Red Sox, Cardinals both well positioned for future Series success
BOSTON -- A baseball game and even a postseason series can hinge on any moment, and with the bases loaded in the third inning, the Cardinals' rookie phenom stood on the mound facing one of the Red Sox' free-agent additions, a pivotal at-bat that doubled as a nutshell synopsis of how these franchises rounded out their rosters in 2013.
St. Louis right-hander Michael Wacha, a 22-year-old vying for the honor of greatest rookie pitcher in postseason history, threw a 2-1 fastball to Boston rightfielder Shane Victorino, a 32-year-old outfielder who had already won one championship ring. In this World Series, seniority trumped precocity.
Victorino's swing on Wacha's fastball dinged the Green Monster and drove in the game's first three runs en route to a championship-clinching 6-1 victory in Game 6. His double made Fenway Park shake with uproarious energy, rattling its century-old foundation, almost enough to make one wonder if America's most beloved ballpark, which sits on filled-in marshland, would sink into the Charles River basin. After all, the 38,447 occupants were more than double how many witnessed the last such home clinching back in 1918, when many of the grandparents of the current Red Sox weren't yet born.
"This is what it's all about," Victorino said. "This is the moment you live for."
And both clubs -- the only ones to win at least three pennants in the last decade -- are well positioned to have a few more of these moments coming up soon, even though they took markedly different paths to this meeting in the Fall Classic.
Boston's hirsute ensemble -- which harkened no less than Shakespeare, who once wrote, "He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man" -- looked more like vagabonds than multi-millionaires. Notably it was a group regarded as second-class free agents who took comparatively moderate years and dollars to play in Boston, a dramatic departure from the superstars who preceded them and were subsequently traded to the Dodgers in a budget-clearing trade last August. Each of the seven new free agents was targeted and recruited not only for their need-filling baseball tools but also for their big-market-compatible makeup.
"It was recognition that things weren't working and somehow we needed to reshape it," Boston general manager Ben Cherington said of the trade with the Dodgers. "You can do that in small ways or you can do that in big ways, and that allowed us to do that in a bigger way. ... When you're around [such chemistry] and you feel it, it's hard to say it's not valuable. I still don't know that any of us know how to engineer it, but when you're around it and you feel the group coming together like it did, I don't have any doubt that it's valuable."
The newbies joined homegrown players Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and longtime mainstay David Ortiz in turning a 69-win cellar-dweller into a 97-win league and World Series champion. The rapidity of their ascent was astounding and thus may prove difficult to sustain. Did the Sox catch lightning in a bottle or will there be regression?
"The 2013 Red Sox team is great," Cherington said. "It doesn't mean the work stops. Obviously there are still things we need to do to get better. There are ways I can be better and ways the organization can get stronger. But they won their last game of the postseason, so this team was great for 2013."
The Red Sox do face an offseason with several question marks, given the pending free agency of four position players: Ellsbury, first baseman Mike Napoli, shortstop Stephen Drew and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Given that Boston has started seeing the first fruits of its own increasingly well-stocked farm system -- infielder Xander Bogaerts, outfielder Jackie Bradley, Jr. and pitchers Brandon Workman and Allen Webster, among others -- it ought to be able to replenish some talent from within. And of course, Boston has the financial wherewithal to add established players in the offseason, too.
St Louis, meanwhile, is in even better shape. It boasts 18 homegrown players on its roster, supplementing the likes of Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig with an embarrassment of pitching wealth up and down its roster -- its bullpen is brimming with young arms other clubs must lust after, yet the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright-led rotation remains so amply stocked that the likes of Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, et al., have begun their big-league careers as relievers. Their hitting prodigy, outfielder Oscar Taveras, saw his Triple-A season derailed by an ankle injury but is thought by some to be the minors' best pure hitter and a future superstar.
"To get as close as we did is disappointing, but at the same token, you look at how we did it and it was really an example of what we were trying to accomplish over the last seven, eight years and do it from within," St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak said. "To see the youth movement get within two wins of a championship shows you [that], directionally, where we're going is very positive."
Beltran is the lone free agent from the Cardinals' 25-man World Series roster. If the organization wants, it can keep intact the nucleus of a lineup that, in the last three years, won a World Series, lost in the seventh game of the NLCS and lost in the World Series. The pitching staff has already been revamped -- only Lance Lynn pitched in both the 2011 and '13 World Series, but the churn should slow given the young arms who have debuted in the last two seasons.
"You're never going to close the door on potential things that could help the club," Mozeliak said, "but when you look at this team, it could look a lot like it does right now."
The Red Sox are more likely to have new faces -- newly shorn ones, at least -- and turnover induces uncertainty, whereas the Cardinals know they'll return a roster of enviable depth and upside. This World Series pairing, which we've already seen in '04 and '13, may prove habit-forming.