Peter Gammons: Decision time approaching Cherington, Red Sox

ben cherington

Ben Cherington’s week was spent flying to Seattle and back to Boston, on the road to New York, his mind wandering back to the thought “I cannot explain this” to the constant wakeup calls from other general managers. As he drove to New York Thursday night for the opener of a Yankee Stadium series that opened what are likely to be two determining weeks in the Red Sox season, he admitted “I have to do something.” And while his organizational comrades believe some of the answers can, or have to come from within, Cherington finds himself stuck on a mobile with the punchless blues again.

“It is a very thin market for outfielders or offensive help,” he said. Maybe Chris Denorfia or Will Venable in San Diego, especially realizing that Shane Victorino and Will Middlebrooks aren’t springing back off the disabled list. Maybe Gerardo Parra with the Diamondbacks. Not Michael Cuddyer, however, because when he dislocated his shoulder diving for his Rockies team, he assured that he would be in a sling until the trading deadline and not playing until at least a couple of weeks after that.

So, after being shut out by Vidal Nuno Friday night as a walkup to Masahiro Tanaka, the Red Sox had scored three runs or less in 11 of 13 games. They were 2-6 on the final road trip of June, a month that saw them play 20 straight days through Wednesday, will play 23 games on the road for the month and, frankly, look as if they are on a march back from the Russian Front. They are tied for last in the American League in runs, 12th in home runs, 13th in OPS. Their best player the last month is Brock Holt, who while a very tough, good, versatile player is not walking into the home clubhouse in Minneapolis in two weeks.

There is a reality that this team is not as bad as it’s played, just as last year’s Miracle on Yawkey Way wasn’t as good as it played, when every little thing went all right. They are somewhere in-between, and Cherington, Mike Hazen and John Farrell look at the broad picture, figure David Ortiz will come out of the malaise of cheating so hard to get to fastballs and beat shifts that he becomes vulnerable to breaking balls; two Mays he suffered the same slump, went back to hitting fastballs out over the plate and got hot. They figure Dustin Pedroia’s hand strength will improve, and, hey, even when they were in Oakland last weekend, Billy Beane watched Pedroia and declared, “he is a great player that I love to watch.” They figure Mike Napoli will get hot and Stephen Drew will hit righthanded pitchers.

But after the Yankee series, they have three vital home series with the Cubs, Orioles and White Sox before a final weekend in Houston against the 2017 Fantasy League world champion Astros. “By then,” says one Red Sox official, “we should know what we’re going to do—add or shake up.”

Fair. When Clay Buchholz Wednesday night looked like the Buchholz of early 2013—his fastball was up to 93-95, he pounded the strike zone, he got nine swing and misses on changes and cutters and worked at a pace the Globe’s Peter Abraham noted was a reason to believe, there was a huge lift. Brandon Workman and Rubby De La Rosa seem to have shown they are major league starters, and Anthony Ranaudo, Matt Barnes, Allen Webster and even 23-year old lefthander Brian Johnson (10-2, 2.33 in A-AA, 84-24 K-BB ratio, 2 HR in 15 starts) are close. “Last September we talked about where we hoped the pitching will be,” says Cherington. “Things have pretty much worked as he hoped.”

But while there have been solid, rational arguments made about blowing up this team and surrendering this season, Cherington, Hazen and the Baseball Ops folks live in a reality. They have a tremendous season ticket base, a base that pays Fifth Avenue prices for what has to be more than the Sweet Caroline Experience. They have very important partners in NESN. Yes, they have one of the best farm systems in the business, but one of the reasons for that is that John Henry always took calls from the Commissioner’s Office when they were willing to pay above slot for Ranaudo and Mookie Betts, Garin Cecchini and Blake Swihart, and simply refused to back off the Red Sox commitment to signing young players. “Some of those calls were pretty noisy,” says one Sox official, “and John Henry and Larry Lucchino never backed off.” And, because of that, there is a reluctance to turn away from this year’s team and one of the five highest payrolls, one funded by ownership.

