Stop me if you've heard this one before - the Red Sox make big-ticket acquisitions before a season, fall short, hit rock bottom within a year and a half, and upheaval ensues at the upper levels.
This week, Dave Dombrowski was hired as the Red Sox' president of baseball operations - a position vacated in essence earlier this month when longtime President and CEO Larry Lucchino resigned. Simultaneously, it was announced that Ben Cherington had stepped down as the team's general manager.
With what is likely to be three last-place finishes in four seasons, albeit sandwiching a World Series victory, fans and media personalities have been quick to applaud Cherington's exit. While Dombrowski's addition could be an overwhelming positive (I'll explain that in a bit), Cherington's public perception is extremely unfair at best. Just see Exhibit A - recent history.
It has been less than four years since Terry Francona, who had evidently lost control of a clubhouse marred by Josh Beckett's chicken-and-beer brigade, was canned when his team missed the postseason months after adding Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. Little love remained when a Boston Globe story included conspicuously leaked smears regarding the team's concerns of how the two-time World Series champion manager's divorce and use of pain medications were affecting his work.
Soonafter, GM Theo Epstein left to become the Cubs' president of baseball operations - leaving one Ben Cherington to be named as his replacement. With an impressive amount of talent remaining on the roster, Cherington was tasked - purportedly - with replacing Tito with a manager who could bring the team back to the postseason.
Except that's not what happened.
Lucchino hired his good friend, Bobby Valentine, who extremely quickly showed that Francona's team's September collapse was nowhere near rock bottom. En route to a colossally disappointing 93-loss season, Bobby V. managed to spar with his players, his coaches, the press - basically everyone. The team was not just terrible, but an unwatchable disaster with one of the largest payrolls in the sport.
That changed in August, when Cherington pulled off arguably the most notable trade of the century, sending more than a quarter of a billion dollars in future payroll obligations with Beckett, Gonzalez, Crawford and Nick Punto to the Dodgers for some solid prospects and the salary relief that he used to win the 2013 World Series. And he did it after the non-waiver trade deadline, a time often reserved for smaller salary dumps and minor moves. Rubby de la Rosa and Jerry Sands, who would not have cleared waivers, had to be included as players to be named later to facilitate the deal.
Much credit is owed to the deep-pocketed Dodgers, as an opportunity like that will not come along every season, but weeks after a quiet non-waiver deadline, the first-year general manager pulled the trigger on an utterly historic revamp that completely changed the landscape of both leagues.
The next season's World Series win over the Cardinals, as I've said many times, was not the quickest rebuild of all time, but the best bridge year of all time. The reason Cherington committed so much money each season to Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli and Ryan Dempster (Koji Uehara was a steal) was that he got each to sign on relatively short-term contracts, ensuring both that his team would not be mired in years of debt as it had been with Gonzalez, Crawford and Beckett, and that the excellent prospects in the well-established farm system would have room to grow.
And yet, we are an impacient nation. We want results now - not later, and certainly not earlier. When Napoli and Victorino stop performing in the last season or two in their respective deals, we think their contracts suck - even though paying Victorino $13 million in 2015 is quite obviously better than paying him $9 million in both 2015 and when he's another year older in 2016, and certainly worth it for the season of brilliance he provided in 2013. We don't care that Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Blake Swihart, Eduardo Rodriguez (impressively acquired by Cherington for two months of Andrew Miller at the end of a losing Red Sox season) and Henry Owens were not traded for Cole Hamels - prudent non-moves for a team with questionable present-day talent, hanging onto players who can contribute much more for years to come. We want it now.
And still, even if the only true measuring stick of a general manager's skill were present-day success (it's not), Cherington would still not be a failure. We rightly criticized the team for not retaining Jon Lester, who had stated publicly that he would take a hometown discount to remain in Boston. It was likely Lucchino - not Cherington - who gave Lester the despicable lowball offer, reportedly worth $70 million over four years (he got more than double that from the Cubs and will probably earn even more through bonuses).
Should Cherington have found a way to replace Lester in the rotation after he was traded and subsequently chose the Cubs in free agency, instead of signing Pablo Sandoval and hapless left fielder Hanley Ramirez? Probably. But if Lucchino did, in fact, insult the team's ace when the pitcher hoped to negotiate in good faith, how can we give Cherington more blame than Lucchino?
The fact is, we don't know whether Cherington chose to leave after Dombrowski was hired as his boss or he was told he would not return after the season and was given the opportunity to save face. But either way, we should not shoot him out of town the way "team sources" did Francona.
On the other side of that coin is hope - the same kind that brought the team success after the departures of Francona, Epstein, Valentine and a quarter of a billion dollars of payroll obligations. Despite being an old-school baseball guy in stark opposition to Cherington's and the Red Sox' focus on advanced metrics, metrics-centric site FiveThirtyEight Sports (the brainchild of sabermetrician Nate Silver) called him "MLB's best free agent" after the Tigers fired him earlier this month. Citing estimated total WAR contributed per GM per year between 1995 and 2013, the site ranked Dombrowski as the sixth best GM in the game.
Whether or not you buy that rationale, you can't argue with the scoreboard. Dombrowski took over as the Tigers' general manager in 2002, one year before they lost 119 games. He turned that team into a perennial contender boasting some of the game's best players. His hits in trades are undeniable - in 2007, he acquired then-24-year-old Miguel Cabrera (along with the once-exciting Dontrelle Willis), giving up Miller, Cameron Maybin, Mike Rabelo, Burke Badenhop, Frankie De La Cruz and Dallas Trahern - a coup for Detroit.
Change is as necessary right now as it has ever been, and Dombrowski may very well be the man to propel the Red Sox into the future - whether he keeps all of the team's prospects or uses them to acquire another future Hall of Famer. But that doesn't mean Cherington, the man who was forced to hire arguably the worst manager in the team's history and possibly not given a chance to negotiate with his star pitcher, sucked. The success we saw in his tenure was short-lived, but it was still a championship, and he didn't have to budget the team's future to win it.