The Red Sox took two out of three from the Dodgers over the weekend, becoming the first team in two and a half months to beat them in a series. By doing so, they held onto the one-game edge they had held on the Rays coming into the weekend. (Tampa also won two of three, over the Yankees.)

Believe it or not, the story of this season that has been underreported and underappreciated most is that of the Red Sox. The events of April threw them into the spotlight for a while, but in general, the headlines this season have gone to the streaky Braves and Royals and Rays and Dodgers; the surprising Pirates; the disappointing Nationals and Blue Jays; Miguel Cabrera, Matt Harvey and Chris Davis; and of course, PED users. The AL East leader is never cast into total anonymity, but the Sox are a fascinating team built in an unusual way, and I think their process deserves a closer look.

Obviously, it’s impossible to talk about this team without talking about The Trade, which occurred a year ago yesterday. They would not have had the chance to reshape the roster as broadly or as boldly if it were not for all the money they saved by dealing Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto (all talented players, but all but Punto attached to onerous monetary commitments) to Los Angeles. It’s not about addition by the subtraction of those players, even if their attitudes or intangibles had been in question. It’s about all that money, and those four roster spots with which Boston could now do as they pleased.

Even considering the margin for error that they gave themselves, though, it’s remarkable what the Sox front office has been able to overcome. Boston went 69-93 last season, but that’s not what makes their turnaround amazing. They were a better team than that, at a fundamental level, and anyway, 20-win swings in fortune aren’t that uncommon these days. The league is in the grips of violent variance, an unpredictability that I’m not sure is historic but is certainly greater than it has been in my decade and a half of paying attention.

Rather, what makes it so surprising that the Sox have made such quick work of their revival is that they have made their share of mistakes (and maybe more), and that their model for fixing themselves gives the lie to conventional wisdom about where winning comes from right now.

It all starts with Jed Lowrie, I think. I could be wrong, but let’s start there and see. The Red Sox appeared to decide, during the offseason before 2012, that they wouldn’t have a significant role for Lowrie, so they traded him. In return, they got Mark Melancon and Kyle Weiland. Weiland hasn’t panned out, but he was never the key to the deal. Melancon was meant to help shore up a bullpen that was losing Jonathan Papelbon to free agency.

Two weeks later, the Sox came to a similar decision about Josh Reddick, so they made the young outfielder part of a package that brought back Andrew Bailey. Now they had a pretty strong relief corps, or so it seemed, and that allowed them to give Daniel Bard—a full-time reliever for three years—a shot at moving back to the rotation.

That was a disaster, and it was wholly predictable. To quote Joe Sheehan’s newsletter (paid-subscription, a must-have for a passionate or intelligent baseball fan) from this weekend:

Breaking in pitchers as relievers worked when the jobs were closer in their practice than they are today. Now, teams don’t roster swingmen or long relievers … Everything about being a relief pitcher in 2013 is so different from being a starter that pitchers cannot safely and effectively move from one role to the other more than once … Moving a starting prospect who has had success in the one-inning role back to the rotation tends to be disastrous for everyone involved.

Bard had a miserable season, or not so much a season, really, as a career derailment. In 17 games (10 starts), he posted a 6.22 ERA and walked 43, while striking out only 38.

Nor did Bailey and Melancon have the expected impact on the bullpen. Melancon spent part of the season in the minors and ended up with a 6.20 ERA. Bailey was even worse, with a 7.04 ERA, although that came in such a small sample (barely over 15 innings, thanks to injuries) that it didn’t color any intelligent fan’s notion of what he is. That relief unit was terrible, and a contributor to the nightmare of a season the Sox ended up having.

Then, bizarrely, the front office doubled down on the strategy.

With Melancon at the nadir of his value, they traded him (and some spare parts from the Big Trade) to Pittsburgh for Established Closer Joel Hanrahan. Given the unpredictability of reliever performance, that was a bad idea, too. Like the ones Boston acted on that first winter, this one, too backfired. Melancon has been unbelievable this season, thoroughly bouncing back from a rough 45-inning stretch. Hanrahan had a 9.82 ERA through nine appearances before he shredded his elbow, and he’s now out for the year.

The prospects the Red Sox added in the deal with the Dodgers have provided no help. Allen Webster has made six starts, but with a 9.57 ERA. Ivan DeJesus and Jerry Sands were lost to the Hanrahan Vortex. Rubby De La Rosa has five uninspiring relief appearances and a 4.76 ERA to his name.

This is what’s amazing about Boston’s success. While every other contender builds through savvy trades and prospect accumulation, Boston is winning thanks almost entirely to aggressive and successful forays into free agency. With every big extension a talented player signs come columns declaring (and occasionally decrying) the death of that institution, yet, as ever, freedom lives and thrives in Boston.

It was $230 million that Boston saved by trading away those four players last August, spread over a total of 14 player seasons (five years of Crawford, six of Gonzalez, two of Beckett and one of Punto). This winter, they sank the majority of that money back into their roster:

Boston Red Sox, Free Agents Signed for 2013 Season

Player Years Average Annual Value Total Value
Ryan Dempster Two $13.25 million $26.5 million
Shane Victorino Three $13 million $39 million
Stephen Drew One $9.5 million $9.5 million
Mike Napoli One $5 million $5 million
Jonny Gomes Two $5 million $10 million
Koji Uehara One $4.25 million $4.25 million
David Ross Two $3.1 million $6.2 million
TOTAL (7) 12 $8.37 million $100.45 million

And although they haven’t taken anyone’s breath away, those guys have returned some solid value. The gigantic gaffes that scared people away from free agency to begin with are not to be found:

Boston Red Sox, Free Agents Signed for 2013 Season

Player 2013 WARP (per Baseball Prospectus)
Ryan Dempster 0.6
Shane Victorino 3.5
Stephen Drew 1.5
Mike Napoli 0.8
Jonny Gomes 1.3
Koji Uehara 1.5
David Ross 0.2
TOTAL (7) 8.4

The Sox are still in the business of buying talent when it becomes available, and thanks to a new approach that spreads the wealth more, emphasizes depth and avoids commitments that could become albatrosses, they’re winning that way.

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