By Maureen Mullen
BOSTON -- From worst to first to… now what?
When the Red Sox accepted the Dodgers' overtures in August 2012, it was a blockbuster trade that not only changed the future of the Red Sox organization, but also took more than $260 million off the books for the Sox while creating badly needed roster flexibility. It also cleared several toxic personalities out of the clubhouse.
It is not an exaggeration to state that the Red Sox 2013 World Series championship would not have happened without that trade.
But now what?
The Red Sox were sellers at the trade deadline, and they took that role seriously, sending away five players in four deals on Thursday alone. The moves sent shockwaves throughout baseball. It was a trade deadline day unlike any the Red Sox had seen in recent memory -- they even completed a deal with the Yankees for the first time since 1997.
It is an unusual and uncomfortable role for the Sox -- the first time they've been deadline sellers, rather than buyers, under the current regime, which took over the team in 2002. It's also a strange position for a defending World Series champion, a team with a payroll north of $150 million and a team with the highest average ticket prices in baseball.
But that is what a last-place standing in your division will get you. And with a roster full of playoff-tested veterans, the Sox were popular trading partners.
"There's nothing sort of celebratory about this," said Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington. "These moves are made because collectively, as an organization, we haven't performed well enough. And then, yeah, there's demand because we're in a unique position where despite the record of the team we had a number of guys, particularly pitching, performing really well and very recently playoff-tested. So it was a unique combination."
In a series of moves on Thursday, the Sox began to reshape their team for 2015 and beyond. They sent left-hander Jon Lester and outfielder Jonny Gomes to Oakland for outfielder Yoenis Cespedes; right-hander John Lackey and a minor-leaguer to St. Louis for outfielder/first baseman Allen Craig and right-hander Joe Kelly; left-hander Andrew Miller to Baltimore for minor league left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez; and shortstop Stephen Drew to the Yankees for infielder/outfielder Kelly Johnson.
The moves signaled what most of their fans had already acknowledged: Wait 'til next year.
And that is exactly what the Sox -- who are 12 games below .500, matching a season low, in last place in the American League East and losers of eight of their last nine games -- have their sights set on.
Before he climbed into his Ford pickup truck to leave Fenway Park on Thursday, his Sox equipment bags loaded in the back, Lester was met by Sox principal owner John Henry. The two shared a hug and then the big lefty drove off.
One Sox veteran, shaking his head in wonder Wednesday afternoon, said he had never been on a team that had almost every player potentially available in a trade, including himself.
"Kind of a hard thing to put into words," said another. "Hope we get to hear from someone to know the plan going forward."
Trading disgruntled lefty Felix Doubront to the Cubs on Wednesday (for a player to be named) was one thing. But sending Lester away Thursday morning -- the first of the deals for the Sox on deadline day -- was a clear sign the Sox were conceding 2014, with higher hopes for 2015, and anyone was fair game.
Lester, 30, had been a fan favorite, the ace of their staff, and a cornerstone of the organization since he had been a second-round pick out of high school in Tacoma, Wash., in 2002. He had virtually grown up in the organization, from a young, highly-regarded prospect, to a 22-year-old rookie facing a cancer scare, to the owner of a no-hitter in his first full season, to a two-time World Series winner.
But he did not fit their philosophy of not giving long-term, megabucks contracts to pitchers over 30. After a low-ball offer in spring training short-circuited negotiations, it became less likely the Sox were going to offer the years and the dollars it would take to keep Lester -- who can be a free agent after the season -- in a Sox uniform. So, he is gone.
While the Sox made the moves looking to the future, there is an element of disappointment in them.
"It is exciting for me to maybe help Christian [Vazquez, the rookie catcher] and some young pitchers to learn the league," said catcher David Ross. "[But it] stinks losing friends and great players that you just won the World Series with."
"We're in this position because of the performance of the team and the performance of the team is ultimately my responsibility," Cherington said. "If we had done a better job as an organization this year and performed better, then it's not just likely but obvious that most of this stuff would not have happened today. So you have to start there. I have to start there with the acknowledgement that if we weren't in the position that we're in, which I take responsibility for, then these trades don't happen and we don't want to be in that position. We take responsibility for it. Our performance on the field hasn't been good and certainly not good enough."
Beginning with the trade of right-hander Jake Peavy on July 26 to San Francisco (for minor-league pitchers Edwin Escobar and Heath Hembree), the Sox have jettisoned four-fifths of their Opening Day starting rotation and three-fourths of the World Series starting rotation. Going back to July 9, when the Sox designated catcher A.J. Pierzynski for assignment, Boston has sent away eight members -- nearly one-third of its 25-man roster.
But now, the Sox can begin to reshape their team. In Cespedes (who can be a free agent after 2015) and Craig (who is signed through 2018), they get much-needed right-handed power bats in the outfield (although Craig's numbers are down while he continues to deal with the effects of a serious ankle injury from last season).
"Clearly offense has been an issue all year," Cherington said. "Everyone knows that. So we knew that that was going to have to improve no matter what in different ways before next year and we still certainly believe that some of that improvement is going to come from the continued maturation of our younger players and maybe bounce-backs from some of the veterans and that's got to be a part of it. But we knew we were going to have to add -- wanted to add -- to the offense in probably more than one way."
While Kelly will be inserted into the rotation, Cherington said he expects to be active in the starting pitching market this winter.
Because of the moves, young players will now be getting a good deal of playing time. Highly-regarded rookie Xander Bogaerts can move back to his preferred shortstop position with Will Middlebrooks to be recalled from his extended rehab assignment to take over third base on Friday. Right-hander Anthony Ranaudo, the Sox' first-round (39th overall) pick in 2010, will make his major-league debut Friday against the Yankees.
"I think we're in better position than they were a week ago but certainly not done," Cherington said. "I think obviously now that the deadline's passed, there's likely a lot less activity as far as roster moves the rest of the way other than I'm sure at some point some young players will come up. Hopefully we've done things to get a head start on the offseason, address some things."
The 2012 blockbuster deal led directly to the 2013 World Series title. Will the 2014 deals have the same effect on 2015? The Sox still have a lot of work left to do, but they hope this day points them in the right direction.
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Maureen Mullen has covered the Red Sox and Major League Baseball since 2002. Her work can also be read on Boston.com and in the Boston Globe, USA TODAY and several other traditional and new media outlets. She is the author of Diary of a Red Sox Season, 2007 with the legendary Johnny Pesky, and Yogi Was Up with a Guy on Third, conversations with 53 of the 64 living Hall of Famers.