It doesn’t feel like that long ago that Theo Epstein bolted — sans gorilla suit this time — for the greener ivy of Chicago, with longtime comrade Ben Cherington becoming the latest in a string of intelligent and ambitious New Englanders to rise to the role of Red Sox general manager.
The reason, of course, is because it wasn’t that long ago — Cherington took over as general manager on October 26, 2011, which means he’s just now entering his fourth full season of service time as the man in charge. But this is also true: he has both endured and induced more change in that time than many of his peers with much longer tenures.
Cherington is working on a different kind of a 4-for-4 than the flawless days in the batter’s box David Ortiz, Pablo Sandoval or Hanley Ramirez will submit every now and then this summer. In his fourth season in charge, Cherington’s roster is in its fourth different incarnation.
When he took over in ’12, the roster still included Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, and Daisuke Matsuzaka, and he was forced to coexist with a manager, Bobby Valentine, who certainly didn’t fit the profile of someone who would be on Cherington’s own short-list of candidates. Valentine may be able to run a restaurant, but running a baseball team proved beyond his skill-set in so many different ways.
A year later, Cherington got to hire his guy, John Farrell, while bringing in a collection of well-regarded, relatively inexpensive veterans — Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Ryan Dempster, Stephen Drew among them — and they coalesced into one of the most likable Red Sox teams of recent vintage. Anyone who suggests that World Series championship was a fluke is trying to demean the feat — after 162 regular season games and three grueling playoff rounds, no outcome is a fluke. But it was unexpected, and in a way that added to the joy of the journey.
Last season … well, you know. After going from worst to first, they regressed all the way to the bottom again. The simple explanation is that all that went right the year before went wrong during the sequel, and there’s a good amount of truth to be found in that.
An even simpler explanation is that for a variety of reasons — injuries to stalwarts Dustin Pedroia and Mike Napoli and 1,017 plate appearances shared by not-ready-for-prime-time prospects Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. — they were the worst-hitting Red Sox team (634 runs) since Tom Brunansky led the weakling ’92 Red Sox in the Triple Crown categories with a .266 average, 15 homers, and 74 RBIs. Yeah, it was Butch & Bruno-era bad.
The 2015 Red Sox will have just five players remaining from the ’12 roster when Cherington took charge: David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz, Junichi Tazawa and Daniel Nava. On his watch, the Red Sox have undergone more face-lifts and reconstructions than a desperate ’90s starlet.
For the most part, the alterations have been a good and necessary thing. The 2012 team needed to be torn down for a variety of reasons, and can you believe Carl Crawford still has three years and roughly $64 million remaining on that ill-conceived deal? Thanks again, Dodgers, for the Get Out of Jail Free Card.
Implementing the kids a season ago was the right approach. It just didn’t have the desired effect. To Cherington’s credit, he began reworking last year’s roster long before the season was complete, signing Rusney Castillo, trading Jon Lester (who turned into Rick Porcello, the best bet right now to be this year’s No. 1 starter), sticking with the hard-working Bogaerts, but giving fairly substantial looks to Mookie Betts and Christian Vazquez.
The kids as well as the presumably healthy holdovers from the ’13 champs will be supplemented this year by National League imports Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval — one of whom will likely be David Ortiz’s successor at designated hitter should the end ever actually arrive. It’s a deep and fascinating lineup, one that a modern day Tom Brunansky would not be able to crack (come to think of it, that might accurately describe Allen Craig).
From a rooting interest, it would be nice to see the Red Sox have some roster stability going forward, and it seems they will. The organization is in a good place, with core group of high-end prospects arriving to supplement a roster loaded with established talent, especially on offense. The next few seasons, as Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts become cornerstones and Yoan Moncada and Blake Swihart ascend, should be a blast if they can just follow that script.
But as we anticipate how ’15 and beyond will play out, there’s comfort in knowing that there is stability in the front office and the dugout too. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to agree with John Henry’s sentiment that it’s an idyllic situation — they did finish in last place last year — but it is more than fair to say the Red Sox are in very capable hands.
Cherington, in his short time in charge, has already proven he can find the pieces the Red Sox need, then find more pieces when further change is required. Farrell, well, he has more to prove — he’s well above-average in every requirement of the modern manager other than in-game strategy.
As a tactician, he’s had his moments of inspiration and utter bewilderment, and this year serves as something of a rubber-match in terms of perception of his game-management skills.
Ultimately, though, the news that they both have new contracts (Cherington was actually rewarded with his extension last May) cannot be taken as anything but an encouraging development.
The Red Sox have very smart people with a history of working well together running their team. There’s not much more you can ask for than that, though a request for another worst-to-first jaunt is certainly within your rights.
Maybe the Red Sox will rise to the top of the standings again. Perhaps they settle somewhere on the fringes of the wild card race. We’ve got 162 games to find out.
But common sense, with just a hint of the optimism that comes with any new season, suggest that the manager and general manager will look much smarter this season than the results and circumstances permitted a year ago. I’m glad they’re sticking around.