"There is a set of advantages that have to do with material resources, and there is a set that have to do with the absence of material resources and the reason underdogs win as often as they do is that the latter are sometimes every bit the equal of the former. For some reason, this is a very difficult lesson for us to learn. We have I think a very rigid and limited definition of what an advantage is. We think of things as helpful that actually aren't, and think of other things as unhelpful that are." —Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath
Why must Goliath stick to a Goliath's game? What happens if a team armed with tremendous material resources ignores the players whom it is “supposed” to sign, and instead competes for the same players sought by those who lack material resources? This was the case study offered by the 2013 Red Sox, with not merely memorable but also startling results.
The Red Sox' one-year transformation from a 69-win catastrophe to a World Series winner represents one of the most fascinating reversals in baseball history. There are few instances of big-market teams so rapidly repudiating their own operating philosophies, and even fewer of teams so rapidly identifying a successful alternative.
From 2009 to 2011, the Red Sox—tempted by what seemed like their tremendous proximity to a championship—slowly took on one mega-contract after another that seemed out of place with the team’s proclivities of the previous seven off-seasons. In just under a year, they signed John Lackey to a five-year, $82.5-million deal, extended Josh Beckett for four years and $68 million, traded for Adrian Gonzalez and agreed to the parameters of a seven-year, $154-million extension, and signed Carl Crawford to a seven-year, $142-million deal.
These were Goliath moves, with Goliath consequences. By 2012, all four players were underperforming their expectations dramatically, and the Sox proved vulnerable both to the bigger Goliaths (the Yankees) and the more nimble, less elephantine smaller-market competitors from Tampa Bay to Oakland. The Sox were cumbersome, their considerable financial resources maxed in a fashion that made the consequences of injuries to regulars drastic. Either a punch to the face from a larger foe or a well-targeted slingshot from a smaller one could topple the club. The Sox suffered plenty of each.
With roughly $75 million tied up in four players who were being paid like superstars without performing at such a level, the Sox were in a terrible place. Their payroll was functionally maxed out, preventing the team from acquiring players who could compensate for the injuries and underperformances of regulars. Given the need to get under the luxury tax threshold of $189 million in 2014 (a pursuit intended not so much to avoid the tax as to get back millions in revenue sharing), the Red Sox faced a very real possibility of being in a bad, bad place with their roster construction for years.
When the Dodgers liberated the Red Sox from their three most cumbersome contracts (Gonzalez, Crawford, and Beckett) in one swoop, the Sox were more than happy to endure the miserable end of the 2012 season in order to have a chance to start over. And start over they did, without repeating the sins of their recent past.
Instead of concentrating their resources in big-ticket items, the Red Sox steered clear of free agents who required the sacrifice of a draft pick and/or a massive long-term commitment of five or more years. The team never seriously pursued Zack Greinke, Josh Hamilton, or Anibal Sanchez, instead building its 2013 roster (after resigning David Ortiz to a two-year, $26-million deal) through seven free agent signings of one to three years.
Drumroll … Shane Victorino: three years, $39 million; Ryan Dempster: two years, $26.5 million; Stephen Drew: one year, $9.5 million; Jonny Gomes, two years, $10 million; Mike Napoli: one year, $5 million (with incentives that pushed the deal to $13 million); Koji Uehara: one year, $4.25 million; David Ross: two years, $6.2 million.
The team outbid the Rays for Ross (their first signing), the Athletics for Gomes (their second signing), the Indians for Victorino, the Royals for Dempster ... all while identifying players who a) had identifiable on-field value; b) did not cost the team a draft pick, meaning that at no point did the present compromise the future; and c) came with formidable clubhouse credentials that, in combination with the firing of Bobby Valentine and hiring of John Farrell, would permit the team to replace the dizzying and contentious environment of 2012 with restored commitment to nightly preparation.
The result? Uehara jumping into Ross’ arms with the organization’s third championship in 10 seasons.
That recap glosses over quite a bit, and in fairness the success of the approach couldn't be predicted (and very well might not be possible to replicate with the same group of players under the same circumstances). Indeed, Sox officials gleefully acknowledged that they, too, were damn near as surprised as the fans who had dismissed most of the free agent signings as inadequate and/or cheap.