After the Red Sox put an exclamation point on one of the most compelling stories in baseball history last October, only champagne bottles were left to be collected in the home team clubhouse.
Before anyone is allowed to enter Fenway Park on Friday for the start of a surreal series against the Yankees, clubhouse manager Tom McLaughlin surely will need to pick up splintered locker stalls, crushed shower heads, couch stuffing and maybe even a little napalm.
Ben Cherington, his baseball ops and the three-headed ownership group blew up the 2014 Red Sox. Blew up the pitching staff. Blew up the roster. Blew up the clubhouse. Four of five of April's starting pitchers? Gone. Nine months after champagne filled those lovable beards and splattered all over those "Boston Strong" T-shirts ... ka-boom!
Jake Peavy and Felix Doubront already were gone the past week. In the hours and minutes leading up to the 4 p.m. deadline Thursday, Jon Lester, Jonny Gomes, John Lackey, Andrew Miller and Stephen Drew followed. And here's the remarkable part: At a crucial time of year when teams make deals that involve moving prospects to shore up a run at winning it all, the last-place Red Sox engaged in major leaguer-for-major leaguer trades.
If the intent was increased scorecard sales, mission accomplished.
The message is clear: A baseball-crazy town may be forced to live with last-place finishes, but Boston will not endure long-term rebuilding. The Sox are playing for April 2015. Gathering a handful of dirt in left field and bidding the lyric little beard-box adieu, Gomes, who represented the idiosyncratic 2013 worst-to-first team as well as anyone, told WEEI, "I can't fathom a baseball player ever saying he'd want to get out of Boston."
Too bad a few too many Red Sox played like they wanted to get out of town this disastrous season.
Red Sox fans and Lester's longtime teammates have every right to have full hearts and frayed emotions after he was traded along with Gomes to the Oakland A's in a deal for Yoenis Cespedes.
For a guy sometimes taciturn, Lester had a knack for making others tear up with emotion. He beat anaplastic large cell lymphoma. He came back from cancer to no-hit the Royals. And there he was last October, not only beating Adam Wainwright twice in the World Series, but reveling in the joy of a shocking worst-to-first novel. Yep, he even smiled.
Lester notched victories in two of Boston's three World Series championships since 2004. He was one of the great workhorse left-handers in club history, an invaluable commodity that the team ultimately did not value enough. It is absolutely normal for fans to be crestfallen he is gone.
That's where the absolute ends. Claiming to know exactly how Thursday will fit into the 2015 puzzle is absurd. The money saved by not signing Lester, a batch of redundant positional players now on the roster and a batch of prospects must be used to land a top-of-the line starting pitcher — a Cole Hamels, somebody really good — before next spring. Otherwise the puzzle is worthless.
If the Red Sox thought by offering Lester that embarrassingly low four-year, $70 million deal in March they could somehow manipulate him into a huge hometown discount, they blew it. They were fools. If they knew as soon as Max Scherzer turned down a six-year, $144 million deal in spring training that the market had been set for top free-agent pitchers and they had no intention of giving that kind of deal to Lester, they made a cold, calculated decision.
Baseball romance is lost on days like Thursday. You want to believe that a homegrown guy, one who gritted everything out, totally earned his keep, a champion, would be able to collect when his free-agent time arrived. You want to believe he'll stay healthy and effective deep, deep, deep into his career like Andy Pettitte. Yet, it is has been well documented, from CC Sabathia to Justin Verlander and on, that the six- and seven-year contracts for pitchers in their 30s reach the point of diminishing returns before the end of the deal. And despite career numbers in 2014, numberfire.com pointed out Lester's fastball has actually dropped from 92.7 to 92. The fastball usually is the first to erode.
This will not stop some team from giving Lester a six-year deal along the order of $150 million. There was plenty of lip service given Thursday about how Cherington will look like a genius when he signs Lester back over the winter. Stop! The list of players returning as free agents only a few months after traded at the deadline is nearly as short as Cubs World Series wins since 1908. Can't see it. The real nightmare in Boston is with Sabathia's knee and Masahiro Tanaka's elbow, the Yankees sign Lester.
In August 2012 when the Red Sox moved Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett, dumping more than $250 million in salary on the Dodgers in process, I wrote that New England was so giddy about the addition by subtraction that Bill James would need a new metric to quantify that euphoria. Yet I also questioned if the demanding Red Sox fans could handle a long, rebuilding job. What happened? The Sox were world champions within 14 months.
They also are now looking at three disasters in four seasons, and a year after Cherington could do no wrong, at least before Thursday, he could do no right this year. Yet, as pointed out in the fierce Boston talk shows, since John Henry bought the team only the Yankees have won more regular season games and nobody can match Boston's three World Series titles. The Red Sox successfully moved from ace to ace, from Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling to Beckett to Lester.
The Yankees merely piddled at the deadline, earning thanks from Red Sox fans for taking Drew off their hands. The Mets did nothing — the only action around Citi Field were scenes from "Sharknado 2." Just when Oakland's Billy Beane was being crowned again as the greatest genius the history to never have won anything in the postseason, the Tigers stepped in to steal some of his thunder — they got David Price at the buzzer. With those two killer staffs, are there any volunteers to hit in an A's-Tigers ALCS on a 38-degree night in Detroit? Didn't think so.
Cespedes has desperately needed outfield power and a cannon arm to go with those of Jackie Bradley Jr. and Shane Victorino. If the pitcher's mound could be placed at 200 feet, the Red Sox would have the best staff in baseball. Critics will point to Cespedes' poor on-base percentage, that he's already a free agent after 2015 and that despite the A's playing in a pitcher's park, his hitting metrics are actually inferior away from Oakland.
Allen Craig was an All-Star with the Cardinals last year, but he's hitting under .240, and Joe Kelly is 2-2 in seven starts after missing three months with a hamstring injury. When they are right, these are quality major leaguers who'll help Boston. The Red Sox also have all sorts of pitching prospects: One, Anthony Ranaudo, will make his MLB debut Friday. They now have a surplus of outfielders and first basemen, too. All this must add up to a top-line starter or the ka-boom of Thursday won't be worth it.
Stung by those monstrous deals to Gonzalez and Crawford and a mistrust of long-term deals for a pitcher in his 30s, the Red Sox could be hamstrung by a philosophy that worked brilliantly after 2012 but may not work this time. They have become a worst-to-first-to-worst phenomena and they will need a stroke of genius or a barrel of cash and a long-term commitment to land the big-time pitcher and make a run at first again.