Look, everyone wants to see the phenomenon known as Mookie Betts. He is a gold glove level second baseman who has played all three outfield positions in Portland and Pawtucket to try to fit into Pedroia’s team, has a .437 on base and .520 slugging percentage with 51 walks, 33 extra base hits and 29 strikeouts, one of those triple slash stats that can define hitting exception. You may soon see Christian Vazquez (called by one veteran scout, “the best defensive catcher I’ve ever seen”).

But while decisions are made on Jake Peavy and A.J. Pierzynski and some of the other struggling veterans—struggling in production, not effort—the reluctance is to throw out a team that is fresh from Hadlock Field. If there is still a chance to stay in a race in a division that has a combined run differential of -43 and is eight games under .500 outside of the division, Cherington doesn’t want to throw everything on Betts and Vazquez and young players, not in this market. They have seen how it has affected Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Xander Bogaerts. It is one thing to throw Gregory Polanco out on the banks of the three rivers, it is another to ask Betts to reboot a team that needs to be rebooted by Pedroia, Ortiz and Napoli. Bogaerts and Betts would be the youngest position players in the league, and asking them to lead a veteran team that is suffering some of the post-championship lethargy that Terry Francona managed through in 2005 could be harmful to their development. If you don’t remember ’05, one veteran, one of the great clubhouse guys in memory, was so upset that some of his teammates weren’t being picked for the All-star Game that he said, “Tito may be forgetting where he got that ring.” The player didn’t really mean it, but the message was clear—we did what no one did since World War I, and we are entitled to remain together. In contrast, in winning the 1992 and 1993 World Series, Pat Gillick said, “you need to change at least 20 percent of the roster every season, no matter where you finish.”

If, when they board the charter for Houston’s TitleTown, the Red Sox are 8-10 games out and have a waiting line in front of them for the Wild Card Lottery, it will be different. They can play Betts and Vazquez and maybe a little Deven Marrero as if the last two months are spring training, as the great Tom Brady limbers up. They will have a short window to decide about the future of Jon Lester and deal with market reality and speculation. Maybe they see what the market bears for Felix Doubront and Stephen Drew.

By the time they reach Houston, they may have nothing to lose, which may give them a real opportunity to see what they have in Betts, Bradley, Bogaerts, Vazquez, Bryce Brentz, De La Rosa, Workman, Barnes, Ranaudo, Webster, Stephen Wright, Johnson, Marrero, et al. By then, the duck boats may be a distant memory, and Cherington can start thinking about contracts that can be taken on and contracts that can be taken off.

It is an extraordinarily complex line the Red Sox are now treading. They are not what they seemed in 2013, they probably are not what they’ve been in 2014, but if the next two weeks do not bring this season back to our consciousness, how they integrate the farm system funded by Henry and developed by Theo Epstein, Cherington, Hazen, Ben Crockett, Amiel Sawdaye, Ed Romero and the Baseball Ops warriors with a new band of veteran acquisitions will be an arduous storyline that will be played out for the eight months from The Trading Deadline to the day pitchers and catchers report to The Fort.

  • RPS

    Quite true that last year’s club overachieved and this one regressed to the talent level. But confidence-destroying front office moves (Sizemore and Drew) have added chaos not clarity.

  • EddieD_Boston

    As a life-long season ticketholder I say sell. Sell. Sell. Sell.
    We’re not going anywhere. Trade anybody and everybody for low minor league phenoms and draft picks. Then watch the Red Sox’s dominance for the next decade.

  • Eric deCaro

    Ben absolutely stunk this off season. In Spring training I said this was a 3rd or 4th place team. I would have been stunned had they finished in 2nd. Last year, as Peter said, everything did fall in to place. I would rather watch the young players come up. There are so many players they can trade that in return, should bring back some nice talent. Sending a pitcher down that in his last 2 starts pitched 14 innings, gave up 5 hits and 1 run…is INSANE. De La Rosa deserved more.

  • Jonathan Robitaille

    I’ve seen this story play out with the Red Sox more season than not. As the weather warms up so do the bats and come August and September they are the league’s best team and make a run. I feel this year will be no different

  • vtbashor

    ” … stuck on a mobile with the punchless blues again …” Gotta love it when Peter channels Dylan!

    • Mark Whelan

      Peter Gammons is brilliant with words. Loved that line!

  • skipskip

    Oh Momma can this really be the end?

    Is there one of these in each column?