When you are around the Red Sox, you realize that everything they do tends to get exaggerated. Their winning streaks galvanize a region; their losing streaks seem to depress the local economy. Prospects become household names long before you even know their faces. Bad calls become the worst, and long home runs become the longest. It goes with the territory.
So when you see a suggestion that Ben Cherington deserves the Executive of the Year award, you might assume that it is just the latest tall local tale. And maybe it is. But the suggestion didn't come from your buddy at the bar, nor did it come from the local press. It didn't even come from the team's PR machine. It came instead from former GM and current ESPN and Sirius/XM analyst Jim Bowden, who tweeted on Saturday: Peavy getting standing O...Red Sox fans should do same for Cherington #ExecutiveOfYear
Usually, we are trained to think of those postseason awards in a certain way. Manager of the Year should go to the leader of whichever club most exceeded expectations. By the same token, the top executive should be whichever GM does the most with the lowest budget. By that definition, Cherington won't even be a candidate.
But that would sell short the incredible job he's done. Cherington's job comes with its own unique set of challenges. No, he doesn't need to make some of the tough choices his small-market peers face every year. He's not forced to win in a quickly closing window before his best young players race off to get paid elsewhere. He doesn't need to beg ownership to commit to the product. And while the sellout streak ended under his watch, he's not under constant pressure to find a way to double sagging attendance numbers.
He is, on the other hand, under immense pressure to succeed. That's always been the case in Boston, but he has the unenviable position of following the most successful and well-liked GM in the team's history. He worked under Theo Epstein, but he was largely invisible. Heck, most people saw fellow lieutenants Josh Byrne and Jed Hoyer as the most likely to break out from Theo's enormous shadow. Now it was Cherington who not only had to emerge but needed to do it by overcoming the mess that was left in his lap.
Year 1 clearly was not a success. Maybe it was better that way. 2011 ended with such calamity, but few seemed to understand just how much lower the club could sink. Failing so spectacularly in 2012 allowed ownership to be bold. It allowed for the great contract-unloading deal with the Dodgers. The failure of Bobby Valentine (ownership's choice) paved the way for Cherington to pick his own guy. It showed that the system was so flawed it needed to be burned to the ground. The Red Sox needed to get back to what had once made them so great.
Cherington deserves (at this juncture anyway) to win that award because he has expertly guided his team back to basics: starting pitching, power bats, outstanding depth, character/chemistry and a manager who knows how to diffuse potential fires.
The 2004 team was an offshoot of the 2003 team that Cowboyed Up. The chemistry that had been established by newcomers David Ortiz, Kevin Millar, Bill Mueller, Johnny Damon & Co. needed a little more starting pitching. When Curt Schilling arrived (and Theo traded for depth at the deadline), they took off. 2007's World Series squad used a similar formula, with a great crop of starters, depth galore and Manny Ramirez and Ortiz putting the fear of God into opposing hurlers.
Cherington's vision for the 2013 Red Sox mirrors the same formula. The game has changed since those championship squads, and power is less attainable. Nevertheless, these Sox are 10th in the league in home runs and second in slugging percentage. The other factors are there, too.
Depth? Check. It started by adding the seemingly redundant Jonny Gomes and Shane Victorino and continued with Mike Carp, Brock Holt and David Ross. Nowhere is it more apparent than in the bullpen, where the team has lost three of its top relievers yet shoulders on without causing too much damage.
Character and chemistry? Check again. This group has that in spades, and once again Cherington is to blame. He made it a priority to usher out the negative influences and replace them with positive people. Much will be made of the chemistry. The beards, water soakings and genuine fun on the field. That stuff is fine and maybe even helps over the course of a season. At worst, it doesn't hurt. But the real trick was finding players who truly loved the game. Players who think about baseball nonstop and talk it through with their teammates. Players who strive to get better and show up early and concentrate hard to make that happen. This part of the game often gets overlooked because the hijinks are so easy to see. But ask any manager of a rebuilding club and he'll tell you that character-wise, it's the dedication to the craft that means most.
A manager who knows how to keep everything in-house and away from the prying eyes of the media? Check. The next Sox scandal of 2013 will be the first. John Farrell has handled potential crises involving Alfredo Aceves, Jose Iglesias and Will Middlebrooks and kept them brief and harmless.
Starting pitching? Ah, here is our first departure from the formula. Sox starters are 12th in ERA, 22nd in WHIP and 18th in OPS against. They have been a serviceable group, but overall far from dominant. In theory they should benefit from the eventual return of Clay Buchholz, but Cherington is smart and knows not to bank on that. His deadline acquisition of Jake Peavy should help remedy the problem without sacrificing too much of the team's future, and there is no doubt Peavy will fit with the pre-established chemistry.
I'm impressed with Cherington, not just because of the moves he's made, the speed with which he's turned things around or the challenge he's overcome. I'm impressed with the thought process more than anything else.
I understand that he's received some criticism for a Hamlet complex -- he struggles to make quick decisions. Maybe that is a problem, or maybe it has been his greatest strength. Because what stands out to me is his ability to account for all eventualities and ignore what some might call redundancies. For example, Jacoby Ellsbury is unpredictable, fragile and potentially leaving at the end of this season. No problem to Cherington, who signs Victorino to play right field but know he can move to center if Ellsbury goes south and Jackie Bradley Jr. falls short. At worst he has a replacement ready, at best he has extra leverage. So while the contract seemed high to me at the time, I think I now understand the process. The “redundancy” at shortstop allowed him to acquire Peavy. The “redundancy” at closer allowed him to survive major injuries. The glut of outfielders allowed him to survive minor injuries there and ensure that the character guys had a spot.
Ben Cherington may not have taken a team with a small budget and turned it into a powerhouse. But he has turned around a bad situation in a hurry. He took a loathsome team and made it lovable. He took a top-heavy team and added depth. He got back to basics and in the process has emerged as one of the top young executives in the game. No exaggeration.