I was comfortable in saying Ben Cherington was the right person for the Red Sox general manager job even in the midst of last season’s flame-broiled disaster. But it’s obviously a much easier case to make and a fuller bandwagon this season, with the extraordinary and mostly unexpected success thus far.
The Red Sox have the best record in baseball at 62-43, and much of the credit for that belongs to the understated general manager. Given a chance to hire the manager he wanted in the first place – Larry Lucchino’s fixation on Bobby Valentine was a worse decision than playing cowboy dress-up at a Jason Aldean concert – it’s apparent John Farrell was the right choice in the first place.
It was among many smart and prudent choices Cherington made this offseason – one in which he was under considerable pressure to repair the damage of 2012 and prove he wasn’t complicit in it.
Those fans and media among us who pined for the presumed quick-fix in Josh Hamilton did not learn their lesson from the Carl Crawford disaster, nor did they properly appreciate the get-out-of-jail-free card the Dodgers handed over last season.
Cherington, to his eternal credit, did, filling the roster with a recently accomplished, respected middle-class of players, a boring approach right up until we actually saw what Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino and Koji Uehara and so many others brought to this team, including making it a team.
. Now comes the next challenge, a tough one but one Cherington is no doubt grateful to have after last year’s mess. The Red Sox are surprise contender in this bridge year, with a likable, resilient team doing all it can to eradicate the stench of last season. It’s almost entirely gone. But in a difficult division and with injuries thinning the roster’s depth, Cherington is obligated to add reinforcements to the big-league roster.
But can he be a buyer while retaining all the right prospects? Xander Bogaerts, a consensus top-five prospect in the game and perhaps a contributor down the stretch this year, is untouchable. So is hitless wonder Henry Owens, you’d have to assume at this point. And perhaps center-fielder-in-waiting Jackie Bradley Jr.
It’s a complicated situation, particularly since it seems to be a seller’s market this year. (The advent of the second wild-card, which makes too many pretenders kid themselves and their fan base that they are contenders, should have resulted in the trade deadline being pushed back into mid-August. But that’s a rant for another day.)
Cherington is going to have a lot of options, and a lot of difficult decisions. We’ve learned to trust him to make the right ones. But no matter what he does, it seems to me that these are the three prime priorities, in this order.
1. A relief arm or two
Maybe even three. Some help will almost certainly come from within the organization, whether it’s an acquisition of a starter that pushes Brandon Workman to the bullpen, or the arrival of Rubby De La Rosa, provided he can start finding the plate a little more (23 walks in his last 43.1 innings).
But because of the attrition the bullpen has endured – Andrew Bailey, Joel Hanrahan, and the essential Andrew Miller are all done for the season — the acquisition of outside help should be inevitable if it isn’t. Jesse Crain might be the most appealing option, but he’s not healthy.
The Brewers’ John Axford, the Padres’ Luke Gregorson, and free-agent Brian Wilson all come with some risk. Gregorson is the most appealing, but you’d hope the price is nothing more than a Brandon Jacobs-type prospect, which was the price for Matt Thornton.
It’s fascinating that the Rangers have made Joe Nathan available, but it’s hard to imagine they would trade him within the American League.
As for Jonathan Papelbon, who napalmed the Phillies after their eighth straight loss, consider the money remaining, the decline in velocity and strikeouts, and realize that bringing him here would be for a reunion’s sake and name recognition and nothing more.
2. A quality righthanded hitter on the left side of the infield.
Stephen Drew can’t hit lefties (.173, .600 OPS this season), and Jose Iglesias has come crashing back to earth while searching for his true level. Between Triple A and the majors this season, he’s hitting .283. If his current slide stops with his batting average, currently at .331, somewhere higher than that number, I’d think we’d all exhale.
Brandon Snyder is a Quadruple A stopgap. And Will Middlebrooks is reacquainting himself with Toledo, Richmond, Syracuse, and the strike zone.
Help isn’t essential. But it could, you know, help.
Michael Young is coveted, but he’s an accumulator rather than someone who constantly has great at-bats, and he’s 36. I’m more fascinated by Aramis Ramirez, a traditional second-half masher (.882 OPS) who, if his knee is OK, could give the Sox a little righthanded pop at a fairly inexpensive cost (at least in terms of prospects). It was just last year that he hit 27 homers, 50 doubles, and finished ninth in the NL MVP balloting.
I suppose Jake Peavy qualifies – his stats are fine, and they undersell him to some degree because he pitches in a hitter’s park.
But I’m having a tough time convincing myself that giving up Middlebrooks is worth it. For all of his flaws, his power is legit, and that’s at a premium in today’s game. And he works hard, which gives you hope that he fulfills the promise he showed last year.
Plus, I don’t trust Peavy to stay on the mound – he’s made 13 starts this year. From 2009-12, he made more than 19 once. Between him and Clay Buchholz, though, you could have a heck of a pitcher for 32 starts.
As for Cliff Lee … I’d prefer taking on all the salary ($77.5 million if his 2016 option is picked up) at the expense of giving up a bigger cache of prospects. The best hope is that Ruben Amaro Jr. likes prospects within the Sox system that they are not entirely sold on. Middlebrooks, perhaps. Maybe Iglesias. Even Matt Barnes.
Man, who am I kidding? It’s gonna take a lot, isn’t it? Pulling a trigger on a trade for Lee, a true ace with a great postseason track record, could be Cherington’s toughest challenge yet.
But at least we have full trust that whatever he does will likely be what’s best for the team now and in the future. As he proved in the prelude to this fun season, he’s capable of navigating that delicate balance.