Red Sox rookie catcher Ryan Lavarnway was grabbing a snack in the clubhouse kitchen before Wednesday’s game against the Angels when he was unexpectedly interrupted.
“Ryan? I’m Tom Werner,” said the team’s chairman, shaking Lavarnway’s hand. “How is everything?”
Werner saw the Sox lose three games at Angel Stadium last week, part of a season that veered into a ditch right away and never recovered. This will be the third consecutive year the team has missed the playoffs.
Principal owner John Henry and Werner have spent $507 million in payroll in those three years, with little to show for it beyond increasingly pointed criticism from fans and media. Once a model franchise, the Red Sox faced up to their demise by trading star players Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez to the Dodgers Aug. 25. The approximately $264 million in payroll savings will allow the team to start over after years of fruitless, if not careless, spending.
Henry, whose public communication consists of carefully worded e-mails, has said little about the state of his team. But in an exclusive and unfettered interview, Werner opened up about this fractured season and his hopes for the future.
“I can talk about it as a fan and as an owner,” said Werner. “We suffer as much, if not more, than anybody. It’s very frustrating that we haven’t been in the playoffs since 2009.
“We were hailed as having the best team in baseball in 2011 and went into the season with a lot of people predicting we would win 100-plus games. But it didn’t happen.
“One of the beautiful things about baseball is that it’s hard to predict. But we’ll be back.
“Nothing is more important to us than winning and giving our fans the sense that we desperately want to win.”
Eric Roth, an Oscar-winning screenwriter and friend of Werner, sat in on the interview and joked early on that Werner needed to be asked tough questions about the foundering Red Sox.
So how does he evaluate Bobby Valentine’s job as manager?
Werner’s answer was perhaps telling about what ownership is thinking.
“I don’t really want to get into that today,” he said. “I don’t want to talk too much about him. But he’s had a challenging year. I think, as we’ve said before, he’s doing a good job.”
Will Valentine return in 2013?
“I don’t really want to go there,” Werner said. “I think we all thought we’d bounce back more this year.”
But Werner was expansive in his praise for general manager Ben Cherington, who replaced Theo Epstein 10 months ago.
“I thought for example, that he was extremely impressive in his press conference [that announced the Dodgers trade],” said Werner. “But it’s not just that he’s articulate. Ben is methodical, he’s thoughtful. He’s a good manager, he’s a good leader.
“We give him high marks in how he’s dealt with the challenges this season, and he’s going to be with us for a long time.
“We just have to be more disciplined. One of the things we’ve talked to Ben about is supplementing his staff with a few more evaluators. I’m confident that we’ll get back because now we have the resources and the talent with Ben, and under Ben, to do so.”
Those resources come from the vast savings realized in the landmark trade. Werner laughed out loud when asked how surprised he was that the Dodgers would take on so many cumbersome contracts.
“You’ll have to ask them that,” he said. “But we were very pleased with the trade. We felt it gave us a reset that we could start working on how to improve the club for next year. We were aware that these were three great All-Star players we traded. But we had a real challenge to improve things for next year, and this gives us a real opportunity.
“All I can say from our point of view, we were very pleased with the result. It was something we’ve been talking to the Dodgers about even in July. I feel like this gives us a real opportunity now.
“Somebody in baseball ops said it best: ‘We’re at halftime now.’ Now we have to really go out and show we can take advantage of this opportunity.”
Core remains strong
Werner said several times that the money would be reinvested in the team. It is unlikely to happen all at once, given the lack of notable free agents expected to reach the market this winter.
Werner said the Sox want to sign outfielder Cody Ross to an extension and will at least try to sign center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury to an extension before he becomes a free agent after the 2013 season.
During the Angels series, Werner made sure to speak with Ellsbury’s agent, Scott Boras, before one of the games.
Retaining designated hitter David Ortiz is another priority.
