Why Ben Cherington had to go

Ben Cherington is by all indications a good man who commands respect in a high-ranking position.  He is the architect of the 2013 world champion Red Sox team.  He deserves the benefit of the doubt, right?

Wrong.

From the fan’s perspective, Cherington’s decisions always seemed a little weird.  It seemed he was dedicated to the strategy of (i) overpaying so-so veteran players per annum in return for short contract lengths and (ii) hanging on to every prospect as one would hang onto food during a famine.  The WS win in 2013, while insanely satisfying, actually did a disservice to the long-term prospects of the club by giving the mistaken impression that the win was accomplished as a consequence of the strategy rather than despite the strategy.

Over the next two years, Red Sox fans found out the hard way that Cherington was far from the smartest man in the room:

  • The veterans who helped carry the team in 2013 by their superhuman effort effectively ruined themselves physically going forward (e.g., Victorino, Napoli, Breslow, Tazawa, Uehara, Buchholtz, Pedroia)
  • As WS champs, the Sox thought they could lowball their homegrown talent, Lester, because playing in Boston is its own reward.  The lowballing of Lester made offering any other pitcher of similar value on the market awkward, so no shot at Scherzer (and, of course, no long-term contracts to players over 30 anyway)
  • So we dumped our aces last year to get multiple players of some value.  For Lester, we got Cespedes…OK, but for Cespedes, we got Porcello, who got offered $10M more than Lester over 4 years – and, having far less talent, happily took it.  God knows what we will do with Porcello.  For Lackey, scheduled to make the major league min this year, we got Joe Kelly and Allen Craig.  Kelly is not a starter.  (He may have won his last 4 and pitched well the last couple of games, but he still can’t get beyond the 6th.)  Maybe we can salvage Kelly as a closer.  Craig is a bigger problem as he is no longer capable of playing ball at the major leagues, but is signed through the next two years for a total of $20M.
  • Oh, and Lackey is one of the best pitchers on the far and away best team in the majors.
  • The 2014 offense was so anemic, Cherington was right to sign offensive talent.  He spent huge money on Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, and 28-year-old “prospect” Rusney Castillo.  Only Castillo seems to be breaking out of a rut, but he is still way overpaid.  Sandoval continues to underperform, which of course raises questions about his physical shape.
  • But Ramirez remains the most problematic player on the team.  He can’t – and shouldn’t – play left field.  (The breaking point was Sunday’s loss against the Mariners, when a fourth inning line drive went over his head and plated runs that decided the game. Six other players on the team could have made that play.)  He is severely underperforming at the plate, which is his entire value.  He makes so much money that the team feels the need to play him, but putting Ramirez in play guarantees that the best possible team is not playing that day.  Ouch!  He can’t even be placed at DH because David Ortiz remains there, productive as ever.
  • Having misevaluated the hitting talent, Cherington naturally sought out back-of-the-rotation pitchers who, while not dominant, could induce ground balls to our awesome defense.  That strategy would have been great if (1) the offense produced lots of runs and (2) the pitchers produced the ground balls.  Neither happened.  Really, the offense produced when Betts, Bogaerts, Holt, and lately, Bradley and Shaw, played.  But no team can sustain the run support required of ground-ball pitchers that give up more fly-ball extra-base hits than anyone in the AL.  Masterson, who if he succeeded would have been a nice story, is DFA’ed after 59 innings pitched.  Porcello is on the DL with an inflamed ERA (love that line, not mine).  Joe Kelly is scarier to watch than Tim Wakefield ever was.  Buchholtz is on the DL again (not Cherington’s fault – then again, he could have dealt him while he was healthy I suppose, given his injury history).  Wade Miley is probably the only pitcher that evaluated correctly.  As he was projected to be a #5 starter, and is paid accordingly, this is not a serious plus on the resume.)
  • This brings us to the biggest disaster for the Red Sox: the bullpen.  Theo didn’t have a great history here, and our incoming Pres., Dombrowski, has an awful history with the Tigers bullpen.  But right now the Sox have nobody capable of holding a lead in the middle innings.  Nobody.  The other day, the Sox were leading Seattle 19-2 in the 8th inning, and I still felt queasy.  (My queasiness was plenty justified – while Miley held the Mariners to 2 runs in 7, the pen gave up eight runs in the next two innings!)  No way can this team win anything without a major bullpen overhaul.  Our best guy, Uehara, is 40 and injured.  Our next best guy, Tazawa, is good but overused and the wear has been showing.  Nobody else in the pen is trustworthy.  The Ogando gambit is a bust – and he’s signed next year.  No addition to the pen has worked, and for all our talent in the farm system, there is nobody there who can help.  No issue has more urgency than this, Cherington’s greatest failure.
  • Then of course, the development of our minor-league talent has been inconsistent and less than smooth.  Xander Bogaerts had a miserable year last year because of the impatience with his slow start, which led to $10M wasted on Stephen Drew and Bogaerts playing a position not suited to him.  JBJ, the best outfielder in the AL, could not hit major league pitching and so was not given the playing time needed to learn to hit.  Both of these guys look like they all be able to reach their potential, though.  The pitchers, however, never seem to develop quite right.  Our vaunted farm system is deficient in providing pitchers that can pitch to major league hitters without getting shelled.  Henry Owens…we’ll see.  Many of these guys should have been dealt for known-quantity veterans.

Cherington may have left a mess, but there are bright spots.  The trade for Eduardo Rodriguez looks better and better each time he takes the mound, although he is still a bit rough.  The Miley signing looks like a good value.  If we consider that the Sox paid $39M for one year of Victorino, and about the same for a year of Napoli, then getting the WS trophy made those investments worth it.  But that’s about all I can see.  Cherington needed to go, and I applaud the ownership for acting.