Boston on verge of playoff return

The Boston Red Sox have missed the playoffs three consecutive seasons. Their fans have every right to expect that the streak stops there.

Yes, the Red Sox are coming off their worst season in 47 years, a six-month nightmare in which the clubhouse turned toxic under the bungling Bobby Valentine. But the atmosphere will improve with the steady presence of John Farrell, and the roster should be healthier if only because a repeat of the 2012 scourge is inconceivable.

Thanks to the $250 million decamp to Dodger Stadium, the Red Sox have the money to address their weaknesses – and the mandate from New Englanders to do so immediately. The unique aspect of this offseason is that general manager Ben Cherington must spend time convincing players and agents that the Red Sox are really, truly trying to win in 2013 – the sort of thing that has been implicit since long before the Theo Epstein renaissance began.

“It’s a fair question – and one we haven’t had to answer most offseasons,” Cherington said Thursday. “I think you answer it by telling people you’ve got to rely on the track record here and the commitment from ownership to put a lot of resources into the team.

“This is Boston. We’re going to build the team up as quickly as we can. There’s not a two-, three-, four-, five-year plan. That’s not what this is about.”

Cherington saved a staggering amount of capital by sending Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to L.A., and he told me during this week’s general managers’ meetings that he intends to spend some of it this winter.

By doing so, Cherington will maintain high expectations for the Red Sox – internally and externally. That’s appropriate for a team that entered the 2012 season with a payroll near $175 million, second only to the rival Yankees among AL clubs.

The blockbuster trade represents a second chance for the Red Sox to invest intelligently, rather than an excuse to operate conservatively.

“When you make a trade like that, and you give up a core, middle-of-the-lineup player (like Gonzalez), to replace those numbers and the defense that goes with it, it’s a very difficult process unless you’re going to participate in free agency,” agent Scott Boras said Wednesday. “If you go to free agency, you’re normally going to find a player or so annually, or in the next year, to do that.

“The great thing about (the Red Sox) is they are one of the goliaths of the game, revenue-wise. It’s really not a question of if they can. It’s a question of choice. I don’t think anyone in baseball thinks the Red Sox don’t have the ability to compete in the free-agent market.”

The Red Sox are coming off a season in which they lost 93 games and finished last in the American League East. It was every bit as embarrassing as that sounds – maybe even more so – but there’s no reason for the humiliation to linger. The feud between Valentine and Kevin Youkilis was pathetic, but both of them are gone. The Red Sox can’t allow the bruised egos of 2012 to become fractured psyches in 2013.

So, what’s left behind? Well, plenty: The Red Sox scored 734 runs last year – more than three AL playoff teams, including the league champion Tigers. Will Middlebrooks looks like an All-Star third baseman in the making, and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia hit more home runs than Buster Posey or Matt Wieters. It’s virtually certain that Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury will be better (and healthier) in 2013 than they were in 2012.

Cherington has said he’s looking for upgrades to the starting rotation, corner outfield spots and at first base. Those players are available, and another byproduct of the August blockbuster is that the farm system has thickened. Cherington could flip former Dodgers prospects Rubby De La Rosa and/or Allen Webster as the centerpiece(s) in a package to the Cleveland Indians for Justin Masterson and/or Shin-Soo Choo.

By obtaining a cost-controlled player (or two) via trade, the Red Sox may be able to pick two free agents from the group of Anibal Sanchez, Adam LaRoche and Torii Hunter and still spend less money on aggregate than if they had held on to Gonzalez, Crawford and Beckett.

As for fears about building an outfield around prospective free agents Ellsbury and Choo, consider this: Is it so bad to count on production from two highly motivated Boras clients in their contract years?

Of course, the most important fixes will be to a pitching staff that ranked third from the bottom among AL teams in ERA this year. For the moment, at least, the Boston rotation isn’t on par with Tampa Bay’s – and probably not even Baltimore’s. But can anyone argue compellingly that the Yankees’ pitching staff, as presently constituted, is any better than what the Red Sox have?

The American League East title (or a wild-card berth, at the very least) is attainable for the Red Sox, if Cherington outmaneuvers Yankees counterpart Brian Cashman to land an impact arm like Sanchez or Hiroki Kuroda.

“Fans in Boston are sort of tired of hearing how good we are in the winter,” Cherington acknowledged. “We’ve just got to be good. … We’ve got to get to work and build the thing up.”

They can do it. Quickly. There’s no such thing as a rebuilding Boston Red Sox team.