On the one hand, Ben Cherington is the architect of a World Series winner. On the other hand, he’s steered the team to a pair of last-place finishes that have bookended that triumph.
Good luck reconciling those drastically different conclusions to the three years of Cherington’s GM tenure. Of course, Cherington is not interested in reconciling those finishes. He’s interested in avoiding further repetitions of seasons like 2012 and 2014. The fact that he has not represents a failure of sorts.
“It’s hard. It’s been hard on us, the extreme outcomes. Obviously I like the upside, but the downside is hard to deal with, painful for everyone, and it’s not at all what we want to be. It’s not at all what I’ve said we want to be in the past,” said Cherington. “We want to build something that’s got a chance to sustain and be good every year. I don’t think — you can’t plan on a World Series every year, but we ought to be planning on winning teams and contending teams and teams that are playing meaningful games in September and getting into October more often than not, so obviously, based on the results of the last three years, we haven’t accomplished that yet.
“We need to figure that out and find a way to do that. I still believe that we will,” he continued. “I believe that there are too many strengths in the organization not to do that, but we have to sort of, we’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves honestly what we can do to make sure that happens. That will be a big part of the offseason and moving forward. It’s a very competitive landscape, I think, in baseball. I think the talent is more evenly distributed than it was 15, 20 years ago. So we’re always going to need talent. We’re going to need good players. We’re going to need to construct the roster well. And then we also need to look for every other possible area of competitive advantage. If we do well enough in all of those areas, it will lead to what we want. We haven’t gotten there yet.”
Manager John Farrell likewise grimaced that the 2013 World Series triumph felt “longer ago than just one year.”
The struggles of the team’s young position players — most notably, Xander Bogaerts, Will Middlebrooks and Jackie Bradley Jr. — played a meaningful role in contributing to that volatility (though it would be a mistake to point solely to that group, given the lackluster production that came from elsewhere).
Did the Sox rely too heavily on prospects? Cherington answered that question by offering context for how the team ended up with three young position players.
“Going back to last offseason, we felt like as we looked towards 2014, 2015 and beyond, trying to build a team that could sustain a level of success, we felt at some point, we were going to have to integrate some young position players, and then at some point we were going to have to integrate some young pitching. We really didn’t want to do both at once if we could avoid it,” said Cherington. “Given where people were in their development, we felt there was a better chance to integrate some young players in 2014 knowing that inevitably there was going to be some transition on the pitching side after that.
“So looking back on it, what we tried to do was build a team that would allow for that, where young players were protected enough where we could still be competitive and winning, and then get into a season and make adjustments if we had to. That was our plan. It’s certainly fair to say we didn’t execute the plan as well as we should have. That’s what I look back on and ask myself, is there a better way I and we could’ve executed the plan, and the answer is yes, because the results are the results.
“We need to execute better and that leads to better performance, and I take responsibility ultimately for the performance. We’re not going to and we can’t shy away from the idea of committing to young players when they prove they should be committed to. That’s still going to be the best way we can sustain a level of success over a long period of time.”
And as difficult as this year was, Cherington and Farrell suggested that he doesn’t believe the Sox are so far away from being able to get to the place where they want to be moving forward.
“I think there are two things that quickly come to mind and it’s been a roster of change and it’s one that’s building and when you think about the young talented guys that have emerged this summer, it is exciting,” said Farrell. “It’s exciting because you can look on the field and see a couple of guys or multiple guys that could be together for a long period of time. That’s not to guarantee anything but their early returns on opportunities provided this year have been positive. When you start to look at Mookie [Betts], Xander, Rusney [Castillo], Christian [Vazquez], you start to get a number of names that because of their and because of what they’ve done in the early stages of their career it’s very promising.
“I think we’re well positioned. I think we have a challenging offseason ahead of us that’s sort of, in a way, simple to see but not, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to execute. If you look at all the things an organization needs to be successful I think a lot of those things are in place,” added Cherington. “You need stable ownership, support from ownership, you need resources, financial and otherwise, you need good people, we have good people in the front office, we have good people on the field. We need talent ‘ major league clubhouse and in the farm system, I think we have both. We have to add to it and we have to construct a roster that works and that wins games next year because ultimately the results are the results and that’s what we’re judged on. I feel good about the strengths we have in the organization but certainly we can learn from what happened this year do whatever we can to avoid it from ever happening again.”
Among the other items discussed by Cherington and manager John Farrell in a 40-minute session looking back on the season and looking forward to the work that lies ahead to move forward:
– Cherington identified adding to the rotation, adding a left-handed hitter and the bullpen as three areas of emphasis for the team this offseason. He suggested that third base could be an area where the team looks to upgrade offensively, though he also noted that Will Middlebrooks, Garin Cecchini and Brock Holt give the team internal options.
