Cherington gives Red Sox dramatic makeover
General manager changes attitude, atmosphere after disappointing season
First, let's remember the mess the Boston Red Sox were in around the middle of last season. They were a bad baseball club. They were also an unhappy baseball team. Even worse, they were smothered by bad contracts.
Attitude? Let's just say the Red Sox were a tough club to love.
Looking back on it now, Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington made perhaps his toughest call when he began taking his team apart. In trading Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, he was doing more than unloading three huge contracts.
Cherington was also giving up on three hugely talented players. Whether they were part of the problem in Boston can be debated long into the night. Nevertheless, what Cherington did then allowed him to do what he has done the last few weeks. In freeing up salary flexibility, the stage was set for this offseason.
And this offseason has been absolutely remarkable. No general manager -- none, zero, zip -- has given his team a more dramatic makeover. Not only has Cherington completely remade his roster, he has done it by (a) spending modestly and (b) bringing in a ton of playoff experience.
Yes, Cherington has added some older guys. Of his eight most important additions, only shortstop Stephen Drew hasn't celebrated a 30th birthday. That's OK, because Cherington has added productive players, players with playoff experience, players who understand the ingredients that go into a winning team.
Are the Red Sox suddenly the best team in the American League East? No, they definitely are not. The Toronto Blue Jays likely will be the consensus favorite on Opening Day, and the Tampa Bay Rays may also be better than the Red Sox.
The Yankees? Discount them at your own risk. They've had a tough winter, but they've still got a terrific pitching staff and a long history of winning. Regardless of what happens with Alex Rodriguez, regardless of how well general manager Brian Cashman has done filling -- or not filling -- holes, no one should discount the Yanks.
So any praise of the Red Sox must be put into the context of the rest of a division that seems to be miles better than any other. Still, as Cherington has pointed out a time or two, his work was about improving his own club and not evaluating every other general manager.
Let's run down the list. First, Cherington dismissed manager Bobby Valentine and hired John Farrell. There are dozens of reasons Valentine and the Red Sox were a bad marriage. Rather than pretend otherwise, the Sox cut their losses.
Farrell knows the organization and its players. He has their confidence and respect. How much progress the Red Sox make will depend largely on Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and John Lackey having productive seasons, and hiring Farrell, once one of baseball's most respected pitching coaches, is a step in that direction.
As for everything else, Cherington filled pretty much every need. Depth for the rotation? Ryan Dempster has averaged 200 innings the last five seasons.
Bullpen? Cherington signed free agent Koji Uehara and is close to trading for Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan. The Red Sox likely will have three left-handers in the bullpen, giving Farrell an array of late-inning options.
Boston's GM picked up Shane Victorino to play right, Jonny Gomes to platoon in left and Drew to play shortstop.
The Red Sox are still attempting to finalize a deal with Mike Napoli, who can play first or catch. Like most of the others, he's a respected clubhouse presence who has been to the playoffs.
Cherington also re-signed David Ortiz, and if Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Will Middlebrooks have healthy and productive seasons, the Red Sox should have themselves a nice little ballclub.
If there are no more changes in the current depth chart, only four Red Sox everyday players who started on Opening Day in 2012 -- Pedroia, Ortiz, Ellsbury and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia -- will be back at their same spots in 2013.
Last summer, Red Sox president Larry Lucchino said he wanted Bill James, a paid advisor to the club, to be more involved. If Cherington utilized James' enormous wisdom and good judgment, good for him.
To review, Cherington changed the environment and did about all he could to change the attitude. He upgraded the talent at the places he had needs. Cherington didn't burden the franchise with a bunch of future debt, either. (Only Victorino and Napoli got deals for more than two years, and it's impossible to know what Napoli's will end up being.)
Again, the Blue Jays deserve all kinds of praise for a huge upgrade of their roster and making themselves the AL's best team. But the Red Sox are going to come out of this offseason in really good shape, better shape than almost anyone thought possible.
If anyone wondered whether Cherington was up to the job when Theo Epstein left for the Cubs last winter, this offseason has answered the question. No executive has had a busier -- or a more productive -- few weeks.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.