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Friday, February 8, 2013

Cherington looks for Red Sox to begin anew

During his frequent visits last year as an invited guest at Fenway Park’s season-long centennial bash, Pedro Martinez always made sure to chat with his old friend, Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington.

Each time, he found Cherington increasingly dispirited. ...

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During his frequent visits last year as an invited guest at Fenway Park’s season-long centennial bash, Pedro Martinez always made sure to chat with his old friend, Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington.

Each time, he found Cherington increasingly dispirited.

“I was like, ‘Ben, don’t worry,’ ” Martinez said. “It was a tough season, and he was really stressed out. I just said, ‘Hey, my friend, take it easy. It’s one bad year. We’ve all had a bad year.’ ”

If you found it unpleasant to watch the 2012 Red Sox, you should’ve seen the view from Cherington’s chair. The 38-year-old New Hampshire native had worked his way up from an area scout to the general manager’s office, but after 13 years in the organization, his first season in charge of baseball operations turned into a 93-loss nightmare.

Cherington wasn’t immune to criticism, but he often seemed like a bystander while manager Bobby Valentine self-immolated and an underachieving, injury-filled roster weighted down for most of the season by bloated long-term contracts caused the Red Sox’ runaway train to crash and burn.

That won’t be the case this year.

Valentine is gone after only one season, replaced by John Farrell, the manager Cherington wanted all along. And after pulling off last August’s payroll-purging mega-trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Cherington overhauled the roster this winter, signing seven free agents and trading for closer Joel Hanrahan. The Sox addressed short-term needs at first base, in the outfield and in the starting rotation and added depth at catcher, shortstop and in the bullpen, all while retaining their greatest assets in a replenished farm system.

None of the acquisitions were flashy, but then, neither is the monotonal Cherington, who has left a far more indelible imprint in assembling his second Red Sox team and surely will take more heat if it fails as spectacularly as his first.

“I don’t consider it ‘my team’ or ‘my imprint,’ ” Cherington said recently in a sitdown with the Herald. “I feel confident in doing the job, having gone through a full cycle now and been through every different point that the year brings. So there’s a sense of comfort in that, there’s a sense of confidence in the people we have, and I see it as a collaboration.”

A season to forget

That was the case last winter, too. But when Cherington made his first big decision by recommending Dale Sveum to replace manager Terry Francona, he was overruled by ownership. Team president Larry Lucchino pushed for Valentine, saddling Cherington with an outspoken veteran manager with whom he never saw eye to eye.

Neither of Cherington’s big offseason moves – a trade that brought reliever Mark Melancon from the Houston Astros and a five-player deal that landed two-time All-Star closer Andrew Bailey while sending outfielder Josh Reddick to the Oakland Athletics – panned out. And his decision to turn formerly dominant set-up man Daniel Bard into a starting pitcher was a horrible miscalculation.

Cherington candidly laments not doing enough to deepen a starting rotation that posted the majors’ fourth-worst ERA. But the reality was that his predecessor and former boss, Theo Epstein, left a payroll that lacked the flexibility even to sign free agent Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year, $10 million contract. Instead, Cherington had to shop in the bargain bin, signing retreads Aaron Cook, Vicente Padilla and Carlos Silva to minor-league deals and getting little return.

“We forget that last year was Ben’s rookie year,” Lucchino said. “I think he is more confident and more determined than ever. I think the relationship between Ben and his manager is a really strong one based on lots of familiarity, which we did not have last year, did not have that history of familiarity.”

Said Cherington, “We’ve all had an opportunity to look in the mirror pretty hard and acknowledge what happened (in 2012) and take responsibility for it at every level. Once that happened, we came back together and recommitted to what we’re doing.”

Losing their way

As the highest-ranking front office link to the salad days of 2003-09, Cherington concedes the Red Sox have lost their way over the past few years.

The early days of Epstein’s tenure were marked by personnel decisions that lacked fanfare. But under-the-radar additions of Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar and, at the time, David Ortiz were sensible baseball moves. The same can’t be said of recent long-term deals for splashy big-name players, never mind that John Lackey, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez lacked the temperament to thrive under the heightened scrutiny that follows Boston’s baseball team.

Along the way, the Red Sox strayed from the things that made them so successful, namely a relentless approach at the plate and a dominance at Fenway Park. And it all came to roost last year, when they posted their lowest on-base percentage (.315) since 1931 and went only 34-47 at home.

“Perhaps what happened is that we had a long period of success and got a little bit more comfortable taking more risk,” Cherington said. “We had a pretty disciplined, measured approach in terms of what we’d be willing to give up, either in the form of players or contract, spending a lot of money on the team but in a sort of aggregate, not necessarily on one piece. And that served us well for a long time. It’s possible that success sort of contributed to being willing to take a little bit more risk, saying, ‘Oh, we can do this, we can try this.’

“We recognize there were mistakes made, and we live with those mistakes. But in my experience, having been here in the middle of all of this, I don’t remember ever a decision being made or an acquisition that wasn’t first focused on the pursuit of winning, trying to build the best team we can.”

Twelve years after principal owner John Henry bought the team, Cherington insists that goal remains unchanged. But in seeking to build what he often calls “the next great Red Sox team,” his biggest challenge may be overseeing a return to the self-
controlled decision-making that guided the organization to two World Series crowns and six playoff appearances in seven
seasons.

And if that happens, 2012 really will go down as merely one bad year.