Boston faced reality Saturday when it traded the team's ace-turned-pariah, Josh Beckett, and a pair of $100 million players with a combined 11 years left on their contracts, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and outfielder Carl Crawford, to the Dodgers.
Sox utility infielder Nick Punto was also a part of the nine-player deal, which netted Boston big-league first baseman James Loney and a package of prospects: infielder Ivan DeJesus, Jr., right hander Allen Webster and two players to be named.
"I think we recognize that we are not who we want to be right now," said Cherington, whose Red Sox entered Saturday night at 60-66 and 13 1/2 games behind the first-place Yankees in the American League East. "And it's been a large enough sample performance going back to last year that we felt like in order to be the team that we want to be on the field, we needed to make more than cosmetic changes. So as we look forward to this offseason, we felt like the opportunity to build that we need, that the fans deserve that we want, required more of a bold move to give us an opportunity to really reshape the roster, reshape the team. It was a difficult thing to do, to trade away four players like this."
The coup for the Red Sox is the approximately $270 million they shed in contracts. They sent some money to the Dodgers to offset that -- about $12 million, according to a baseball source -- but that's just a fraction of what they saved. That a trade of this magnitude was executed at any point is remarkable, but it's particularly notable because it came after the Non-Waiver Trade Deadline.
Now, Boston can become a free-agency force again, with prudence the guiding principle.
"We've looked at as we always do this time of year, we've started to look at opportunities in the offseason," Cherington said. "I think the key is we are absolutely committed to building the best team we can in 2013 and beyond, and we're going to do that in the most disciplined way possible. When we've been at our best, we've made good decisions, disciplined decisions. Found value, whether it's in the free agent market or trade market. And that's our job to do that. We have a core of players here still, a very talented core of players here still, that will be a part of our next great team, and we'll do whatever we can to put together the best team for 2013."
The Dodgers and their new ownership, meanwhile, showed how serious they are about winning the National League West and making the team a big-market powerhouse.
"We're talking about players [Gonzalez and Crawford] who are entering the prime of their careers," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said.
The trouble that led to this pseudo-rebuilding phase the Sox are entering into became apparent last September, amidst the chicken-and-beer collapse. This year, they never gained any momentum with a sometimes-troubled clubhouse that called a meeting with ownership in July. Manager Bobby Valentine said Saturday a shake-up was needed as the Sox approached their first losing season since 1997.
"Yes ... it was necessary," Valentine said of change. "Just didn't seem like [the players] mixed as well it should. ... It has nothing to do with the individuals that were in the trade."
Three of the four players the Sox sent away, Beckett, Gonzalez and Punto, appeared in a grainy but succinct picture that Punto took on their plane to Los Angeles with the caption, "dodgers doing it first class!"
Those three also took to Twitter to say goodbye to Red Sox fans.
"Even in the tough times, I ran into so many wonderful people that were so awesome. I'm Greatly appreciative to all of you #redsox nation fans," Beckett wrote on a newly made account.
The tough times for Beckett were often in 2012, at 5-11 with a 5.23 ERA. He waived his 10-5 rights to complete the deal, and was supposed to make his 195th career start for the Sox on Saturday night against the Royals at Fenway Park. Aaron Cook took his place.
Gonzalez and Crawford were introduced at Fenway within six days of each other in December 2010. The former talked of his admiration for Ted Williams, of his readiness to beat the Yankees. Crawford said if the money were the same, the place he wanted to be most was Boston -- that he wanted to stay in the American League East.
Crawford was uncomfortable in Boston last season, and lost almost all of this year to an elbow injury. After 31 games played, he had Tommy John surgery two days before the trade. Gonzalez performed well on the field, but spoke out recently about his distaste for the media scrutiny.
"Should it have been done last October? I don't know," Cherington said of trading away big names. "We went into this year believing we had a chance to win, and believing that this roster gave us a chance to win. It didn't work out."
Cherington has now undone the last grand moves his tutor and predecessor Theo Epstein made before Epstein became the Cubs' president of baseball operations last offseason. It was Epstein who gave Beckett a four-year extension in 2010, and later that year, seven-year deals to Crawford and Gonzalez.
Cherington did not, however, take the opportunity to indict Epstein.
"The decisions we've made that got us to this point, obviously sort of in aggregate, I think it's fair to say didn't work. We have to acknowledge that," Cherington said. "My point is going forward we have created flexibility for us with this deal."
The players to be named later Boston will receive likely will not be announced until after the season, Cherington said. Two players widely reported to be in the deal were Jerry Sands, a 24-year-old outfielder/first baseman with limited Major League experience, and right-hander Rubby De La Rosa, 23. De La Rosa is coming back from Tommy John surgery.
Loney, a 28-year-old who has played seven seasons, has a lifetime .284 average but little pop for a first baseman, with never more than 15 home runs in a season. He's a free agent after the season and Cherington was noncommittal about his future here.
"We'll get a chance to get to know him," Cherington said. "He's a good defender, he's very durable, he's played a lot. We think he's got a pretty good swing for Fenway. I think he's excited to hit in a different ballpark."
Webster, 22, was rated by MLB.com as the second-best pitcher in the Dodgers' farm system. Winning always starts with young, cheap players, but with the financial freedom the Sox have now, the retooling process could be very quick.
"I've said before, we feel like our best teams in the past and our best teams moving forward will be ones where we can integrate young players on the team from our system," Cherington said. "We've started to do that. We believe we've got a lot of talent coming. We added to that talent with this trade. We're closer to being able to bring that next generation of players onto the team, but we're also going to surround those young players with proven Major Leaguers."