BOSTON – The Toronto Blue Jays absorbed a pack of high-salaried players from the Miami Marlins that supposedly made them an instant contender.
The Los Angeles Angels doled out big bucks for free agents, including outfielder Josh Hamilton.
The Angels and Blue Jays finished playing baseball Sunday, Los Angeles 18 games out of first place, Toronto 23.
Boston signed plenty of players in the offseason, too. The first was David Ross. Then Jonny Gomes.
A backup catcher and a career .244 hitter whose outfield play was suspect.
No one predicted a championship after those signings, or the ones that followed.
But these Red Sox are the American League East champions, tied for the best record in the majors with St. Louis at 97-65.
While Boston didn’t pay huge salaries, it did use its big-market might to outbid teams for the players it wanted. Gomes and Ross, for example, got two-year deals worth $10 million and $6.2 million respectively.
Still, plenty of money was left over for more “non-star” players.
It’s a roster that has worked well, obviously.
“Anytime someone talks about the best player, it all depends on what you value,” said Boston third-base coach Brian Butterfield, a 30-year veteran of coaching and a Standish resident.
“To me, value is a group of high-character guys and baseball players — and that’s capital letter BASEBALL PLAYERS.”
Butterfield talked outside the Red Sox dugout hours before a game. Dustin Pedroia sat nearby, waiting to take batting practice. Mike Napoli and Jonny Gomes joined him.
Conversation comes easily between the three. The topic is usually baseball.
“This is a tight-knit group,” Butterfield said. “They care about each other. It’s the best veteran group I’ve ever been around. And I’ve been around a few of those.”
But how many games does character win?
The answer is a lot if combined with ability. While plenty of teams feature good players, the Red Sox have pushed each other, seemingly squeezing every bit of talent out of this team.
“Am I surprised with the way we’ve played? Not at all,” Manager John Farrell said. “I thought in spring training, with the team we had assembled, we were going to score runs. This was clearly an above-average offensive team based on the track records of the individuals.
“We targeted the rotation to get those guys on track so we could contend for a division title.”
Pitching, hitting and fielding. And Boston is winning.
“This is not a surprise to me,” Farrell repeated. “Over the course of the season we’ve come together. We kind of galvanized as a group. Whether that’s just the personalities, whether that’s the Boston Marathon event, whether that’s how we’ve responded to the challenges between the lines, those all contributed to how tight the group is right now.”
These Red Sox did show a lot of support for their adopted city after the Boston Marathon bombings. It’s just another sign of the character coming through.
The baseball has been pretty good, too.
Here is a list of the new Sox players who have helped reverse this team’s direction.
• Shane Victorino. Any team playing in Fenway Park needs an exceptional right fielder. Victorino is that, along with a .298 batting average with an .801 OPS (combined on-base and slugging percentages), and a toughness that keeps him in the lineup despite several injuries.
• Ryan Dempster. Although he is on a two-year, $26.5 million contract, Dempster wasn’t signed to be an ace. He has been a solid enough back-end starter, making 29 starts. Another well-thought-of veteran.
• Stephen Drew. His older brother J.D. was not a fan favorite, but Drew is a very good shortstop (only eight errors) and has an .837 OPS since the All-Star break.
• Mike Napoli. He is second to David Ortiz in home runs and RBI (23/95). His .842 OPS is 39 points higher than a better-known first baseman (Adrian Gonzalez). Napoli also helps drive up opposing pitchers’ pitch counts, leading the league in seeing 4.59 pitches per plate appearance.
• Jonny Gomes. One of the team’s leaders in the clubhouse. His defense has been better than expected. Has a .771 OPS and is a valuable clutch hitter (four pinch-hit home runs).
• Koji Uehara. The savior of the bullpen. When other closers went down with injuries. Uehara stepped in, recorded 21 saves, a 1.09 ERA, 101 strikeouts and only nine walks. Enthusiastic and emotional, he is a clubhouse favorite.
• Mike Carp. This is the one player Farrell will admit to being a surprise. Put on waivers by Seattle, the Red Sox picked him up with little fanfare. When the season opened, Carp sat the bench for a week. But now his contributions are invaluable (.296 average, .885 OPS) as a left fielder/first baseman/pinch-hitter.
Carp, like the others, has fit right in with a clubhouse that already had a core group of veterans to build on, including Pedroia and Ortiz.
They are BASEBALL PLAYERS.
“They show the young guys how to do it,” Butterfield said. “There’s one concern in that clubhouse and that’s getting ready for the next game.”
Next game: Friday night at Fenway Park, Game 1 of the American League division series.
Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or: