By Jeff Louderback
While it makes sense to withhold heaping praise upon Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington until we see how the team performs in 2013 and 2014, leveling him with criticism is unwarranted, even after Boston finished the 2012 campaign in the American League East basement with a 69-93 record.
It was the club’s ownership group – especially president Larry Lucchino – that decided to hire Bobby Valentine. Cherington’s man was Dale Sveum, who ended up joining Theo Epstein as manager of the Chicago Cubs.
The Red Sox started to put last season’s debacle behind them before October arrived. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Dodgers, they unloaded the cumbersome contracts of the underperforming Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett (along with utility man Nick Punto), and simultaneously acquired high ceiling pitching prospects Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster, infielder Ivan De Jesus and outfielder/first baseman Jerry Sands.
De La Rosa and Webster give Boston near Major League ready starting pitching depth, and both project as middle of the rotation starters. Cherington used Sands and De Jesus to bring in hard-throwing closer Joel Hanrahan from the Pittsburgh Pirates earlier in the offseason. Boston also obtained 24-year-old infielder Brock Holt, who has upside as a super utility player and also has a .317 average and a .808 OPS in four minor league seasons. Holt batted .292 in his first taste of the majors last year with the Pirates.
After the 2012 season ended, Lucchino and his fellow ownership group members recognized their mistake in hiring Valentine and decided to let Cherington take the reigns of the ballclub. It was a wise move. Cherington started by hiring former Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell as the new manager, bringing him in from Toronto in a trade for infielder Mike Aviles. Though Farrell did not have success in two seasons as skipper of the Toronto Blue Jays, he is a savvy baseball mind who commands respect and is familiar with Red Sox baseball. He will not bring embarrassment to the Red Sox organization like Valentine did.
To take a deeper glance into what Cherington has done since he replaced Epstein as general manager after the 2011 season, here are significant moves he has made:
Trading Josh Reddick and two prospects to Oakland for closer Andrew Bailey and outfielder Ryan Sweeney
This is a deal that made sense when Cherington pulled the trigger, and it still makes sense even though Reddick clubbed 32 home runs for the A’s last year (albeit he only posted a .768 OPS).
The Red Sox needed a closer, and Bailey had posted impressive numbers in Oakland. He is still just 28 and is not eligible for arbitration until next year.
Unfortunately for the Red Sox, Bailey suffered a thumb injury late in spring training (after a collision at first base), missed much of the season and struggled when he returned. Reddick belted 32 home runs and helped Oakland win the American League West. Ryan Kalish, who is 24 and can proficiently play all three outfield positions, is the reason the Red Sox felt comfortable with trading Reddick, but Kalish missed a chunk of the 2012 campaign recovering from shoulder and neck injuries and was ineffective when he returned.
Entering spring training, Kalish is rehabbing another injury after undergoing shoulder surgery while Bailey is projected as a set-up man to Hanrahan. Reddick is slated to fill the right field spot for Oakland and serve as a middle of the order bat.
The grade for this trade is incomplete since we have yet to see what Kalish can do, and Bailey has yet to pitch a full season in Boston. Because of the bullpen depth they have, the Red Sox could deal the right-hander by opening day to a team that needs a closer.
This move was partly dictated by the Red Sox ownership group to save money, but the 27-year-old Mortensen was a pleasant surprise in Boston last season. He posted a 3.21 ERA, a 1.21 WHIP and 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings over 26 games and 42 innings.
Scutaro was traded to the San Francisco Giants before the trade deadline and was a World Series hero. The likable veteran was moved to second base, where he is more comfortable.
Mortensen is out of options, so he must either make the Red sox opening day roster or be designated for assignment. With his ability to pitch as a starter or a reliever, he has value, and there is speculation that the club could keep him and find a new home for the disruptive yet versatile Alfredo Aceves.
To contend for the postseason, a team needs productive core players, but it is also bolstered by complementary names who fill roles and provide depth. Cherington has shown he has a high aptitude at finding these players.
Ciriaco was a Futures Game participant when he was in the Arizona Diamondbacks farm system, but he was let go by them and the Pirates before signing with the Red Sox as an obscure minor league free agent after the 2011 campaign. He delivered an impressive spring training performance and then made the most of his opportunity in the majors when he was called up. Now the 27-year-old Ciriaco projects as a super utility player who can play second, shortstop and third, and is learning how to play the outfield. He batted .293 in 272 plate appearances with the Red Sox.
The 28-year-old Gomez is a right-handed slugger who was named the International league MVP in 2012 after belting 24 home runs with 74 RBI and a .310 average and a .910 OPS at Triple-A Pawtucket. He also batted .275 with two home runs in 111 plate appearances for Boston. Gomez is below average defensively at the corner infield spots, but he does have value as a DH and a right-handed bat off the bench.
As for Kurcz, Wright and De La Torre, they are pitchers acquired in three separate deals. The 22-year-old Kurcz, who was part of the compensation from the Cubs for Epstein, is a power arm who has upside as a set-up man. Ditto for De La Torre, who was brought in from Cleveland for Brent Lillibridge last year. Wright is the 28-year-old knuckleballer who is similar in style to R.A. Dickey. He was acquired last year from the Indians for Lars Anderson. The Red Sox believe that Wright can become a key part of their rotation, and he will likely make his Major League debut at some point in 2013.
Trading Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto (and $272 million of their contracts) to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster, Jerry Sands and Ivan De Jesus
That the Red Sox were able to get the Dodgers to pay all but $10 million that was owed long term to Crawford, Gonzalez and Beckett (each of whom was underachieving) is a coup in itself. Getting De La Rosa and Webster in the transaction is a steal. Both pitchers have a chance to carve a long-term presence in the Red Sox rotation as early as 2014. De La Rosa will likely help the club at some point in 2013 while Webster could get a September call-up.
This trade provided the payroll flexibility that Boston gained heading into the most recent offseason, and it will help the club’s ability to remain competitive for the long term.
Acquiring John Farrell from Toronto for Mike Aviles
Farrell is the anti-Valentine, a manager who is well-respected and does not create tension and cultivate dysfunction with his players and coaches. Farrell assembled an equally respected coaching staff, and that has contributed to improving the team’s culture.
Signing free agents Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino, David Ross, Koji Uehara, Ryan Dempster and Stephen Drew to contracts
There is no doubt that the Red Sox paid more in annual salaries to the aforementioned free agents than other teams were willing to offer, but those who question these moves do not understand the sound reasoning behind the moves.
The Red Sox have a well-stocked farm system with high ceiling prospects like Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley, Matt Barnes, Bryce Brentz, Matt Barnes, Henry Owens, De La Rosa and Webster. Instead of blocking the paths of these players by doling out high dollar, long-term contracts to premium free agents such as Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton, Cherington brought in complementary free agents who play the game the right way and are known as good teammates.
With Jacoby Ellsbury, Will Middlebrooks, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz returning from injuries, the club has talented core players. The free agents that Cherington brought in over the offseason do not hamstring the club’s payroll for the long term and allow it to contend in 2013.
Acquiring Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt from Pittsburgh for Jerry Sands, Mark Melancon, Stolmy Pimentel, Ivan De Jesus
Though Bailey has a proven track record as a closer, the Red Sox decided to add Hanrahan, who was expendable in Pittsburgh because of his rising salary. Hanrahan can become a free agent after the 2013 season, and the Red Sox will likely be happy to re-sign him if he stabilizes the back of the bullpen.
Holt has value as a versatile infielder who plays adequate defense and hits for average.
The trade cleared much-needed space on the 40-man roster. Pimentel is still a promising pitching prospect, but several other prospects in the Red Sox farm system had surpassed him. Melancon was effective as a closer for the Astros, but he was knocked around in his lone season with Boston. He is best suited for the weaker National League lineups.
Acquiring Mike Carp from the Seattle Mariners for a player to be named later or cash considerations
The 26-year-old Carp is a left-handed hitter who plays first base and left field. He has late bloomer potential, a la Mike Morse. As for 2013, Carp fills a void that was sorely needed since left fielder Jonny Gomes and first baseman Mike Napoli are right-handed hitters who mash lefties but struggle against righties.
Carp does have reverse splits – meaning that he has hit lefties better than righties – but the sample size is too small to deem him ineffective against righties, and because of his age and plus power, Carp has upside for this season and beyond.
If the Red Sox repeat last season’s 69-93 record and find themselves in the AL East cellar again, then criticism of Cherington will be justified. Until then, judgment should be withheld until the 2013 campaign is played out since it is the first season that he has been fully in charge. Technically, this is his second year at the helm, but the ownership group usurped his power and his ability to form the roster he desired last season.