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August 02. 2014 8:26PM

Dave D'Onfrio's Sox Beat: Cherington always in motion

BOSTON - THE JOB of Red Sox is never one undertaken in anonymity. And after growing up in Meriden, N.H., then spending more than a decade as a member of the organization, Ben Cherington understood that as well as any incomer when he accepted that assignment in October of 2011.

In fact, in his first offseason at the helm of baseball operations in Boston he faced a number of decisions that were deemed to be significant. Franchise icon David Ortiz was a free agent. So was All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon. And then there was the matter of hiring a manager to replace the recently departed Terry Francona, which was a component of trying to correct a corrupted culture in the clubhouse.

"He," team president Larry Lucchino said at the time, "will hit the ground running."

And not yet three years later, it seems as if Cherington hasn't stopped sprinting. He kept Ortiz, passed on Papelbon, and was trumped by his bosses in the hiring of Bobby Valentine - but that was just the beginning, and in some ways the most benign part, of a 33-month whirlwind that has already seen him put his stamp on the team three times.

And has his tenure on a pace to be among the most eventful of any GM in recent Red Sox history.

The product of Lebanon High has put his latest signature on the franchise over the past week, when he executed six trades as part of a firesale that sent four-fifths of the season-opening starting rotation to new destinations - including each of the pitchers who'd won the clincher in each of the Sox' last two World Series wins, one of whom was an ace with 13 years of service within the organization.

The safer and more typical liquidation would've seen Cherington sell off expiring deals for prospects, but instead he swapped Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes for an All-Star in Yoenis Cespedes. He spun John Lackey for Allen Craig and Joe Kelly, two big leaguers whose Cardinals teammates were devastated to see leave. In an effort to get the team back into contention quickly, he went bold.

Yet again.

Just think about everything that's happened on Cherington's watch: Valentine was hired. The Sox pushed the reset button by trading three stars and almost a quarter-billion dollars' worth of financial commitments to the Dodgers. Five weeks later, Valentine was fired.

John Farrell was hired as his replacement, lured away from the division-rival Blue Jays, and that was followed by an unconventional facelift. Cherington hit the market with a plan to emphasize veterans with leadership credentials, and overpay annually in order to keep the contracts on the shorter side. It worked. Last October the Sox went from worst-to-first, and won the World Series.

Since then they've gone from first to worst - but Cherington last Thursday acted like a decision maker with designs on getting back to first by next season. He could've rested on the diamond-studded ring he received this past spring, or on the executive of the year award he won last fall, and asked for patience. He could've brought back a bevy of prospects, and bought himself at least a year until they were properly seasoned and ready to play.

But he knows first-hand how quickly a team with the resources of the Red Sox can be rebuilt. And so he made an effort to seize the opportunity before him.

"We had to find a way to take advantage of the unfortunate position we're in, and try to kickstart building the next team," Cherington said Thursday. "We were happy with what we did. We think it fits with what we were trying to do, which was acquire major league-, or near major league-ready talent in return.

"I think we are in a better position now than we were a week ago. But certainly not done."

And that sets him up for his next bold stroke. The Sox have a surplus of outfielders now, on top of a cadre of pitchers on the cusp of contributing at the big-league level on a regular basis - but they could still stand to use more power at the plate, and a more proven pitcher to lead their rotation.

So, given all that, Boston appears poised to make a major trade this winter, maybe for a slugger, maybe for an ace - or maybe even for one of each. It's hard to count on, because it can take a lot of assets to make deals like those happen, but in the Sox' case the pieces are in place.

And so is the right general manager.

The New Hampshire guy who on many nights leaves Fenway's home clubhouse and walks among the exiting fans almost anonymously. But who is leaving his permanent mark on Red Sox history - one big, bold, memorable moment at a time.

"I take responsibility for where we are," Cherington said. "The year, not just (Wednesday and Thursday), the whole year has been challenging. We have to get better. And we know that."

Based on the comments that have come from both sides, and on the fact Oakland is very unlikely to stop Lester from becoming a free agent, there are plenty of Red Sox fans hopeful that the team will re-sign the lefty over the offseason.

Those fans, as much as they might love him, have to be rooting for Lester to be a bitter failure with the Athletics, right? Most obvious would be the way a poor performance down the stretch and into the playoffs might diminish his value on the open market. But maybe as important as that would be the doubts it may foster inside Lester's head.

His earned run average was 2.02 this season when throwing to David Ross, and 6.00 when the receiver was A.J. Pierzynski. He has consistently been better when John Farrell was in his dugout, either as a pitching coach or manager. If Lester struggles when he's without those two on his side, you wonder if enough doubt could creep in to drive the lefty back to Boston.

Stat of the week: Not to be lost in the acquisition of Craig and Cespedes - both of whom were considered prospective clean-up hitters by their former employers - is their respective ages. Craig turned 30 a couple weeks ago, while Cespedes is 28 until October. Entering Friday the Sox had fewer plate appearances (1,032) from players ages 26-30 than any AL team, and their seven homers were the fewest in baseball from that age group, which these days is generally considered to encompass much of a hitter's prime years. (By comparison, the A's, owners of the best record in the majors, also led the game in plate appearances among those so aged.)

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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