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It’s been 5 years since the Red Sox trade that changed everything

A quarter-billion dollars and Nick Punto headed west, changing the direction of the Red Sox for years to come.

Chicago Cubs v Boston Red Sox Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The 2012 Red Sox were an absolute disaster. They never quite escaped the event horizon of 2011’s collapsed season, and likely definitely only made things worse by swapping beloved manager Terry Francona for walking disaster, Bobby Valentine.

On Aug. 25, though, everything changed. The Red Sox completed a deal with the Dodgers that would shape the direction of both franchises for years to come. The Dodgers wanted Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, and had for months and months — Boston wasn’t interested in dealing him during the offseason when Los Angeles first asked about the possibility, but when the Sox season fell apart and continued to fall, their response changed.

It helped, too, that the Dodgers seemingly said yes to every single thing the Red Sox required of them to acquire Gonzalez. Boston didn’t just send Gonzalez and his comparatively team-friendly contract to the Dodgers: The remaining five years of Carl Crawford and his deal went with, as did Josh Beckett and what was left of the extension he had signed a few years before when Theo Epstein still called the shots for the Sox.

The Dodgers also acquired Nick Punto in this trade, which seemed a little odd at the time: one of the game’s top first basemen on a contract the Dodgers wanted to possess, coupled with a former ace and a former star who had both fallen on hard times... and also a bench player who hadn’t hit even a little bit in his first year with the Red Sox and was only owed a little over $300,000 for the rest of the season.

Miami Marlins v Boston Red Sox Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images

The inclusion of Punto actually underscores how important this deal was for the Red Sox and why a change of direction this serious was necessary for them. Moving Punto and the $327,000 left on his 2012 contract enabled the Red Sox to get under the luxury tax for the season: They only finished the year $47,177 under the $178 million luxury tax threshold, and they never would have gotten there if the Dodgers had refused to take on Punto’s contract in addition to the other quarter-billion dollars that Gonzalez, Crawford, and Beckett represented.

Getting under the tax threshold was key, as the repeat-offender Red Sox were in line to pay a 40 percent tax on the dollars over the limit. Instead, they were able to turn the lost cause of 2012 into the year in which they got themselves under the threshold and reset the penalty to a much more manageable 17.5 percent.

That little bit of budget space might not sound like much, but if you remember how the Red Sox had to operate during Ben Cherington’s first offseason as the general manager, everything becomes more clear. Epstein had left for the Cubs after 2011, and what he left behind in Boston was a promising core with no room to spend.

To replace free agent Jonathan Papelbon, the Red Sox had to trade Josh Reddick to the A’s for closer Andrew Bailey. Aaron Cook, who was recovering from an injury and also was Aaron Cook, was the starting depth there was room for in the budget. Boston gave Daniel Bard a try in the rotation because Bard wanted it, but also because that was something it could do within the confines of its budget.

Getting rid of Gonzalez isn’t something the Red Sox necessarily wanted to do — the Dodgers were willing to take on the rest of those dollars and players for a reason. However, packaging Gonzalez’s remaining $130 million with the injured Carl Crawford, who was still owed another $85 million after 2012, and Beckett’s $31.5 million over the next two years — in conjunction with the luxury tax miracle of Punto’s deal — made it so Cherington had room to build his own Red Sox team instead of just working at the margins of the one he inherited.

That club included Mike Napoli, Koji Uehara, Stephen Drew, Ryan Dempster, David Ross, and Shane Victorino. The extra budget space meant the Red Sox could acquire Jake Peavy at the 2013 trade deadline, rather than like in 2011 when their budget limited them to whomever of Erik Bedard or Rich Harden had a working throwing arm on July 31. (The answer, as it turns out, was “neither.”) All of these transactions led Boston to a World Series in 2013, just a year after what myself and others around these parts affectionately refer to as the Nick Punto Trade.

All of that, by the way, is why you’re more than halfway through this piece and haven’t even seen a mention of what players the Red Sox got back from the Dodgers in this deal. That’s because none of them ended up mattering much at all outside of being lottery tickets (Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster, both eventually traded for Wade Miley) or a way to make sure that the math checked out and Boston was going to be able to get under the luxury tax.

The influence of the Punto deal wasn’t limited to just 2013. Being able to once again spend money meant that Cherington and the Red Sox could hold onto their prospects rather than deal them to fill every hole. When you see the 2017 roster includes Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts, Christian Vazquez, and Xander Bogaerts, you can understand why that matters.

And it also gave Dave Dombrowski a surplus to trade from, which is how the Red Sox ended up promoting a ton of prospects to the majors while also being able to spend them to acquire the likes of Craig Kimbrel and Chris Sale... while still being able to promote the likes of Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers to Boston in the process.

The money saved by dealing Crawford and Gonzalez also has helped out in what are the later years of their deals: Crawford is still getting paid by the Dodgers even though he’s been released, and Gonzalez lost his job while injured in a season in which he disappointed while on the field. Meanwhile, the Red Sox added David Price to the rotation a year ago because they had the budget to wait for a major free agent and have been flirting with staying under the luxury tax in spite of all the major additions, anyway.

Even acquiring Sale might have been something that only went down the way it did because of the 2012 trade: The Red Sox had the money available to them to spend heavily on Cuban free agent Yoan Moncada in 2015, giving him a $31.5 million bonus that also incurred a $31.5 million penalty to be paid to MLB.

Moncada ended up being the key piece in the Sale deal, which left Rafael Devers alone to develop in Boston’s system instead of becoming the newest major White Sox prospect. And now Devers is the Red Sox third baseman at just 20 years old and one of the major reasons it’s becoming easier to forget that Cherington and the Red Sox didn’t always spend the savings of 2012 well. That’s a Pablo Sandoval reference, if you’re keeping score.

Now, that’s not to say the Red Sox definitely would have not signed Moncada without the Punto trade happening, but it’s not hard to believe that’s the case. Again, consider that with the Red Sox sporting a historic offense in 2011 and looking like they were on their way to a successful postseason run, all the owners would spring for financially on a team that needed pitching was Bedard or Harden. The next winter, despite a fan base and team looking to forget the horrific collapse of Sept. 2011, the budget didn’t have room in it for anything that couldn’t be acquired for as little as possible on free agency or by way of trade. So, no, it’s not a stretch to try to connect these dots.

The mega-trade between the Red Sox and Dodgers had an immediate impact on Boston, with the team winning the World Series it felt like the dealt core was supposed to bring it in one of the two years before. While it’s maybe not as significant as it once was, tremors can still be felt from its impact on today’s Red Sox. It’s the deal that changed everything: one that happened because of the Dodgers and their new owner’s need to be recognized, and because someone in Boston was smart enough to ask if Los Angeles had ever thought about a Nick Punto of its own.