They say you wouldn’t know success if it walked right up and bit you. That’s true, but only sometimes. Only one team gets the World Series trophy. Only one team gets fitted for new rings. Only one team gets serenaded by screaming fans while parading through the city streets. For years the Yankees would repeat ad nauseam that their season wasn’t a success unless they won the World Series. But that’s not true, right? Success is more loosely defined than Al Davis or George Steinbrenner claimed. From where we sit now, here on our collective duffs in late December, the Red Sox look like a World Series contender. But what if they don’t win the whole thing? Can they still have a successful season? Of course they can.
Try as we might to forget, this is a team coming off three last place finishes in four seasons. Yes, two of those seasons bookended a World Series win, and that’s fantastic (I have the DVDs to prove it), but Boston’s season was over by July three of the last four seasons. That’s not competitive, so maybe we have to dial back our expectations from World Series or bust. Maybe all teams should, really. What makes a season successful? I can’t claim to have the definitive list, but here are five things that don’t directly define success by themselves, but push the needle in a positive direction.
1. Removing Organizational Negatives
This is what made the 2012 season a success, and probably the only thing that made the 2012 season a success. When then-GM Ben Cherington dealt Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, and Adrian Gonzalez to the Dodgers, it didn’t matter what he got in return. The pay off was that the Red Sox didn’t have to pay Crawford, Beckett, or Gonzalez. The 2013 season was a textbook example of how quickly a team can add important pieces to fill holes on a roster when the team has financial flexibility to maneuver. That was made possible by Cherington’s deal in 2012, and the 2013 World Series win doesn’t happen without that. The parallel to 2016 isn’t direct, but moving Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez off the team’s ledger would certainly allow the Red Sox to add different and potentially better players following the 2016 and 2017 seasons. Or maybe not. It looks that way now, but things have a way of changing mid-season.
2. Young Player Development
Though you don’t get a flag to hoist up next opening day, developing young players will go a long way toward flipping a losing record. The Red Sox did that a bit in 2013, and their failure to do it in 2014 helped make 2014 what 2014 was. It might not be enough on its own, but steps forward from Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley, Christian Vazquez, Blake Swihart, Eduardo Rodriguez, Travis Shaw, and heck, throw Rusney Castillo in there as well, would go a long way toward strengthening the Red Sox over the next half decade. When you think about it, it’s really quite an impressive prospective core of players, but one that is, as it stands now, incomplete, more potential than fact. Bogaerts and Betts could be All-Stars. Swihart has that kind of upside, but has some steps to take to get there. Who knows what Vazquez, Bradley, or Shaw are at this point. Rodriguez and Castillo could be cornerstone type building blocks, or, simply put, not. And this is only to note the young players at the major league level. Rafael Devers, Yoan Moncada, Henry Owens, all could be huge parts of a long run of Red Sox success. Or, you know, not. Even if the major league team wins 80 games in 2016, would anyone call 2016 a failure if that group of players put up successful seasons? They probably shouldn’t.
3. Avoiding In-Season Mistakes
In-season acquisitions are often the kind that, if they don’t directly lead to success in the playoffs, doom a team long term. Think what the Orioles gave up for Andrew Miller, or just mention Larry Andersen on Lansdowne Street. The list is long and painfully distinguished. Often teams on the cusp of contending make moves to help push them forward. Often those teams come to regret those moves later on. A modern example: Blue Jays fans are riding a wave of positive feelings after making the playoffs for the first time in two decades, and doing so on the back of the mid-season acquisitions of David Price and Troy Tulowitzki. That’s great for them, but how are they going to feel in two seasons when Price is beating them in Boston and Tulowitzki is 32 going on 78 and they haven’t played a single World Series game? This is more a case of avoiding badness than courting goodness, but still.
4. Overall Team Growth
Teams can not win, but still win, ya know? The organization doesn’t act like it, but this is a last place team. There are steps between last place and World Series winner. You don’t have to hit each one on your way, there’s no road map to winning the World Series, but it stands to reason a team can use a season to improve, to take steps forward, to bring up young players to show their talent, to have veterans improve in ways that maybe we didn’t know they could. Were the Astros counting on Dallas Keuchel to win a Cy Young a few years back? How about the Cubs when they picked up Jake Arrieta for two used kleenexes and a plastic spork? Neither team won the Series in 2015, but the steps forward those pitchers took have improved each organization immeasurably.
5. Team Success
Finally we get to this one. After finishing last, would winning the AL East be good enough? Maybe so. Losing always stings, and each team enters the playoffs thinking they have a shot at being the last one standing, but look at the Cubs. They’re not coming off a World Series win. They didn’t even make it there. The Royals are the champions, but would you rather be them or the Cubs in 2016? The Red Sox might not win the World Series. Also they might! But even if they don’t, there are ways they can make 2016 worth their time. Xander Bogaerts can develop that power we’ve all been waiting for. Mookie can… well, do it all again. Dustin Pedroia can stay healthy and keep slugging. Hanley and Panda can be productive, positive players instead of sinkholes of awful. Jackie can hit in months called April, May, June, and September.
The list goes on, of course. It all adds up. Bit by bit. And each bit can be important to the whole, and therefore to future success. The 2016 Red Sox look promising, and that’s wonderful. But they might not win the World Series. And that’s okay. After two lost seasons in a row, we know there are lots of other ways to win.
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