Five years ago this morning, things were extremely bleak for the Red Sox. We were in the heart of the Bobby V era (I shudder at the very thought of this) and in the midst of the worst season in recent Red Sox history. They were also, of course, less than a year removed from the 2011 collapse. Everything about this team was just surrounded by negativity, and it didn’t really look like they had a way out. They had a bad manager who could be fired at any point but whose damage was already done. They had a big free agent in Carl Crawford who clearly was never going to succeed in Boston. They had a big-money pitcher in Josh Beckett who was clearly causing problems in the clubhouse and was even more clearly over the hill. Ben Cherington was pinned into a corner, and it looked like it was going to take a while for the Red Sox to work their way out of it.
Then, that afternoon, it happened. It wasn’t the biggest trade in Red Sox history — they weren’t getting a superstar talent like Pedro Martinez or Chris Sale — but it may have been the most important. Or, at least, it’s among the handful of most important transactions in franchise history. Now lovingly known as the Nick Punto Trade, Boston and the Los Angeles Dodgers agreed to possibly the biggest August trade in league history. The Red Sox shipped Crawford, Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Punto out west in exchange for Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster, James Loney, Ivan De Jesus and Jerry Sands. It was a massive reset button for the Red Sox, and it ended up changing the course of the franchise’s history.
In terms of direct talent, the Red Sox didn’t get much back in this trade in hindsight. At the time, both De La Rosa and Webster were exciting starting pitching prospects who were on the verge of being able to contribute in the majors. Getting two young, talented pitchers while also freeing their books of some massive contracts was an incredible maneuver for the Red Sox. Of course, De La Rosa and Webster haven’t really turned into much — those the former could still end up as a solid major-league reliever — but the Red Sox did turn them into Carson Smith and Roenis Elias. It remains to be seen how that works out.
It wasn’t the return that made this deal such a great one for Boston, though. Simply clearing the books of Crawford, Beckett and, to a lesser extent, Gonzalez, directly led to the championship of 2013. With that money now available, Cherington decided to go with short-term deals in free agency and look at some under-the-radar additions. Mike Napoli took Gonzalez’ spot. Shane Victorino joined the outfield. Koji Uehara joined the bullpen. The rotation, specifically Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and John Lackey, stepped up in a big way after Beckett’s departure. It was one of the most remarkable runs in recent baseball history, and there’s absolutely no way it could have happened with the Punto Deal.
One important point I want to make sure to make about this deal is that Gonzalez was included because the Dodgers insisted on it. Because he was a veteran with a big deal, it’s always been easy to lump the first baseman in with Crawford and Beckett, who were merely salary dumps. Gonzalez, though, was fantastic with the Red Sox and someone the team would have kept if they could’ve. However, the Dodgers needed some reason to do this deal, and getting Gonzalez on their roster was the reason. Clearing his money off the books certainly didn’t hurt, but losing his bat from the lineup was absolutely not a positive in this deal.
Five years later, this is still one of the most discussed trades in baseball. The Dodgers, to their credit, haven’t suffered for it, though the deal hasn’t exactly worked out for them. Crawford never recovered despite getting out of Boston, and Beckett never got back to his former level. Gonzalez continued to play well, though those days are now behind him. The Dodgers, in reality, have been winning despite the return in this deal. Someday, we’re going to get a phenomenal book that details everything that happened with the Red Sox organization from 2011 through 2013, and the Punto Deal may be the most interesting chapter. We’ll likely never see a trade of this magnitude ever again, and on the five-year anniversary it’s worth considering just where this Red Sox team would be without that trade.