A-Gon is gone, but questions remain

BOSTON -- Was this a case of shooting the messenger? The Red Sox would have you believe it wasn't, that their willingness to trade first baseman Adrian Gonzalez stemmed exclusively from their desire to gain the financial flexibility required to reshape their roster, and from the Dodgers' refusal to take no for an answer, damn the cost.

"I think we recognized that we are not who we want to be right now," general manager Ben Cherington said Saturday, when he was left to assume the podium alone to announce the biggest trade in franchise history.

"It's been a large enough sample performance going back to last year that we felt like, in order to be the team we want to be on the field, we needed to make more than cosmetic changes. ... It required more of a bold move to give us an opportunity to really reshape the roster, reshape the team and we knew it was a difficult thing to do."

But inside the Sox clubhouse, there are doubts. Gonzalez was the player to whom his teammates looked when they wanted their concerns brought upstairs. At times, it was Dustin Pedroia, but he was more apt to pick his spots. As the team's highest-paid player, Gonzalez's teammates felt he was best suited to be their advocate, and Gonzalez understood his obligation.

But that willingness to speak up may have contributed to Gonzalez being labeled a whiner and complainer, an image that was reinforced when a Yahoo! Sports article identified him as one of the players most outspoken about manager Bobby Valentine. Gonzalez denied he was in the middle of any mutiny, and one player said Saturday he was unaware of any significant issues between Gonzalez and the manager. The whiner tag is puzzling to those who know Gonzalez best and value him as the consummate professional, but perception may have trumped reality.

On Saturday night, after hitting a three-run homer in his first at-bat with the Dodgers in an 8-2 win, Gonzalez told reporters in L.A., "We all live our lives and do things we wish we can take back at times. ... The way things were spinned is unfortunate, but I guess looking back there was one thing I shouldn't have done."

A mere 20 months after Gonzalez was acquired from San Diego in what was hailed widely as a coup by GM Theo Epstein, then signed a seven-year, $154 million extension because the Sox identified him as the middle-of-the-order hitter best suited to complement, and ultimately succeed, David Ortiz, he is gone.

It begs the question, to be sure, of whether the Sox decided Gonzalez was a bigger part of the problem than the solution.

Was change necessary, Valentine was asked Saturday.

"Yes," he said.

"Just didn't seem like [the roster] mixed as well as it should."

Then, he added, "It has nothing to do with the individuals that were in the trade."

If you were waiting for the wink after Valentine made that statement, it was not forthcoming.

Cherington answered in much the same vein when asked about the need to change the clubhouse culture.

"The culture will feel better when we start winning more games," he said. "This was about creating an opportunity to build a better team moving forward. It was not a trade that was made to try to fix a cultural problem. It was about opportunity, giving us opportunity moving forward, and the culture will feel very good when we do the things that have made us good over time, the things that help us win games."

You believe that, of course, only if you deny that Josh Beckett's role in last September's collapse, and stubborn refusal to acknowledge accountability, had something to do with his inclusion in this deal. You believe that if you disagree that Carl Crawford was ever going to be comfortable playing here, even if he fully recovers from his Tommy John surgery. And you believe that only if you think Gonzalez did not disappoint the Sox on some level for being something less than the clubhouse presence they expected him to be.

Again, the Sox insist that is not the case. But how do you go from building block to ballast less than one year into a seven-year contract? Especially when Gonzalez was enjoying a very productive second half, complete with the home runs that were absent from the season's first half?

"This is not about the four players we gave up," Cherington reiterated. "This wasn't anything they did particularly wrong. We just haven't performed as a team the way we need to, and as we looked at it we felt that in order to get to a team that we believe in, a team that our fans deserve, a team that is a winner and sustains winning year after year, it was going to take more than cosmetic changes.

"It was going to take something more bold and then up to us to then go take advantage of the opportunity and execute and make good decisions, but a lot of things go into winning. The roster is part of it. The personnel on the roster is part of it, and this is a significant step towards giving us a chance to reshape what that roster looks like."

So you jettison the guy you projected as the future face of your franchise, the player you identified as a more desirable target than Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols, who made the greatest financial sense compared to what those first basemen would command?

Maybe you do, given that it seemed inconceivable to find a single trading partner willing to take on some $262 million in guaranteed money. That's cash Cherington can now put toward signing Ortiz and Cody Ross to extensions and perhaps engaging the Phillies about Cliff Lee or taking a run at Jake Peavy if he becomes a free agent and deciding to see whether Jacoby Ellsbury will forgo a chance at free agency to sign an extension this winter (an extremely unlikely proposition).

"I think the key is we are absolutely committed to building the best team that we can in 2013 and beyond," Cherington said, "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 in the free agency market, trade market. That's our job to do that.

"We have a core of players here still, a very talented core of players, 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 Sox will continue to spend money and have a "significant" payroll, Cherington said.

"We're not limited in what we'll be able to explore," he said. "At the same time we need to be smart about it. We need to build a team and not be focused on one transaction or the other."

Yet when asked if he was specifically referring to the big-ticket signings of Crawford, Gonzalez and Beckett, he demurred.

"The decisions we've made that got us to this point in aggregate, I think it's fair to say, didn't work," he said. "We have to acknowledge that. We have to be honest about the fact that what we have been over the last few months of major league play is not what we want to be, and there's not one decision that led to that.

"It's just a combination of things, different reasons. Some of them had nothing to do with personnel decisions. There are other things that are involved. Injuries are factored, et cetera. My point is going forward we have created flexibility for us with this deal and we'll take advantage of that opportunity best if we are disciplined and aggressive at the right time on the right deals for the right players."

And for all the fanfare that greeted Gonzalez upon his arrival, there are just as many questions that follow his departure. And in the Sox clubhouse, players wonder if Gonzalez goes, and Valentine stays.