“We’d like to see David come back,” said Werner. “He’s the inspirational leader, and one of the first tasks that we deal with is hopefully extending our relationship. We all have the same objective, which is to see his career end with the Red Sox, whenever that is.”
Ortiz has said he wants the security of a multiyear contract, accusing the owners of favoring free agents instead of recognizing his value.
“All I can say is that we want David back and that is something we should get done,” Werner said. “He is important.”
The core of the team, Werner insisted, remains strong despite the recent missteps.
“We had a philosophy, and I think we veered away a little bit from that philosophy. I don’t think that we’re in a deep hole,” he said, before mentioning second baseman Dustin Pedroia and third baseman Will Middlebrooks as players the team wants to build around. “We have a good pitching staff.
“I feel like we have the core there and we’re going to add to it.”
Werner, in fact, expects the Red Sox to contend as soon as next season.
“Of course,” he said. “We’re going to spend the rest of this season and the offseason improving. I see no reason why we can’t contend next year. For one thing, I’m looking forward to the return of John Lackey. I’m expecting that we’re going to add to our starting pitching depth.
“We still have the nucleus with [Jon] Lester and [Clay] Buchholz. I think Rubby De La Rosa [one of the prospects obtained from the Dodgers as a player to be named later] can be a starter for us. I’m very encouraged.”
No soccer talk
A 62-year-old television executive, Werner got his start in baseball when he purchased a controlling interest in the San Diego Padres in 1990. With the Red Sox, he is part of a triumvirate with Henry and team president Larry Lucchino that has been in charge since December 2001.
The trio — or “JTL” in e-mail shorthand used by team employees — became Boston celebrities after the curse-busting championship of 2004 and wire-to-wire domination of 2007. But the failures in recent seasons have bruised their reputations.
When Henry and Werner purchased an English soccer team, Liverpool, in 2010, it was seen as a distraction. That the Red Sox have gone steadily downhill since then only confirms that notion in some eyes.
“It’s ridiculous to suggest that,” Werner said. “George Steinbrenner built ships — did that distract him from the Yankees? We talk about the Red Sox 365 days a year, and usually several times a day. Being with the Red Sox is a huge part of my life.”
Lucchino, who has no involvement in the Liverpool team, prohibits soccer talk when the trio watches games at Fenway Park; offenders are fined, even if they happen to own the team.
“There’s a wall between the two teams,” Werner said. “There is nothing that distracts us from our mission with the Red Sox.”
Werner said he and Henry have tried to be around the team more often on the road this season to better gauge the problems.
“Part of it is the players have said to us that they like when we’re present,” he said. “They feel that we’re on the job. We’ve never been micro-managers. But I’ll have a chat with the manager about certain games.”
Team never quit
In July, news broke about a group of players who complained directly to Henry and Werner about Valentine. A meeting was held in New York before the start of a series against the Yankees.
Werner said players have dealt directly with the owners for years.
“I think the idea of having a healthy relationship with the players, where they feel comfortable talking to you, is generally a positive thing,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you should go around the chain of command.
“I do believe there should be a chain of command, and if there are issues, everybody should know about them. One of the things that we feel is there should be an openness and dialogue.
“I think the more important concern is, how do we get back on a winning track? No clubhouse is perfect. I like the fact that this team never quit. Even when things were going bad, they were giving everything they had.
“Those issues get magnified when you’re not playing well. If our pitching had been a little stronger this year, those issues wouldn’t have been so well-publicized.
“This is a really good group of guys. I’m not going to pretend there weren’t issues in the clubhouse. But there have always been issues in clubhouses.”
The only goal remaining for the Red Sox this season is to finish above .500, and that seems unrealistic given the minor leaguers and backups who now play regularly. If they don’t reach .500, it would be the first time since 1997 they will have had a losing record. The future is more uncertain than ever.
But that future, Werner said, will not include new ownership any time soon. There has been no talk of selling the team given the recent woes and public backlash.
“We have nothing that we’re focused on except how to win again,” Werner said. “We’re going to be here for a long time.”