The Red Sox are off to a good start, and there are many who deserve the credit for the way things have gone so far for Boston in 2016. The list starts with Dave Dombrowski and goes on to David Ortiz and on to other players and front office members, as well as ownership. It’s a long list, but even so, one man has escaped any credit even though he rightly deserves more than just about anyone. That man is Ben Cherington, and now you understand the previous sentence.
These Red Sox have Dombrowski’s name on the trunk lid, but they’re full of Ben Cherington’s engine parts. By my count 21 of the 25 guys on the 25 man roster are Cherington guys. That means, as presently constructed, this team is 84 percent Cherington’s and 16 percent Dombrowski’s. That’s no knock on Dombrowsk who a) hasn’t been here that long and b) is smart enough to know a decent core of players when he sees it, and c) secure enough to not blow the thing up as soon as he walked in the door.
And yet, a year after his departure, this is still mostly Cherington’s team. The particularly odd thing is that this is also still mostly last season’s team. The 2016 Red Sox have David Price and Craig Kimbrel, but they’re also mostly the 2015 Red Sox, and that team finished in last place with a 78-84 season that was even worse than that final record indicates. The Red Sox padded things with a 15-12 August and a 17-10 September (and an 0-4 October), but the season was lost at that point. After July the Red Sox were 46-58, and that cemented Cherington’s fitting for cement shoes.
As presently constructed, this team is 84 percent Cherington’s and 16 percent Dombrowski’s.
Almost all of Cherington’s big moves in and for 2015 backfired. His acquisition of Rick Porcello for Yoenis Cespedes became laughable, as Cespedes made a case for the NL MVP award despite only playing half the year in the senior circuit. Meanwhile, sinkerballer Porcello was forgetting to throw his sinker and putting up some of the worst stats of his career. Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, the Red Sox’s two prized free agent recruits, were busy putting up seasons worth -1.4 and -1.1 WARP, collectively costing the Red Sox 2.5 games. This was a disaster and unlike 2014 when 2013 had just happened, in 2015, the Red Sox were coming off of 2014 so there was really no where for Cherington to run.
Now though … this is a bit weird. The Red Sox are a team dependent on Porcello and Ramirez, but at least so far, they’re both coming through with flying colors. Sandoval is out for the season with a mysterious shoulder injury, but he’s been more than adequately replaced by ex-minor leaguer and Cherington draftee Travis Shaw. Shaw’s ascendance was unexpected but the fact that he was in Boston’s system and not, say, the Angels, is a feather in his cap.
By FIP-based metrics Porcello has been the second best starter behind Price, but if you look at more traditional metrics, Porcello has been substantially better. He’s not better than Price, of course,, but his results sure have been, and for a team looking to win right now this minute, that’s got substantial value. The point is the Red Sox wouldn’t be where they are now without Rick Porcello and that’s a credit to Cherington rather than a detriment.
The other big success story this season is Hanley Ramirez. Ramirez has learned to play an adequate first base when many of us (including myself) thought his complete ineptness in left field last season rendered him unable to do much beyond saunter to and from the dugout for occasional at-bats. Instead, Hanley has taken to first base and though he’s not a Gold Glover out there, he’s made most of the plays a major league first baseman should make. This is likely what Cherington and his brain trust envisioned when they signed Hanley and put him in left field. It was a massive failure, but now we see the fault wasn’t that Cherington found a player who simply couldn’t play the field anymore, but one uniquely unsuited for the outfield. In any case, Ramirez looks like he could play first for a few more years at least, which puts a whole new and positive spin on what was looking like a bad contract.
Cherington has left the Red Sox, but he’s left them with perhaps the best system they’ve had in modern memory.
Better yet is the farm system. Cherington has left the Red Sox, but he’s left them with perhaps the best system they’ve had in modern memory. Anderson Espinoza just struck out 11 hitters in Single-A, Yoan Moncada, another of Cherington’s big free agent signs, has been destroying Single-A, as has Cherington’s final first round pick, Andrew Benintendi. The system isn’t perfect (the upper minors are devoid of impact talent at present) but it’s one of the better systems in baseball and that’s after graduating Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and to a lesser extent Blake Swihart and Jackie Bradley.
Assessing Cherington’s post-2013 tenure with Boston looked to be an easy task as recently as a season ago. Almost without exception the major league talent he’d assembled had cratered, from Porcello to Sandoval, to Ramirez, to the John Lackey trade and the Rustney Castillo signing. As of a year ago, that’s was an almost historically bad record. But this season things aren’t that way anymore. Now we can see a bit more clearly what it was that Cherington saw in some of these moves, what he’d hoped to accomplish. We can see it more clearly because it’s actually happening on the field.
Cherington’s record will never be perfect unless Allen Craig remembers where his power and hitting ability went, Joe Kelly turns into an actual starting pitcher and Rusney Castillo becomes a major leaguer of really any kind whatsoever. Those things aren’t likely to happen now and nobody is expecting them to. But perfection isn’t the goal, at least not in the aggregate. The goal is to put a good team on the field, and last season for numerous reasons that didn’t happen. This season, the Red Sox are in first place and, even though he’s gone now, Ben Cherington’s imprint is all over this team. For the first time since last season, we can see that that’s a good thing. The Red Sox wouldn’t be where they are now without lots of people, but one of them is Ben Cherington and it’s time he got the credit he deserves.