon Lester from becoming a free agent by picking up his $13 million option.
Drew could be replaced at shortstop by prospect Xander Bogaerts, who played his way onto the postseason roster. David Ross wound up as the primary catcher by the end of the Series, but if Saltalamacchia leaves the Red Sox would be looking for a replacement. Jackie Bradley Jr. and Daniel Nava are available to join Gomes and Victorino in the outfield.
Other free agents include onetime closer Joel Hanrahan, who was acquired in a trade from Pittsburgh but missed most of the season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Left-handed reliever Matt Thornton and shortstop John McDonald, who weren’t on the postseason roster, are also eligible to become free agents.
Farrell doesn’t know how the team will replace those who leave.
But he is hoping the improved clubhouse atmosphere will help the team sign any free agents they target.
“I think maybe what’s gone on around the game or what’s happened here probably is taken note around the league,” Farrell said before the 6-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 6.
“And I think, in the eyes of some, Boston might present some specific challenges that might be intimidating for certain players. But I would hope what they’re witnessing would certainly become a place of destination for a number of guys that might have a choice.”