We're now roughly two weeks beyond the victorious conclusion of the most fulfilling angst-limited Red Sox season imaginable, and yet as general manager Ben Cherington proceeds into what's sure to be an eventful offseason, there's one question that continues to linger:
Do we still underestimate how talented this team was?
The themes of redemption and unity -- not only with each other, but with the city of Boston itself -- were so strong and irresistible that the elite individual ability of some of the players on this team was overshadowed by the whole. Which is just fine, of course -- a selfless baseball team is a scarcity to savor.
But I also think, based on recent correspondence via various mediums, that it has led some observers to conclude that the everyman appeal of this Red Sox team is an indication that they don't require and should no longer try to acquire proven stars, particularly ones wearing a steep price tag. And that's a short-sighted and potentially counter-productive way of thinking.
First of all, they had stars, though perhaps we don't think of them as such around here because they are so familiar.
Dustin Pedroia has a diverse collection of impressive trophies -- and MVP award, a Rookie of the Year award, and now, a Defensive Player of the Year honor. Jon Lester is a genuine ace now, having vanquished the likes of Max Scherzer, Matt Moore, and Adam Wainwright en route to a postseason that puts him among finest playoff performers of his generation.
And perhaps we were beginning to take David Ortiz for granted around here -- raise your hand and bow your head if you were one of those griping about giving him a two-year deal before the season.
But his latest legendary-in-real-time postseason performance, on top of a regular season in which he finished sixth in the American League in batting (.309), seventh in RBIs (103) and eighth in homers (30), reminded us that he's still a superstar run-producer. And his new gig as an actual producer for an MTV baseball show suggests his charismatic personality transcends his sport.
Jacoby Ellsbury, a terrific if enigmatic player, is about to be paid like a superstar, Shane Victorino has won four Gold Glove awards and ranked in the MVP balloting twice, and Koji Uehara is one of the most effective relief pitchers in the history of baseball.
A significant part of the Red Sox' worst-to-first redemption this season is that every last one of their established holdovers was more valuable (based on Wins Above Replacement) this season than last. Their excellent players were excellent again.
The mission in following up this wonderful season is fairly simple: Acquire more excellent players. Let's acknowledge that another near-perfect batting average for Cherington in free agency is going to be impossible; he was at least 6 for 7 in signings last winter, depending upon how you feel about Ryan Dempster's contribution.
But finding so many quality, undervalued veterans who fit in terms of position and character is not as easy as he made it seem, and this year's market may not yield such options, especially with the Red Sox' formula for success likely being blueprinted around the league.
There is a lesson in the relatively recent Boston sports past: the 2001 Patriots, with their Mike Vrabels and Roman Phifers, had a difficult time replicating that successful shopping spree of the unsung and unknown in ensuing seasons.
Yet they did hit on some stars -- Rodney Harrison and, to a lesser degree because of injury, Rosevelt Colvin before the 2003 season -- and the Red Sox should be willing to pay the price for similar quality.
That does not mean a trade for the likes of Mark Trumbo, whose sub-.300 on-base percentage suggests he's the last player who would be on the Red Sox' radar. It does not mean overpaying for two-dimensional first basemen such as Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols, or Mark Teixeira when the next of their tempting, flawed ilk hits the market. And it does not mean committing four years to Carlos Beltran.
It depends on the individual, how he fits on and off the field, and what the cost is in terms of cash and prospects. But for all of the howling at the moon about how they better have learned their lesson from Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, perhaps the lesson is being misinterpreted: It's not that you shouldn't pay for stars. It's that you damn sure had better make sure that you're paying for the right ones.
They have in the past, you'll recall. In retrospect, getting Pedro Martinez in November 1997 for just Tony Armas Jr. and Carl Pavano is a heist of insane proportions; it's stunning that three or four more prospects weren't part of the price.
If you're complaining about the eight-year, $160 million deal Manny Ramirez signed in December 2000, well, it must be personal, because for 7 1/2 years he was worth every dime in terms of production and entertainment.
Johnny Damon, signed after the miserable 2001 season, changed the culture and delivered arguably the biggest hit in franchise history.
The Red Sox even had the right idea on a deal or two that didn't happen. In August 2009, Theo Epstein tried to make the Mariners an offer they couldn't refuse for young ace Felix Hernandez, reportedly offering five players of Seattle's choosing from this list of eight:
In retrospect, I don't think any of us would have complained had they paid such a price for one of the best pitchers of his generation.
It's important for Cherington to be bold so long as he's pursuing the right high-priced player. He was wise enough to know a season ago that Josh Hamilton did not fit such a profile. But given their deep farm system that now features prospect redundancy at a couple of positions -- and you cannot keep all of them -- it's worth exploring whether Giancarlo Stanton can be had for a package of well-regarded young players.
The same goes for any other prime-of-career star whom Cherington sees as a fit here. His decision-making was practically flawless last offseason, but the needs of his team and the talent available to fill those requirements demand inevitable alterations to that blueprint.
Here's to seeing whether Cherington's offseason sequel can approach such a remarkable debut. I know this much: I believe in him to make those crucial choices. How can you not after that season, when he put together a team so likable that we actually underestimated its talent?
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.