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For Sox, it will be a long trip across bridge

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  August 26, 2012 09:46 AM

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I don't know the precise moment you were cool with this deal of such massive magnitude that it made Nomar-to-the-Cubs look like an afterthought in agate type. But it seems that for most of us it happened a half a nanosecond after picking up our collective jaw from the floor and repeating, "You mean it's Beckett and Crawford and Gonzalez? And the Dodgers are picking up most of the tab? Holy cow, I don't care if all the Sox are getting in return is Manny Mota, Ivan DeJesus Sr. and Jr., and a used Magic Johnson Lakers practice jersey, get it done.''

For me, the necessity of it was crystallized when I saw the picture. Yeah, that one. The one of a grinning Nick Punto -- the designated spare part, destined to be forgotten when the deal is discussed and dissected years from now -- and smiling Adrian Gonzalez and an absolutely beaming Josh Beckett on the chartered jet en route to Los Angeles.

They can set up all the Twitter accounts they want thanking the fans of Boston, but that picture was all the evidence I need that they couldn't wait to swap coasts. If you told me that was Beckett's first smile since the 2007 postseason, I might believe you. A fresh start was needed for all, except for possibly Punto, who was probably just happy the other guys didn't make him take the photo.

It's encouraging that the consensus around baseball is that the Red Sox, beyond the staggering we're-blowin'-it-up boldness of the nine-player blockbuster with the Dodgers, made a good deal baseball-wise, not that they'll gain much from it now.

James Loney is a placeholder, and if you thought Gonzalez was a first baseman with waning power, wait until you get a load of this perennial underachiever. DeJesus Jr. may one day grow up to be Pedro Ciriaco. Jerry Sands is an interesting power prospect who hasn't done much with his opportunities at the big league level so far. I look at the big numbers he put up at hitter-friendly Albuquerque the past two years and wonder whether his ceiling is anything more than the next Mike Marshall. Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa are very promising young pitchers, and while a dude named Rubby always has a head-start on being a fan favorite, all young arms are lottery tickets.

delarosarubby825.jpgOh, and did we mention they whacked $270-something million worth of payroll? It's been nearly 48 hours since reports of this deal broke -- well, that escalated quickly -- and it's still tough to wrap your head around all of the various elements of the thing. I like it and I hate it and I like it and I can't stop thinking about it, you know?

But in the enthusiasm for this trade and the general "good riddance, we needed a fresh start" vibe, I do hope Sox fans recognize what's ahead and get acquainted with something that is habitually unfamiliar around here -- patience. You thought 2010, with awesome Adrian Beltre doing his rental-player thing at third base en route to an 89-win season, was a bridge year? Wait until you get a look at 2013 -- now that will be a bridge year, when the lineup is dotted with stopgaps while the organization waits for Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. and Matt Barnes and Sands and Webster to arrive on Yawkey Way.

The best prospects are still a level or two -- and probably a few bumps in the road -- away, and you never can be sure who will make it and who will won't. Consider: Five years ago, the Dodgers' top five prospects according to Baseball America were, in order, Andy LaRoche (currently at Pawtucket), Clayton Kershaw (one of baseball's best pitchers), Scott Elbert (a quality lefty reliever), Loney, and Tony Abreu (Royals roster filler). The Red Sox' top 10 the same year included Jacoby Ellsbury and Clay Buchholz, but also Bryce Cox, Kris Johnson, Craig Hansen, and Michael Bowden. The Red Sox got some nice prospects in this deal, but right now, that's all they are. You just do not know whether they will ever matter. You don't.

I don't think it's taking a negative approach to suggest that this is not going to be a very good team for at least a couple of years, and I wonder if in the eagerness to extricate the Beckett tumor whether this is completely apparent yet. There are no obvious solutions in free agency. The best hitter, Josh Hamilton, is extraordinarily talented, but he's about as durable as J.D. Drew, and his well-documented demons make him about as high-risk, high-reward as a free agent could possibly be. And the best pitcher, Zack Greinke, has social-anxiety disorder and has had recent hiccups in the American League. After burning all of that cash on the Lackeys and Crawfords and Jenkses, the Red Sox are going to be in the business of sure-things and fiscal prudence going forward. But that's just as well -- Hamilton and Greinke will probably both sign with the Dodgers anyway.

The daydream of having a mostly home-grown roster is a pleasant one, but it's not feasible for a big-market team that expects to contend every year, which is what the Red Sox' goal has been and should continue to be. Signing big-ticket free agents or making blockbuster trades should not be abandoned just because Crawford and Gonzalez didn't live up to their salaries for whatever reason. Or were too busy cheering to notice that not a single member of the Red Sox' 2004 starting lineup and starting rotation was originally drafted and developed by the franchise? [Trot Nixon played just 48 games that year.] I don't know, that group seemed pretty likable. The Red Sox must spend in free agency, and spend big in certain cases. They just have to spend it on the right players. We'll find out now whether Ben Cherington is up to that challenge.

We'll like anyone -- even ex-Yankees -- around here if they perform. And I believe that's going to be a rude awakening next year for those among us who are sick of this entitled 2012 group saying that they want a likable group of players to root for more than anything else. You can have friendly Cody Ross and smiling Mike Aviles and skinny Pedro Ciriaco out there, and they'll try their best, but the W-L results probably aren't going to be any better than they are this year. And that will get old.

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You'll wonder where the talent has gone and when it will get here. This is going to require patience, and it's going to require getting used to certain things, such as not being anywhere near an equal to the Yankees, Angels, Rangers and Rays in the standings or in terms of talent. The Red Sox are an elite franchise in a huge market, but they're not going to be an elite team with huge win totals for at least a couple of years. Being the semi-scrappy sort-of-upstart might be fun for a while, but it's disappointing that it came to this. It's almost unfathomable that they won a World Series just five years ago.

And please, a request: unless you're Bob Lobel and it's your go-to shtick, please resist any temptation to yelp "why can't we get guys like that?" whenever Gonzalez, who you know will be rejuvenated in LA, hits a three-run bomb. I know people were down on Gonzalez (in part, I will argue, because Manny Ramirez set the bar so high for so many years on what an elite slugger should be), and he wasn't exactly bursting with charisma, but he's a wonderful hitter who is having a down year. The Red Sox will have a very difficult time replacing him, and don't tell me he wasn't a good fit in this market, because some among us were saying he's the best Sox hitter since Ted Williams two months into his tenure here. Why can't we get guys like that? You had him, and you wanted him gone.

We'll wonder why it didn't work according to the plan drawn up in December 2010, with Crawford and Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia at the top of the lineup and Gonzalez batting them in time and again. It will be fascinating to see whether Crawford, who is the whole key to whether this deal will ultimately be judged as good or bad, looks like his Tampa Bay self when he returns next year. I bet he exhales and excels in L.A.

Hell, maybe even Beckett will be useful. I don't think he has the stuff to pull off a rejuvenation in L.A. similar to what A.J. Burnett has done in Pittsburgh, but it's not out of the realm of possibility that he sticks it to the Sox one last time by pitching well elsewhere. That would be just like him.

Oh, right, and there's Punto, too, the bystander in the picture and the trade that became instant Red Sox lore, rattling Fenway to its core. He's a nice guy, played hard, and didn't perform particularly well, which when you think about, might just turn out to be the bridge-year motto for the team he and his L.A.-loving pals left behind.

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.

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