– Mookie Betts and Rusney Castillo both impressed in their big league debuts. The ideal position for both next year, with Dustin Pedroia back, is likely center field. Cherington did not seem worried about finding roles for both.
“I don’t think we can assume it’s a problem until it’s a problem. In October, it’s not a problem. If it’s a problem at some point, great, we’ll have a problem,” said Cherington. “If we have too many good players for the spots we have, then I guess that’s a problem and we’ll deal with it. We all know a lot can happen between now and next April and we’ll see where we are. We finished in last place, so we need more good players, not less. So hopefully we’re building that and we need to continue to build that.”
– Farrell was not prepared to say if there would be any changes to his coaching staff, suggesting that there were “a number of conversations to be had.” He noted that the coaching staff was the same one that earned accolades en route to a World Series, but also suggested, “We’re always looking for ways to get better.”
– Cherington took stock of an increasingly challenging environment in which to improve an offense. He noted that standards have changed, to the point where a .950 OPS at the corners is no longer a given, but suggested that the team didn’t want to “throw out the baby with the bath water” by giving up its emphasis of a grinding approach to drive up pitch counts in pursuit of less-disciplined power.
– Cherington on whether the team would pursue extension talks with outfielder Yoenis Cespedes: “You know, we’ve really enjoyed having him here in the time that he’s been here. He does a lot of things on the field. He seems to have fit into the clubhouse pretty quickly. And he does sort of provide an element in the middle of the lineup — confident hitter with men on base and all of those things that you see that we can use. It’s just a conversation I think we’ll have at the right time. There’s no specific date we’re planning on having that. So far, we think the relationship is off to a good start.”
On whether Cespedes’ interest in an extension would impact whether the team explores trading him: “As far as Cespedes is concerned, we sort of look at the baseline of him being on the team next year as being a very good thing. Anything on top of that would be good if it makes sense for everyone. We just like having him on the team next year, there’s nothing conditional on it. We look forward to having him on the lineup next year.”
– Cherington on whether the group of young pitchers supplied any of the rotation answers going forward: “On the one hand, there absolutely will be some answers from that group, but also fair to say that we don’t know exactly who yet and probably won’t until we get to spring training and get into the deeper part of March. We believe that some of the pitching solutions will come from the group that’s in the organization now, but we’ll look to add to it, too.”
Farrell said that he could envision some of the pitchers who were given an opportunity to start this year contributing out of the bullpen in the future. He noted that both Brandon Workman and Rubby De La Rosa had experience pitching out of the bullpen.
– Farrell said that the team would be “very comfortable” with having Christian Vazquez as its primary catcher. Cherington said that in an ideal world, the team would be able to add a left-handed catcher, but he said that the Sox wouldn’t be beholden to a left-handed hitting profile for a catcher. He also said the team wasn’t going to rule out a return of David Ross.
– Though the Sox offense continued to struggle after the deals for Cespedes and Allen Craig (along with Joe Kelly) after the deadline, Cherington said that he feels that while the deals did not bring the Sox’ offseason work on the lineup to a conclusion, they did bring the team closer to having a deep, productive lineup for 2015.
As for Craig, who hit .128 with a .234 OBP and .191 slugging mark in 29 games after being traded from the Cardinals to the Red Sox, Cherington said he believed that there were better days ahead.
“He has such a strong track record all the way back to his college days, through the minor leagues and with the Cardinals,” said Cherington. “This was a tough year for him. He had a tough injury last fall that he tried to play through, played in the world series with, but he would tell you and I think it’s clear it affected his off season, which probably affected the beginning of his season and he was swimming up stream the whole year and then the trade. You’re talking about a guy who had signed an extension not too long ago, who had settled into a place in St. Louis and then he gets traded. The whole year, there was a lot coming at him but in the time we’ve gotten to know him we’ve found him to be an accountable guy, obviously an intelligent guy. And he knows what he needs to do this off-season to put himself in a position to be more successful next year. And the track record and his age suggest he will. We knew were getting a guy in a down year and he’s going to fight back from that.”
– Cherington said that, even with the struggles of the young players this year, the team would not adopt a rigid approach to the amount of Triple-A service time needed before promoting players.
– Likewise, Cherington said that the team did not have any bright lines regarding the number of years to which it would be willing to sign a pitcher in his 30s.
“I think there’s a presumption we would prefer to stay away from those but that’s not a policy,” said Cherington. “There’s a preference to avoid really long term contracts with pitchers or position players in their 30s but that’s not a hard policy. But it would guide us. Obviously length becomes an issue as guys get into their 30s certainly.”