FORT MYERS, Fla. — The Red Sox last won a playoff game on Oct. 18, 2008, when they beat the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series.
Barack Obama was 18 days away from being elected president. That’s how long ago it was.
The franchise has been in a steady slide ever since. The Sox were swept in a Division Series in 2009 and failed to make the playoffs in 2010. A shocking September collapse kept them out of the playoffs again in 2011 and cost manager Terry Francona his job.
General manager Theo Epstein was out the door two weeks later, taking refuge from the storm with the Chicago Cubs.
The Sox went from unsuccessful to uncompetitive last season, falling into last place and losing their most games since 1966. They are a startling 26 games under .500 since the 2011 All-Star break.
Pitchers and catchers will report to JetBlue Park Monday for physicals, and spring training starts Tuesday. John Farrell is the team’s third manager in as many years, and only five players are left from 2008. The Sox are a team in transition, and expectations have not been this modest in years.
It would be a step forward if the Red Sox simply have a winning record. The days of the team being held up as a model for the rest of baseball are over. A new model has to be constructed.
“It’s a collective failure, but I take more responsibility than anyone for it,” general manager Ben Cherington said Saturday. “Last year we were a long way from living up to what we should be on the field [and] off the field. It’s up to us to make the Red Sox what they should be. Some of that has started.”
As the Red Sox gather, much of the focus will be on Farrell.
He spent much of the offseason traveling the country to speak candidly with his players. Those conversations, several players said, were rarely about baseball. Farrell spoke of being accountable and finding a way to reverse the team’s slide.
“He was pretty direct,” said righthander Clay Buchholz, one of the few players left from the days when the Red Sox were feared. “We all realize it has to change.”
Farrell came away from his travels feeling enthused.
“There was a lot of eagerness and anticipation of guys getting down to camp in preparation for this year,” he said. “A number of guys spoke openly and honestly about wanting to rewrite the script this year based on what took place a year ago.”
For a last-place team, the Red Sox are remarkably free of spring training competition and drama. Cherington signed seven free agents and traded for Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan. Barring injury, the Red Sox have a set lineup and rotation. The only work to be done on the roster in spring training is assembling a bench and picking out the right pieces for the bullpen.
“A lot of the team is in place,” Cherington said.
A bigger chore will be recapturing the feeling the Sox once had. Somewhere along the way, a team that couldn’t stand to lose became accustomed to it. The Sox gave away at-bats like candy on Halloween last season and shrugged off losses.
“As bad as last year was, what happened before that isn’t that far away,” Cherington said. “For those that were here, remember the highs that came with that, the success. The guys that weren’t here have heard enough from people that they know how great it is to play in Boston when things are going well. I think there’s a lot of motivation to play well and get this thing going again.”
As the Red Sox start over, their division competition has improved. The Yankees and Orioles made the playoffs last season. The Rays won 90 games and the Blue Jays spent the offseason remaking their roster with expensive star players such as Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, and R.A. Dickey. It was the reverse approach of the Sox.
There is hope. The Yankees are aging and dealing with injuries and yet another Alex Rodriguez controversy.
The Orioles did little to improve their roster, and the Rays took what seems like a step back by trading starter James Shields. The Blue Jays, while fearsome on paper, have not made the playoffs since 1993.
“It’s a really good division, but we’re still the Red Sox,” said righthander Daniel Bard. “We’re always going to have that target a little bit on our back. Even last year, when our record didn’t indicate we were very good, it still felt like we got everyone’s best shot. It’s not going to be any different this year.”
Cherington was able to hire the manager he wanted and remade the roster with little apparent regard for headlines or marketing. The Red Sox had a relentlessly measured approach to the winter, if such a thing is possible.Continued...