BOSTON - At one point in his career, Ben Cherington struggled to find players for a Boston Red Sox minor league team, its roster thinned to a point where pitchers had to bat for themselves.
And now look at him, 11 years later, filling the roster gaps on the Sox and creating a division champion from a last-place team.
Cherington, now 38, was part of the crew of young guns assembled when then-General Manager Theo Epstein was hired in 2003 at age 29. Epstein is gone and so are a slew of high-priced free agents.
Cherington is this team’s general manager and credited with turning around the franchise’s fortunes this season. The Red Sox are entering the final day of the regular season with the best record in baseball, a spot in the playoffs and a renewed hope after two extremely disappointing seasons.
“It’s managing people and managing information,” Cherington said. “And that is what a lot of what this job is all about.”
Cherington also performed his magic in the minor leagues. Call it preparation for his current job.
He worked as Boston’s assistant player development director. He later became director, traveling to Hadlock Field several times a season to watch the Portland Sea Dogs.
Back then Cherington was building a system, plugging holes and creating success out of a mess. At age 28, he figured out how to do it and the Red Sox became one of the best organizations for developing talent.
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It’s not the only mess he has cleaned up. Cherington had to make decisions on how to fix the Red Sox after their epic collapse at the end of the 2011 season and failure to make the playoffs.
That team featured several high-priced players and also had a nine-game lead in the wild-card race Sept. 3. That team also lost 18 of its last 24 games and was eliminated from the playoffs on the final day of the regular season.
Boston had begun a trend of relying more and more on expensive free agents or trading prospects for veterans. Its minor league system became less productive, providing fewer players for Boston.
“We realized the major league team wasn’t being supported the way it needs to be supported,” said Mike Hazen, who replaced Cherington as player development director and is now a Cherington assistant. “That was the root cause for that 2011 (team) and we knew that.”
Epstein left after the 2011 season, moving on to the Chicago Cubs.
Cherington took over. The 2012 season still featured underperforming free agents, as well as a new manager (Bobby Valentine) believed to be hand-picked by the team president, Larry Lucchino.
And 2012 was a disaster.
Eventually, high-priced players Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett were traded. Valentine was fired at the end of the season.
Cherington had plenty of work ahead. It soon became clear he didn’t want to put all his faith and money in a few players.
So while the Angels signed outfielder Josh Hamilton (five years, $125 million) and the Dodgers signed pitcher Zach Greinke (six years, $147 million), the Red Sox spent $100 million on nine players — pitchers Ryan Dempster, Joel Hanrahan and Koji Uehara, catcher David Ross, infielder Mike Napoli, and outfielders Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes and Mike Carp.
“We had a number of holes to fill last winter. It wasn’t like we were one player away,” Cherington said. “There were a number of things we had to do to add resiliency and depth in areas that we could.”
That was more important than signing a big-name player. These Red Sox were moving on from the days when they signed Gonzalez (seven years, $154 million), Crawford (seven years, $142 million) and Beckett (four years, $68 million).
“We took a more broad, comprehensive approach,” Cherington said. “We were looking for the right players, guys we felt would perform on the field, perform a role, and also guys who were attracted to the opportunity they were attracted to playing in Fenway.”
Gomes, credited with being one of the new team leaders, said, “I definitely had this team very high on my radar.
“And this thing glued together pretty quick. We’ve been on the same page since we left Fort Myers.”
In spring training at Fort Myers, Fla., Napoli said he looked around and smiled.
“I knew we (had a winning team) when I saw the guys we had in the clubhouse,” he said.
The new players — along with a returning core of standouts and developing prospects like former Sea Dogs Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts, Brandon Workman and Drake Britton — comprised a team that withstood injuries and slumps.
“The depth has carried us through,” Manager John Farrell said.
Farrell was another Cherington hire, along with a coaching staff that has meshed as well as the team.
HIS WAY IS THE RIGHT WAY
When he was hired by Epstein in 2003, it was well deserved. Cherington had experience. A native of Meriden, N.H., and former pitcher for Amherst College, Cherington joined professional baseball as a scout with the Cleveland Indians in 1998, then joined the Red Sox in 1999.
He moved into the player development office and found himself fixing problems that arose from a paper-thin minor league system. At one point in 2002, injuries and illness beset the Double-A team — then based in Trenton, N.J. – and only eight everyday players remained. Cherington could not find enough replacements, which forced the pitchers to hit in a game because there was no player available to be the designated hitter.
In 2003 the Epstein declared that the Red Sox would become a “player development machine” and chose Cherington to run the department.
“He’s so organized,” Epstein said at the time. “He anticipates problems so we can deal with them before they occur.”
Cherington helped develop an in-house manual, a how-to guide for developing a winning organization. Known informally as “The Red Sox Way,” it was to keep all members of the organization on the same page.
Cherington brought that manual to Maine in 2003 when Boston’s Double-A team moved to Portland.
At first a sprinkling of prospects arrived at Hadlock Field. Then came 2005, when the team featured Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia, Jonathan Papelbon and Hanley Ramirez.
Among those in the Hadlock stands was Cherington, charting his young players’ developments.
In December 2005, when Epstein surprisingly resigned, Cherington was named co-general manager with Jed Hoyer.
The title didn’t last long. Epstein returned the next month and Cherington was named one of his assistants.
“They shared a lot of the same philosophies. Ben learned a lot from Theo as we all did,” said Hazen, one of Cherington’s assistant.
“But Ben is his own guy. He has his own take on the job, decision-making process, etc.”
This Boston team seems to be on the same page, following the “Red Sox Way” and its architect, the seasoned Ben Cherington. Now it’s back to the playoffs.
Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or: