New manager John Farrell is in place. David Ortiz has a freshly minted two-year guarantee. The makeover of the Red Sox, with second-year general manager Ben Cherington in charge, continues its inning-by-inning offseason crawl as baseball’s GM meetings begin this week in Palm Springs.
All of 378 days on the job and barely a month removed from the franchise’s worst season in a half-century, the 38-year-old Cherington maintains the confidence of his bosses on Yawkey Way. Team president and CEO Larry Lucchino said last week, while acknowledging the disappointment and “broken parts’’ of the 2012 season, that Cherington remains the right fit for the job.
“He has a tremendous amount of personal skills, leadership skills. Integrity. Work ethic. Experience that he has amassed personally,’’ Lucchino said late last week from his office at Fenway Park. “He’s also an excellent hybrid executive, operates in both gears. And that, in our eyes, creates the right kind of balance we need in the evaluation process.’’
The terms “hybrid” and “both gears” are baseball jargon for a GM who can blend the game’s new-age data, its statistical minutiae, with its old-world, gut-instinct scouting methods. Hired out of Amherst College as an advance scout by the Indians, and then added to Boston’s baseball operations in 1999 by then-GM Dan Duquette, Cherington is among the game’s new breed of GMs required to be fluent in neatsfoot oil as well as basepath quantum physics.
“Ultimately, you either make good decisions or you don’t,’’ said Cherington, needing these next weeks and months to fill a multitude of holes in the roster, including a starting pitcher and power hitter.
“All the people care is what the team does on the field, and that’s a reflection of our decisions, and I don’t think in the end anyone really cares how I’m defined. They care whether we win games or not. I hope I can do both those things. I hope I can see players for what they are with my own eyes and also have a solid understanding of the metrics underneath the performance.’’
Duquette, now the Orioles GM, declined a request to be interviewed for this story. Terry Francona, the manager here when the Sox won the World Series in 2004 and 2007, also politely declined, citing the fact that he is the new manager of the Cleveland Indians.
Former Sox GM Theo Epstein, Cherington’s friend and immediate predecessor, opted to respond to a number of Cherington-related questions via email, and made clear his unwavering support.
“Ben has myriad strengths,’’ noted Epstein, now in year No. 2 of the Cubs’ makeover as Chicago’s president of baseball operations. “He is intelligent, analytical, disciplined, earnest, fair, engaged, grounded, self-aware, organized, hard-working, magnanimous, selfless. He makes those around him better by taking the time first to understand them, then to connect with them, and finally to challenge them. This makes him an outstanding organization-builder, which I think is among the most important traits for a GM. From a baseball standpoint, he is as well-rounded as you’ll find, in his experience and his strong evaluation skills.’’
By that account, it sounds as if Sox have both the next .400 hitter and Triple Crown winner making the calls in the corner office. No shortcomings?
“The length of his pants,’’ wrote Epstein, contacted before the start of this year’s World Series. “We always felt safe in the office knowing Ben would survive any major flood and lead us to safety. It appears that’s gotten better lately, credit most likely going to his wife.’’
The key now is how Cherington tailors a Red Sox lineup that drowned in 69-93 ignominy this past season. Even with Ortiz extended, at a price that could be at upward of $15 million a season, Cherington still has mountains of cash to spend following the quarter-of-a-billion-dollar payroll dump in August in which he sent Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, and Nick Punto to the Dodgers.
The GM meetings will have Cherington putting out feelers on trades, although it’s typically the winter meetings, to be held Dec. 3-6 in Nashville, when deals are crystalized or consummated. He is also expected to be active in the free agent market, one that is not top-heavy in elite talent this year.
Texas power hitter Josh Hamilton, among the few big names to make it to market, is rumored to be looking for a seven-year deal worth $175 million, an average of $25 million a season. No telling what the Cherington-Lucchino-John Henry appetite will be for that kind of contract after the pain and subsequent purge of 2012.
Cherington’s greatest challenge, though, will be to find that meat-of-the-lineup hitter, ideally one with abundant power, who can anchor the offense for years. Gonzalez was pegged for that duty, but he ended up collateral damage in the housecleaning swap with the Dodgers. Without him in the package, the Dodgers weren’t dealing.
“The best lineups we’ve had have been deep, one through nine, but also have had dynamic middle-of-the-order hitters,” said Cherington. “Manny [Ramirez]. David [Ortiz]. Back in those years. Then [Kevin] Youkilis and David [Ortiz] and others, you know, later . . . and we felt like when we got Adrian that he was part of the next chapter of our great lineups, and he would be a centerpiece in the middle of the lineup for a long time. Those hitters don’t fall out of trees. So he was difficult to give up, for the same reasons we acquired him, for the same reasons we so badly wanted to acquire him. But we felt, net-net, the positives of the deal outweighed the negatives.’’
Gonzalez came to Boston via trade, which inevitably may be the method Cherington must employ now if free agency doesn’t provide fit and value.
“You start to hear stuff late in the year, during the playoffs, but until you get to GM meetings you don’t really know how teams are thinking, what pressures are on different teams,’’ said Cherington. “Teams that [didn’t] make the playoffs are going through their analysis right now, trying to figure out what fits, what doesn’t, what payroll they are looking at next year. I think that work going on right now turns into conversation at the GM meetings and beyond and you get a sense if there is more opportunity in trade or free agency.’’
Red Sox Nation is an impatient lot, especially in the fading wonderment of the ’04 and ’07 world titles. Season-ticket invoices were mailed out as Cherington & Co. made their way to Palm Springs, and those dollar signs this week will remind Sox loyalists once again of the price attached to their passion. Opening Day is months away, but fans will want to know who will be in the lineup. They’ll want to know how fast the turnaround can happen.
“Ah, yes, the timeline,’’ mused Lucchino. “If only there were a drawer in the desk for that.’’
For the first 10 years under Henry’s ownership, Lucchino points out, the Sox averaged 92 victories a season. In the heart of the championship seasons, the radio talk show crazies routinely called in with boastful dreams of 100 wins and a Yankees-like dynasty, and they didn’t sound all that crazy. All of that was hard to remember, even harder to imagine, amid the conflagration of 2012.
“There are so many factors that contributed,’’ said Lucchino, reflecting on a season that summoned memories of such names as Pinky Higgins, Don Buddin, Gary Geiger, and the like.
“Ben is sometimes teased by people citing his multifactoral analysis of the season — he uses that word, multifactoral, and people tease him about it. But he has the added virtue of being true, being right. A lot of factors contributed to it. Did we deviate from our balanced approach? Maybe we did. Did we miscast or misperceive certain players’ development? Maybe we did. A number of things didn’t go right. For the first 10 years that we were here, we won over 92 games per season on average. Last year we lost over 90 games. I think our fans are going to realize that our organization is closer to the former than what I hope is an aberrational bad year.’’
Cherington, a proud son of Meriden, N.H., got his first glimpse of Fenway from a bleacher seat in the late ’70s, accompanied by his grandmother. Now he has perhaps the most daunting task a Sox GM has had since Dick O’Connell in the ’60s, charged with refashioning a lineup and reinvigorating a fan base. O’Connell, of course, came aboard when expectations were lower than the Charles River’s water quality. Cherington needs to serve a better drink, and do it quickly.
“There is no offseason road map to building a perfect team,’’ he said. “We’ve just got to try to make the right decisions. I believe we can be good next year. I know we’ve got work to do, and I know we’ll be really good in time. I don’t know exactly what that time means.’’