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February 09. 2013 9:51PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Red Sox are hoping for happy ending

After a season worse than any of the 45 before it, the biggest story of the Red Sox winter focused on the new pieces brought in to fix a broken machine. And it was a story told - and retold - several times over.

It began with a new manager, then new coaches, then renovations that filled out the roster with reputable talent and respected teammates. Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, Stephen Drew, Jonny Gomes, David Ross, Koji Uehara, Joel Hanrahan, and, at long last, Mike Napoli all fit the mission of that makeover.

In total, the Sox pledged more than $107 million in guaranteed salaries for those eight serviceable major leaguers, about $60 million of which they'll pay this season - but they didn't commit more than $39 million to any of them, or any of the supposed stars on the free-agent market. And that is explained by the second big story of the Red Sox winter:

Ben Cherington still believes in Boston's core.

For all the bats it brought in, the club's three most important offensive players remain Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz. For all the talk about the need to upgrade the pitching staff, when pitchers and catchers officially report to spring training today the team's two most important arms will be those attached to the torsos of Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz.

All five are either homegrown or historic figures within the franchise, fixtures to the point they're the only current players who've ever won a playoff game with Boston, and teammates since they all played for the Red Sox team that won the World Series in 2007. Back then, anyone looking ahead six years could've quite easily foreseen this quintet - with the possible exception of the now-37-year-old Ortiz - as Fenway's nucleus in 2013.

Much has happened and changed since then, as the Red Sox have morphed from baseball's model organization to its biggest laughingstock, their chicken-and-beer fueled collapse followed by the follies of Bobby Valentine, and a perennial playoff contender devolving into the AL East's cellar dweller. But the fact that after it all Cherington has decided to build around them by bringing in complementary pieces, rather than feel compelled to supplement it with additional stars, speaks to his confidence that this core is still capable of getting the Red Sox back to where they're supposed to be. Back to not only being competitive, but to competing for a place in October.

Don't think for a second that's not the objective of this season, either. Some have already labeled this a bridge year, merely a link between the problems of yesteryear and the promising prospects of tomorrow - but that idea seemingly ignores two rather significant factors.

The first is the payroll. After trading the big-dollar deals of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett last summer, the Sox had put themselves in a position where if they wanted to operate on a smaller budget for a season they could've done it by spending conservatively this winter. Instead, they expect to open in $162 million in salaries, again among the highest in baseball.

And that relates to the second factor, which is the type of player the Sox sought and signed. There were (and still are a few) veteran free agents who would've gladly taken a short-term, short-money deal if Boston had offered it. But instead the Sox gave Victorino three years at $13 million per. They gave Dempster $26.5 million for two seasons. Gomes and Ross even got multiple years at above market value, and though Drew and Napoli are on one-year pacts, the former is still making $9.5 million as he looks to rebuild his own value and the latter has a hip that makes him a health concern.

Add in Uehara and six of those seven signees were on playoff teams last year, while Victorino had been to the postseason each of the previous five seasons, an indication that Boston targeted players who've experienced winning; and those players chose Boston in some part because that's what they expect to do here.

"I believe we have as much chance to win as anyone else," Dempster said when he signed in December, - but even then, at a press conference to introduce one of the new guys, Cherington reminded that it is more likely to be the old guys that determine if winning actually happens.

Said the Meriden-bred GM, "We believe the performance of the guys who are already here is going to have a bigger effect on the overall rotation than any one player we add." And while that also includes John Lackey and Felix Doubront, it's really an acknowledgment that the Sox need Lester and Buchholz to be the top-of-the-rotation types they so sorely lacked last season.

Just as they need Ellsbury, Pedroia, Ortiz and second-year third baseman Will Middlebrooks to be healthy and to produce at their expected levels as the heart of the order. Napoli, Victorino and Drew are all solid big-leaguers, while Ross and Gomes are good backups, but none of them is good enough to impact a lineup the way those returning players have. The way Cherington clearly believes they still can, based on how he built his roster.

And the way that could make the big story of the Red Sox' summer one that enjoys a surprisingly happy ending.


Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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