How the Boston Red Sox Went from Worst to First Under Ben Cherington
Who would have thought after the disastrous 93-loss season one year ago that the Boston Red Sox would be standing on top of the Major League Baseball mountain today after defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series?
If you are general manager Ben Cherington, the architect of this new age in Red Sox history, certainly there had to be a strong sense of optimism entering 2013 because of the complete makeover he gave the team over the last 15 months.
Even though there are still fingerprints from the Theo Epstein era on this Red Sox team, Cherington has reshaped it in the image that he wanted and what they needed to get back on top.
Most teams take time to undergo a complete roster overhaul, yet Cherington did it in a flash because of his vision and some unexpected performances along the way.
To say things got bad for the Red Sox in 2012 would be an understatement. The franchise was a laughingstock, with the main source of problems being Bobby Valentine. It seemed like every time you turned on a computer last year, there was a new report about problems in the clubhouse stemming from issues with the new manager.
Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports reported on August 14, 2012, that Red Sox players went to ownership and laid into Valentine.
Boston Red Sox players blasted manager Bobby Valentine to owners John Henry and Larry Lucchino during a heated meeting called after a text message was sent by a group of frustrated players to the team and ownership in late July, three sources familiar with the meeting told Yahoo! Sports.
Also of note in the report was that some of the players didn't attend the meeting with ownership, "highlighting the chasm that exists not only between some players and Valentine but among players in the clubhouse."
Chemistry gets talked about too much at times, because it's not like every team that doesn't win a World Series hates each other or doesn't work well together. It takes talent to win championships, though that's not to say having a strong core of guys who get along and support each other doesn't count for anything.
As things kept spiraling down for the Red Sox, including a 16-42 record from August 1 until the end of the year, Cherington took control of a situation nobody wanted to touch and made the move that would serve as the catalyst for the 2013 team.
Usually when you hear about a big-name, expensive player being put on waivers in August, it is just a team going through the motions. The odds of finding a trade partner, or the controlling team having the desire to move its best talent during the waiver period, are small.
However, thanks to an aggressive new ownership group, the Los Angeles Dodgers provided the opening Cherington and the Red Sox would need.
August 25, 2012, is the day that changed Boston for the better. The Dodgers and Red Sox agreed to a trade that sent Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto to L.A. for James Loney, Jerry Sands, Allen Webster, Ivan De Jesus and Rubby De La Rosa.
The Red Sox did get good talent in return—Webster and De La Rosa, in particular—but the main purpose of the trade was to get out from the escalating salaries of Gonzalez, Crawford and Beckett.
That trio combined was owed approximately $250.1 million starting in 2013. Crawford and Gonzalez were locked into deals through 2017 and 2018, respectively, that had no shot of aging gracefully.
When you have payroll commitments that high for players no longer in their prime, it becomes more difficult to add talent. Just look at what happened to the New York Yankees this season.
By shedding so much salary, Cherington was able to dip into free agency last winter. If you just go by the names involved, the Dodgers came out ahead in the trade. But this was a rare case when a deal greatly benefited both sides.
The deal also freed up Boston's long-term commitments. According to Cot's Baseball Contracts, the Red Sox are locked into just 12 contracts for next season (assuming Jon Lester's option gets picked up and not including players eligible for arbitration).
Every team covets that kind of financial flexibility and lack of long-term commitments, because it allows them to play the trade and free-agent market as they see fit. The Red Sox are also in a better position than most franchises, as they can afford to re-sign any of their impending free agents, if they so choose.
A New Approach to Spending
After shedding all that money, Cherington took a different route to rebuild the Red Sox for 2013. The big thing that we heard before the season started was the focus on adding "character" guys to the roster.
Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe wrote about the phenomenon of changing culture by adding character and what it might mean for the Red Sox.
What the Red Sox settled on was the idea of finding players who combined the needed talent with the personality to successfully manage the stress that comes with playing for a large-market team with a passionate fan base.
“To me, you have a choice whether you’re a player, a manager or an executive. You embrace the opportunity that comes along with working in Boston, or you focus more on the challenge of working in a place like Boston. We were trying to the fill the team as much as possible with guys who would do the former,” Cherington said.
