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One Year Later, a Win/Win Blockbuster

When the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers matched up on the stunning trade that sent more than a quarter-billion dollars worth of contract commitments west last year, reactions in the baseball world to what the Dodgers had done tended to take on a certain tone. “Risky” was on the nicer end of that scale, while more often than not words like “gluttonous,” “laughable,” or simply “insane” were tossed around as the game struggled to comprehend the scale of what had happened.

For the Dodgers, it was an opportunity to jump-start a tattered organization that hasn’t been to the World Series since 1988 and had suffered through years of neglect due to the personal problems of former owner Frank McCourt.

In Boston, it was seen as a chance to make a fresh start as the Red Sox continued on the path to 93 losses, their worst season since 1966.

One year later, as the Red Sox come to Dodger Stadium for a highly-anticipated series this weekend, both clubs are in first place and looking towards October. It may have been a shocking deal when it happened, but it’s turned out to be a win/win that neither side would undo if they had the chance — and it’s a big part of the success both teams have had.

Here’s why.

As ESPN’s Buster Olney reported at the time [1], the response he heard from those in front offices of other clubs was that it was a “terrible value” and a “huge overpay” for the Dodgers. After all, in order to acquire Adrian Gonzalez [2] — one of the central figures of the clubhouse revolt against Boston manager Bobby Valentine [3] — they also had to agree to take on the more than $130 million still due declining pitcher Josh Beckett [4] and injured, unproductive outfielder Carl Crawford [5]. That they still had to send five players to Boston (including highly regarded pitching prospects Rubby de la Rosa [6] and Allen Webster [7]) to seal the deal seemed to be an unnecessary hardship.

When the Dodgers pulled the trigger on the trade, their goal was clear. They badly wanted Gonzalez, the first baseman who had followed up a smashing 2011 Boston debut (.407 wOBA) with a below-average (for him) .348 mark through mid-August of 2012. With the continually disappointing James Loney [8] as the incumbent at first base and few upgrades at the position available either in the organization or on the upcoming free agent market, the opportunity to add a Southern California native who remains popular with the area’s huge Hispanic base was too tempting to pass up.

While Gonzalez hasn’t quite returned to the MVP levels he showed while with San Diego — his .298/.346/.458 (.347 wOBA) is almost identical to his 2012 line — a certain amount of context is required. As the Dodgers struggled badly over the first two months, with Yasiel Puig [9] still in the minors and stars like Zack Greinke [10]Matt Kemp [11] and Hanley Ramirez [12] all missing time due to injury, Gonzalez represented one of the few productive constants for Don Mattingly [13]‘s club. Besides, even a diminished Gonzalez has already put up the most valuable season by a Dodger first baseman since 1999, with a month still remaining.

Acquiring Gonzalez was the primary focus, but it was Crawford who represented the largest risk. The former Tampa Bay star had hit just .260/.292/.419 in two seasons with Red Sox, proving that the marriage was a mismatch both on the field and off. He’d also undergone Tommy John [14] surgery on his elbow just days before the trade, so his status to even start the season for the Dodgers was uncertain.

Crawford was not only ready for Opening Day, he hit .308/.388/.516 in April, filling the leadoff hole and pairing with Gonzalez to be basically the only two Dodgers to hit at all during the early part of the season, especially with Ramirez hurt and Kemp struggling. As the team struggled to stay afloat, it was their two Boston imports that were leading the offense. He’s missed a chunk of time since then due to a hamstring injury and has shown uneven results since then until an August rebound, but he’s proven that he can still contribute on both sides of the ball in a situation where he’s happy and healthy.

Beckett made just eight mediocre starts before being lost for the season, though the team has survived just fine without him; Crawford, Gonzalez, and fellow trade acquisition Nick Punto [15] have combined for a full-season pace of approximately eight wins above replacement. If that’s perhaps not quite the impact that Puig and Ramirez have provided, it does make for a far deeper lineup than the one that finished eight games out of first last year.

While most of the focus was in Los Angeles, the Red Sox took a risk in this as well. Yes, clearing themselves of so much payroll and clubhouse trouble represented an unexpected chance they couldn’t pass up. But Boston is a difficult town to commit to a rebuilding process in, and removing Gonzalez created a hole both at first base and in the heart of the lineup. Coming off the disaster that was 2012, few observers picked the Red Sox to make it out of the tough American League East, much less compete for the best record in the league.

The newfound financial freedom allowed Ben Cherington to sign Jonny Gomes [16]Mike Napoli [17], and Shane Victorino [18], among others, though none of the five players received from Los Angeles are currently on the active roster. While the primary reason for the Red Sox rebound is due to much improved health over 2012, it’s difficult to think that they would be where they are right now if they still had last year’s bad feelings, inflated payroll, and without this winter’s upgrades.

It should be noted that not only did the Sox “acquire” significant financial flexibility with all the money they cleared from the books in the deal, they haven’t lost it. The deals they signed this offseason could never be considered frightening, or of the long-term variety.

As the teams prepare to face on the field this weekend, there still a good case to be made that the Dodgers overpaid to get Gonzalez. That’s true not so much for the money (which they seem to have endless reserves of), but because they assumed most of the risk and still had to kick in a few very good prospects. Still, they managed to hang onto their best prospects like Zach Lee [19] and Joc Pederson [20], and none of the big contracts they received extend past age 36.

The Dodgers wouldn’t be in this position without Gonzalez, and the Red Sox wouldn’t be here with him. It’s hard to think of a better outcome for both sides than that.