General manager Ben Cherington of the Boston Red Sox watches batting practice at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
Ben Cherington has shown what he can do with a unique opportunity to give his club a fresh start. Now comes the even-harder part: rebuilding the Red Sox.
In 1932, the great sportswriter John Kieran -- later inducted into the so-called "Writer's Wing" of the Hall of Fame, via the Spink Award -- told the story of a hapless shortstop named Bill "Dizzy" Akers, also remembered by history as "Bump." Dizzy came up with the Detroit Tigers in 1929, at 24. He seems to have had a decent bat for a shortstop of the day, but perhaps lacked the hands to play his position. Kieran relates that when the Yankees played the Tigers, they would heckle Dizzy, shouting, "Hit it to Akers; he'll make it a two-bagger!"
In 1931, the Tigers had problems finding an everyday shortstop, and Akers was among those who got a trial. At the same time, Waite Hoyt was pitching for Detroit and being hit around pretty good (for a Hall of Famer, there is a lot of being hit around on Hoyt's baseball card). Finally the Tigers settled on Billy Rogell at shortstop, and Akers was sent down to the minors. "There goes my last alibi," Hoyt said mournfully.
Having consummated what must automatically be regarded as one of the most daring trades in history, Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington has exiled his last alibi. That is not to put a negative spin on the trade; unlike most swaps, this one must be rated as an automatic success given that the Dodgers have assumed almost all of the more than $250 million owed to the players they acquired.
Whatever the merits of Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez, they would have been hanging around Boston through 2014, 2017, and 2018, respectively. Beckett is already no fun, Crawford has been injured and was a poor fit in Fenway to begin with, and though Gonzalez played well for the Red Sox, he was reportedly unhappy. And Cherington had to give up something good to get the Dodgers to swallow the whole of the poison pill. Even had this not been the case, Branch Rickey's old dictum "Better to get rid of a player a year too early than a year too late" applies; the Sox might have moved him several years too early, but had they not, the length of his contract would have almost guaranteed that they would have had to deal him at least a few years too late, if they could deal him at all.
As for the prospects the Red Sox got in exchange, who cares? The money and the obligation to retain players certain to be entering their decline periods before the end of their contracts are gone. Look at what the Yankees are enduring with the slow fade of Alex Rodriguez, who is signed now and forever, like Cats. New York has five years and $114 Million to go on Rodriguez's contract after this season, and he already bears little resemblance to the player who won the AL MVP award in 2007; if the current numbers hold, his isolated power will have declined for the fifth straight season, and he is already guaranteed to play fewer than 140 games for the fifth straight year. The Red Sox just spared themselves that kind of pain, passing it instead to the Dodgers. Times three.
Many have suggested the deal represents Cherington's Indiana Jones-like escape from these ill-considered deals, the fruits of ex-GM Theo Epstein's last years. Fair enough, but Epstein also built his team and won championships with it, whatever came after. As the Red Sox have demonstrated more than once in their long history, it is far easier to tear down a team than to build one, and now the onus is on Cherington to take his new, relatively blank slate and construct another contending team.
That will not be easy. Boston's farm system is by no means barren, with strong hitting prospects like Jackie Bradley and Xander Bogaerts coming along nicely, and the successful debut of Will Middlebrooks should not go unremarked. But even with Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster coming over from Los Angeles, the team is not deep in potential top starters. This lack of pitching depth is what doomed the Red Sox to their historic fall-off last fall and, having gone uncorrected this winter, doomed them again this year. Whatever the turmoil in Boston's front office this winter, and there was a lot, if they could have bolstered their pitching depth, they would have; it's not so easy. No team would have pinned its hope on Daniel Bard moving to the rotation if not desperate to begin with.
Cherington did an amazing thing last week in freeing the Red Sox from onerous obligations left behind by his predecessor. He took advantage of a historic moment of willing credulity on the part of the Dodgers' new owners, who seem willing to do anything to win back their fans. But starting over is merely a beginning. The pieces are all back at "Go." We've seen what Cherington can subtract. Now, with the Epstein alibi as gone as Dizzy Akers, he must show Red Sox fans what he can add.