Those players included Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, David Ross, Ryan Dempster, Jonny Gomes, Joel Hanrahan, Koji Uehara and Stephen Drew.
It was not smooth sailing with all of those deals. Napoli originally agreed to a three-year, $39 million contract that was re-worked as a one-year, $5 million deal with incentives after the physical revealed a degenerative hip condition.
Victorino's three-year, $39 million deal looks great now, but at the time it was signed, no one expected it to work out. He was coming off the worst season of his career with a .255/.321/.383 line in 154 games split between Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
Keith Law of ESPN (Insider subscription required) blasted the deal, saying the Red Sox "squandered a substantial amount of the payroll flexibility they obtained" after the trade with the Dodgers. He also thought Victorino was going to be a platoon player moving forward due to poor results as a left-handed hitter dating back to 2010.
Of course, no one knew at the time that Victorino would give up switch hitting or that his defense as a right fielder would be better than it has ever been. The Flyin' Hawaiian had a surprising .294/.351/.451 offensive output in 2013.
What has been the best move of the Cherington era?
There was also the amazing dominance of Uehara, who has always been an underrated reliever, but he took things to another level this year. He gave up just 33 hits and nine walks with a 1.09 ERA and 101 strikeouts in 74.1 innings during the regular season, was named MVP of the ALCS and recorded the last out of the World Series.
All these players were lauded for their easygoing approach to the game and bringing Boston baseball back to the forefront. It is a testament to the job Cherington did—not just signing them but going through a vetting process to ensure these players could handle the intense scrutiny that comes with being a member of the Red Sox.
In addition to finding players who would positively contribute to the clubhouse, there was also the matter of getting the right manager to lead the team.
Cherington went back to the past, hiring former Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell on October 21. Since Farrell was still under contract with Toronto, the Red Sox sent Mike Aviles to the Blue Jays as compensation, while also receiving David Carpenter in return.
It should also be pointed out that last year's trade allowed the Red Sox to re-sign David Ortiz last winter and give Dustin Pedroia a $100 million contract extension over the summer.
That Little Bit of Luck
While Bobby Valentine became the scapegoat for the failure of the 2012 Red Sox, it is important to remember how decimated that team was by injuries.
I don't say that to take heat off Valentine, who brought a lot of problems on himself with a combative attitude and calling out his own players in the media.
The players listed above don't include Jon Lester, who had a career-worst 4.82 ERA and 25 home runs allowed, or Clay Buchholz, who struggled with a 4.56 ERA in 189.1 innings.
If everything went wrong in 2012, Lady Luck was on Boston's side this year. Zachary Levine of Baseball Prospectus found that six of 15 everyday players finished at or above the 90th percentile of their PECOTA projections entering the year.
Those players include David Ortiz, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Shane Victorino, Daniel Nava, Koji Uehara and Craig Breslow.
It was Cherington's job to put the pieces into place, which he obviously did, but the players had to stay healthy and perform up to their capabilities for the Red Sox to become world champions.
Even with a few bumps along the way, like losing Andrew Bailey, Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Miller in the bullpen or Ryan Dempster providing little more than innings, the Red Sox persevered by having their core players on the field a lot more in 2013 than they did in 2012.
Now, behind the masterful work of Cherington, Boston is celebrating a third championship in 10 years. The very idea of the Red Sox finding such sustained success after all those years of torment is remarkable.
It speaks to the vision of a group of people. Ownership has done a tremendous job of standing behind the front office, even in times of chaos. Things started in 2004 with Theo Epstein building the kind of team he wanted to bring a title to Boston for the first time in 86 years.
After Epstein moved to Chicago following the 2011 season, Cherington was given the position of power. His first year was worse than anyone could have predicted, but it turns out that was the best thing for him and the Red Sox.
Without the 93-loss season in 2012, who knows if the Red Sox would have traded Gonzalez, Crawford and Beckett? Would they have been able to re-sign Ortiz and Pedroia? Would Bobby Valentine have gotten a second year to see if things would turn around?
All of those questions that could have been asked don't have to be thanks to the bottom falling out in 2012. Cherington made this version of the Red Sox in the image he wanted for them.
With another championship celebration in Boston, it's safe to say that Cherington has pushed all the right buttons.
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