This year’s Boston Red Sox are the feel-good story of the summer. Like Breaking Bad, only with more people to root for and a much better on-base percentage. From proverbial zeroes to would-be heroes, they play a mean bit of ball, and grow exuberant facial hair.
And now they’re 11 more wins away from winning it all, six years after they last did so in 2007. If you haven’t already, climb on to the Green Monster and stuff your face full of Cracker Jack. Next up: the mighty-tough-to-beat Tampa Bay Rays. Best of five – aka: first to three – for a shot at the ALCS and World Series after that.
However did we get here? Twelve months ago, Boston finished the previous regular season dead last in the AL East. This year they wound up top with room to spare, 23 games up on last-placed Toronto, and 12 up on the dread New York Yankees.
In 2012, they were for the most part a rabble: overpaid, underperforming, and badly managed. Now they’re exactly none of that. They’re likeable again. And to a man, they know how to WIN.
So say hello to Ben Cherington. The man who made it all happen. The smart guy they pay the big bucks to get a lot more decisions right than wrong. The General Manager who a year and a bit ago figured winning is good; winning is what we’re gonna do now.
For a longtime the #2 to GM Theo Epstein (now fighting another city’s history at the Cubs), Cherington is quietly but relentlessly magnificent. In particular:
- He replaced a hopeless manager – Bobby Valentine – with a potentially great one (John Farrell, himself a longtime #2 to double-World-Series-winning Terry Francona, now over at the Indians).
- He offloaded to the free-spending Dodgers three of Boston’s biggest superstars (pitcher Josh Beckett, outfielder Carl Crawford, and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez), and the combined $262 million still owed to them on their longterm contracts. Because they weren’t good enough for the money (or no longer good enough).
- With new payroll flexibility, he signed a bunch of gnarly old pros instead. Each and every one less flashy, but all eminently useful and well-versed in winning.
Oh and – inextricably related – Cherington didn’t splash any cash on so-called ‘marquee’ signings. Even though he surely could have (Josh Hamilton), and even though it would have made him look like the bee’s knees for a hot month or so. He set his sights on more prosaic things like:
- Teammates who like one-another (that old thing, team chemistry)
- Veteran clubhouse types ‘who can do a job’
- The long-term (not trading 21 year-old prospect Xander Bogaerts, who might just be the best player in the game ten years from now)
You see, in baseball, you frequently don’t get what you pay for. Sobberingly often, in exchange for the very silliest of silly money, you only really get the whiff of something great, before it incrementally becomes a rather nasty pong. The best players want (and get) eight, nine, 10-year contracts. Seven, eight, nine-years in (often less), those contracts never look so good – great becomes mediocre, but you’re still shoveling the same mountains of money.
You pay for:
Games: 157 / At-bats: 591 / Hits: 212 / Doubles: 51 /
Home runs: 43 / RBI: 124 / Average: .359
(Albert Pujols’ 2003 season with the Cardinals)
Games: 99 / At-bats: 391 / Hits: 101 / Doubles: 19 /
Home runs: 17 / RBI: 64 / Average: .258
(Albert Pujols’ 2013 season with the Angles, two years into his $254 million 10-year contract)
No, thanks to Ben Cherington, the Red Sox paid heaping loads less for players like this:
And now, like I said, they’re a mere 11 more wins away from this:
The feel-good story of the summer might yet become an even better fall.