When the Red Sox dealt four-fifths of their Opening Day starting rotation at the trade deadline, many prognosticators were right to declare “season over!” By sending Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes to Oakland, Jake Peavy to San Francisco, Felix Doubront to Chicago and John Lackey to St Louis, the Boston brass effectively raised a white flag over old Fenway Park, cleaning the slate ready for a rebuild.
Yet, in July, the Sox weren’t so much sellers as far-sighted buyers, targeting proven Major League talent with which to swiftly transform an ailing roster and hopefully compete in 2015. An innovative ploy, this departure from a conventional rebuilding approach represented another impressive step in Ben Cherington’s development into an elite General Manager. It gave his ballclub the best change to compete going forward.
Of course, Cherington never envisaged being in such a situation. Boston entered the season as defending world champions and, with a crop of exciting young players headlined by Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr, figured to compete once more in an otherwise uncertain American League East. However, as the season wore on and the Red Sox, hampered by a woeful offense, failed to gain traction, the prospect of offloading talent became eminently real.
With his team languishing in the basement, double-digit games off the pace, Cherington showcased incredible foresight to turn a painful predicament into a long-term opportunity for success. The third-year boss was cognizant that, this coming offseason, it will be much easier to add front-line starting pitching than the kind of franchise-altering parts required to revamp an offense ranking last in the American League in runs scored and RBI; third-to-last in hits and slugging percentage; and fourth-worst in home runs.
Thus, Boston decided to deal from its surplus of quality pitching to acquire huge offensive upgrades, knowing that an opportunity to considerably rebuild the former would arise at a later date, whilst the latter required urgent attention.
After settling on the core aim of adding impactful Major League talent, Cherington next turned his attention to outlining a specific profile for players Boston would target in any trade return. Here, we see a fundamental departure in the General Manager’s approach; a departure from his preoccupation with scrappers, fighters and grinders to a pursuit of star outfield power bats more in keeping with Red Sox tradition.
Previously in 2014, the Boston lineup frequently resembled a cast of misfits, with spare parts like Mike Carp, Grady Sizemore and A.J. Pierzynski holding far more influence than earlier administrations would have allowed. In removing sentiment, it becomes plainly clear that such players aren’t of the requisite calibre to play ball for the Boston Red Sox. They’re scrappy, maximum effort guys who’ll take pitches, wear a pitcher down and provide value to mid-market clubs looking to exploit platoon advantages. They’re not going to dominate an opponent consistently enough to warrant regular at-bats at Fenway Park.
I grew up watching the great Red Sox teams of Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon and even JD Drew, a player who didn’t receive enough credit for the impact he had on so many winning teams. During those years, I quickly learnt that it takes a very special kind of superstar to roam the Boston outfield. There’s a lineage of icons ranging from Tris Speaker and Ted Williams and Dom DiMaggio, through Carl Yastrzemski, Fred Lynn and Jim Rice, and onto that aforementioned crew which struck gold in modernity. These genuine superstars, these bonafide, prime time, home run-hitting mavericks, are an integral part of the eternal allure of Boston baseball. Every Sox team needs one or two.
In Yoenis Cespdes and Allen Craig, the two major returns from his deadline dealing, Ben Cherington finally satisfied his quota. The former, a 28-year-old, two-time Home Run Derby champ with a cannon arm, will provide much-needed power in the outfield, in addition to tremendous entertainment value. The latter, a 30-year-old offensive force under team control through 2018, will add proven run-generating ability to compliment an ageing David Ortiz, who cannot be expected to carry an entire offense on his back in the autumn of an illustrious career.
Cespedes typically hits for a modest average, but is capable of golfing any pitch out of any park at any time, a skill in short supply on recent Red Sox teams. The explosive Cuban hit 23 home runs in his 2012 debut season with the A’s, before smacking a further 26 last year. In 2014, he’s on a steady pace to reach a similar plateau again, having ripped 17 round-trippers with Oakland prior to the trade.
Craig, a former All-Star and World Series champion, will likely bat fifth for the Sox, and one can envisage him having a Mike Lowell-type impact in protecting established veterans and producing ample runs of his own accord. In the last two years, Craig flourished into the catalyst of a potent Cardinals lineup; his uncanny penchant for firing the ball to the opposite field setting the tone for a carousel of hungry hitters.
In 2012, Craig hit .307/.354/.522, before improving to a sensational .315/.373/.457 last year. In essence, the versatile outfielder/first baseman has become one of the games premier run-producers, hitting .400 with runners in scoring position (RISP) in 2012 and a gargantuan .454 last year, the third-highest single-season mark in baseball history, ahead of immortals like Mickey Mantle and behind only George Brett and Tony Gwynn.
Naturally, such statistics, highly subjective and dependent to a large extent on situational luck and the skill of teammates, don’t always translate from year-to-year, but, for the foreseeable future, Boston, hoping to generate a more opportunistic offense, is better served with Allen Craig playing the outfield than any of the available in-house (Daniel Nava, Shane Victorino) or free agent (Melky Cabrera, Nori Aoki, Nelson Cruz, Michael Cuddyer) options. Even if he is suffering through a down year at .237/.291/.348 in 2014.
With Craig adding clutch production and Cespedes a raw brand of volatile power, opposing pitchers will once again dread rolling into Boston, where any one of six big boppers can beat you, knocking the ball recklessly around the ancient yard and putting-up crooked numbers without forewarning. Traditionally, the Red Sox went for the jugular, looking to beat opponents quickly and forcefully. With these moves, Ben Cherington returned somewhat to that retro philosophy, eschewing the “death by a thousand cuts” approach in favor of building a contemporary juggernaut.
Obviously, ownership must now spend big, and the General Manager must replace via free agency or trade the elite stating pitching he used as currency to retool his frail offense. But, in Max Scherzer, James Shields, Ervin Santana and even Jon Lester, the market is filled with commodities that’ll allow him to do so. The concept of stitching together a rotation of such players was far more appealing than trying to overhaul with an unhealthy Hanley Ramirez or inconsistent Pablo Sandoval or ageing Nelson Cruz a lineup so weak as to befuddle.
Yoenis Cespedes and Allen Craig are worthy stewards of Fenway outfield greatness. They lengthen the Sox lineup, imbue it with substance and make Boston dangerous again. Admittedly, their addition may have come too late to save the Olde Towne Team this year, but it increases manifold the odds of a competitive Fenway Nine in 2015.
Ben Cherington done good.