TORONTO — Just as the 2004 Red Sox team had Dan Duquette written all over it, the 2018 Sox have Ben Cherington’s fingerprints on them.
Yet Cherington, the former Boston general manager who is now vice president of player development for the Toronto Blue Jays, wants absolutely no credit for the core players who have propelled the Red Sox to the best record in baseball.
“This is about Dave Dombrowski and his baseball operations staff, Alex Cora and his coaches, who have done a fantastic job putting that team and staff together and the performance of the players,” Cherington said.
“It’s very impressive to see what they’ve done. It’s about the performance of the players.”
Cherington, the architect of the Red Sox’ 2013 championship season who left in 2015, regularly spoke of building “the next great Red Sox team.” He was hoping to do it by developing Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi, Christian Vazquez, Blake Swihart, and Matt Barnes.
The 2011 draft really built the core of this team, as Cherington, Theo Epstein, and former VP of amateur and international scouting Amiel Sawdaye picked Barnes, Swihart, Bradley, Betts, and Travis Shaw. Rafael Devers was signed as 16-year-old in 2013, and Benintendi was drafted seventh overall in 2015.
When the Red Sox were in rebuilding mode in 2014, Cherington traded Andrew Miller for Eduardo Rodriguez and picked up Joe Kelly in the John Lackey deal. And it was Cherington who acquired Rick Porcello, the 2016 Cy Young winner who currently leads the AL with 14 wins.
There were big misses — Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, Rusney Castillo, and Allen Craig — and Cherington traded Jon Lester for Yoenis Cespedes, a rental who was also a disappointment.
But give Cherington credit; at one time or another, he could have traded all of the prospects but didn’t.
“It’s hard from a competitive point of view because the Red Sox are in our division, but I’m happy for the individual players,” Cherington said. “I know how hard they worked to get to the point they’re at. That part isn’t surprising. We really believed in them and what they were capable of.”
Cherington was frank when asked if he ever thought Betts would reach this level.
“It would be dishonest to say yes, I knew he’d be this good,” he said. “We loved Mookie and his commitment to being the best he could be. He wanted to win so badly. He was a leader. It was obvious he was a special kid who has turned into what we’re seeing now. That part is gratifying. I feel so good for Mookie.”
And there were many attempts by other teams to steal him.
“I give Doug Melvin credit,” Cherington recalled of the former Brewers GM. “He was the first to ask about Mookie. We had something going with the Brewers at the time, and he asked for Mookie. But there were many other inquiries along the way.”
Ruben Amaro Jr., then GM of the Philadelphia Phillies, came at Cherington from every angle in the Cole Hamels talks in 2015, but Cherington held his ground.
Now, Betts is an MVP candidate, Bogaerts is one of the game’s best shortstops, and Bradley is the best defender in center field. To boot, Benintendi is a special young player, Swihart and Vazquez are youthful talents, Barnes has forged himself into one of the best setup men in baseball, and Rodriguez (before his injury) was finally realizing his potential this season. That’s the core of the team.
Cherington’s name is coming up again in discussions about general manager positions, most often linked to the Mets. He turned down interview requests the past couple of years, evidently wanting to step back and not be the guy in charge. But that may be changing.
“Honestly, I’ve been completely focused on my job with the Blue Jays,” he said. “The atmosphere here reminds me of what we had in Boston. It’s a collaborative effort. For the last two years, I think we’ve made very good progress in building our farm system. We have talent that we’re excited about.
“I’m not shutting the door on anything. If something is presented to me, I’ll evaluate it and see if it’s something I want to do. But I love my job here.”
Cherington was very much involved in Toronto’s trade-deadline deals, helping president Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins trade J.A. Happ, Roberto Osuna, and Seunghwan Oh, and flip Aaron Loup, John Axford, and Steve Pearce for prospects, further boosting a farm system that boasts the top prospect in baseball in third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who is hitting .400 overall in four minor league classes this season.
Cherington spent 17 years with the Red Sox. He acknowledges that he misses the atmosphere he walked into every night at Fenway Park, the instant feedback he received, and understanding there’s nothing like it. Yet he is excited about the fact that the Blue Jays represent an entire country. He doesn’t take that lightly and would love to contribute to a baseball resurgence in Toronto.
I get the feeling Cherington will again be in charge of running a team, whether it’s the Mets or the Orioles or the Marlins or another team making a change.
You can criticize him for the Sandoval and Ramirez signings, and the left field experiment with Ramirez that didn’t work. At the time, there wasn’t much criticism of the Sandoval signing after he came off a fabulous World Series performance, but that turned ugly.
But look closely at what Cherington did in 2013. For a guy who always emphasized young players because of his player development background, he brought together Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes, Ryan Dempster, David Ross, Koji Uehara, Stephen Drew, and Mike Carp, and they all performed at a high level. He also acquired Brock Holt from Pittsburgh before the start of that year. It all clicked so perfectly, and the emotion of the Boston Marathon bombing gave them extra inspiration.
So while Cherington wanted no part of a story praising him for believing in the core players who are on the field today for the Red Sox, his stamp will be forever imprinted on what might be the next great Red Sox team.