If you thought the Red Sox were interesting in 2013, check them out for 2014. They're substantially different. Younger here, older there.
Beyond that stuff, one thing is clear. They're sticking to the blueprint they came up with during the disastrous 93-loss 2012 season. That summer, when they traded three players with huge contracts -- Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez -- to the Dodgers, they professed they would do things differently.
They were going to focus on player development and spending modestly on free agents. And they would do their best to avoid the kind of big-ticket signings that can limit a club's flexibility for years.
They stuck to that blueprint a year ago when general manager Ben Cherington added seven bargain-basement free agents and cut his payroll by $20 million. On Opening Day last season, Cherington was convinced he'd fixed a lot of things about his club. First, he'd improved the environment in the clubhouse. Second, he'd hired the right guy to manage the club in John Farrell.
He had no idea how good the Red Sox would be because he couldn't have known that he would get tremendous comeback seasons from David Ortiz, Jon Lester and John Lackey.
Cherington's work in adding Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, Koji Uehara and others was so smart and so visionary that his peers voted him baseball's Executive of the Year a couple of weeks after the World Series.
The Red Sox did have a tremendous selflessness on their club. They had a great work ethic, too, and a bunch of guys who clearly cared about one another.
Let's not oversell that angle. Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury had great seasons. So did Dustin Pedroia and Napoli and Daniel Nava and other offensive contributors.
Lester and Lackey were very good, and Clay Buchholz was arguably baseball's best starting pitcher for most of the summer. Uehara became baseball's best closer after beginning the season penciled in to pitch the seventh or eighth inning.
To repeat: They were a great team. Those 97 victories, most in the Majors, weren't a fluke. In the playoffs, they eliminated the Rays, Tigers and Cardinals.
Feel-good stories simply don't survive a seven-month grind on chemistry and unselfishness. But it would also be a mistake to say that closeness and work ethic and chemistry are unimportant.
Were they a great team? Yes. Absolutely. Don't insult them by arguing otherwise. Baseball seasons reveal every weakness, and the Red Sox had almost none.
They had a tremendous manager, too. He was the first of a string of smart decisions by Cherington and quite possibly his best one. After all the craziness of 2012, Farrell brought stability, consistency and honesty to one of the toughest jobs in baseball.
He was the absolute right guy at the right time. In the long and colorful history of the Red Sox, Farrell's role in helping turn a 93-loss team into a champion should not be overestimated.
Back to that transition. When last season ended, when a transition season ended with the Red Sox winning the World Series for the third time in 10 seasons, they did something some of us thought they wouldn't do. They stayed the course.
When the Yankees offered Ellsbury a seven-year, $153 million deal, the Red Sox wished him well. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia signed with the Marlins. Shortstop Drew remains unsigned.
Instead of spending for veterans, the Red Sox are trusting a pair of heralded prospects -- 21-year-old shortstop Xander Bogaerts and 24-year-old center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. -- to step in and play. They signed 37-year-old A.J. Pierzynski to a one-year, $8.25 million deal to replace Saltalamacchia.
That's just the beginning. The Red Sox have quality young starters stacked up in their system. Four of them -- left-hander Henry Owens and right-handers Allen Webster, Matt Barnes and Anthony Ranaudo -- made MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects list.
And three of their young guys -- Felix Doubront, Brandon Workman and Drake Britton -- who contributed in 2013 may all make the Opening Day roster. In counting on Bogaerts and Bradley, the Red Sox are taking a chance. If neither is as good as projected, the team could slip back in the pack in 2014.
Given the number of quality arms, that seems unlikely. The Red Sox and Rays almost certainly will be the consensus picks to finish atop the American League East in some order.
Tony La Russa once said that clubs should change their group dynamics every single season because the dynamics inevitably change anyway as players get older, make more money or simply tire of working with one another.
The Red Sox seem unlikely to need any kind of energy charge as long as they've got Pedroia, but Bradley and Bogaerts should add something to the mix as well. And there's all that pitching. At a time when baseball's top 15 or 20 teams are so evenly matched in terms of talent, pitching depth is a good way to measure each organization.
No franchise has more of it than the Red Sox, and that has been Cherington's plan for a while now. There aren't many places in the world more beautiful than Fenway Park in October, and we may see more of it in 2014.