Red Sox a surprise success story

Few predicted turnaround after 2012 debacle but here's 5 reasons they are among top 5 teams

On the off chance Cubs fans need some good news right about now, here's a projection that might provide comfort: If President Theo Epstein succeeds in building the "player development machine'' that is his goal, and it later falls apart, he — or his successor — can put it together again quickly.

Just look at the Red Sox.

After a run of three years not in the playoffs and two really messy seasons, they're one month away from entering the playoffs with one of the five best records in the majors.

Larry Lucchino, the team president who stayed after manager Terry Francona and general manager Epstein packed and moved, and second-year GM Ben Cherington have succeeded in an ambitious undertaking — bouncing back immediately from the 93-loss disaster they experienced under manager Bobby Valentine last year.

Spoiled by the World Series championships in 2004 and '07, Red Sox Nation wasn't looking forward to a long rebuild. Lucchino set the goal as contending this season, and Cherington has made it happen, thanks to prying manager John Farrell away from the Blue Jays and offloading almost $260 million in salary in the shocking trade last August that sent Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers.

Other general managers have done good work this season, including Ned Colletti (Dodgers), Chris Antonetti (Indians), Billy Beane (A's) and Neal Huntington (Pirates). But if Cherington isn't named Executive of the Year in November, they should stop giving out the award.

I'll admit it. I thought Lucchino was delusional when he gave Cherington his marching orders after sacking Valentine.

There was a widely held belief about the American League East entering this season — that all five teams could finish first or last. I thought that was true with the following exception — there's no way that the Blue Jays could finish last after adding Jose Reyes, R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson and Melky Cabrera, among others, and there's no way the Red Sox can finish first.

I couldn't have been more wrong on either end of the standings.

Let me count five ways that the Red Sox are doing it:

•Cherington used the payroll flexibility from the mega-deal with the Dodgers to add dependable veterans with strong track records in Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew and Ryan Dempster. They're major players in the clubhouse, but it is their contributions on the field that count the most.

•Negative factors the last two seasons, John Lackey and Jacoby Ellsbury (the first Red Sox player ever with three 50-steal seasons) have bounced back to deliver the way Epstein always imagined they would. Lackey is as mentally tough as Ellsbury's Ferrari-chassis is vulnerable to injury, and both are experiencing renaissances.

Dustin Pedroia is as driven as he was when Epstein brought him to the big leagues after only 270 games in the minors. He's the same tough-minded guy who homered off Jeff Francis as the Red Sox's leadoff man in Game 1 of the '07 World Series, starting them rolling toward their sweep.

•Farrell has done a terrific job managing in the organization where he had served as Francona's pitching coach. He and Cherington made a strong hire when they pulled Juan Nieves away from the White Sox to serve as pitching coach.

Epstein left the cupboard loaded. From Daniel Nava, signed out of independent ball in 2009, to international signee Xander Bogaerts and fifth-round draft pick Will Middlebrooks, the Red Sox's system has supplied pieces to help offset the departures of veterans like Kevin Youkilis, Gonzalez and Crawford. After running their payroll to $175 million in 2012, this year's team checked in on opening day at a little below $155 million.

Hidden candidate: If not for Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis, we could be talking about the Rangers' Adrian Beltre as a front-runner for the AL MVP. While playing his usual Gold Glove-level defense, he has been such a force at the plate that he was walked intentionally six times in a 19-game span recently.

"I'd do the same thing,'' said Rangers catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who usually hits behind Beltre. "He has been hot for a long time.''

Beltre entered the weekend hitting .329 with 28 homers, 81 RBIs and a .928 OPS. He had hit .364 with a .993 OPS since the All-Star break, carrying a lineup that no longer has its familiar mashers.

Beltre doesn't mind the intentional walks, especially since the Rangers have scored 18 runs in the last four innings in which he has been put on base to get to Pierzynski.

"It's a situation I understand," Beltre said. "I was A.J. last year. People kept walking Josh (Hamilton) to get to me. I love the challenge and I want to hit, but we're trying to win ballgames and it doesn't matter how we do it. If they walk me, we still can score runs."

CHICAGO

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