Commentary

Not quite business as usual

What's changed for the Sox and GM Ben Cherington? Nothing -- and everything

Updated: February 21, 2014, 8:26 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Nope, nothing different on the first full day of Red Sox camp from last spring. David Ortiz was running the bases with the rest of his teammates. Mike Napoli was taking ground balls at first base. Xander Bogaerts wasn't preparing to play third base for Team Netherlands. Jackie Bradley Jr. wasn't sneaking up on anybody. John Lackey was answering questions about his leadership qualities. Jacoby Ellsbury was in Tampa. John W. Henry, shielding himself from the sun with a black umbrella, roamed freely among the throngs that showed up here Thursday morning.

And no one was wondering how long Ben Cherington might keep his job after a last-place finish in his rookie year as general manager.

Easy to forget that now, how much Cherington had at stake last February. A second round of failure, there would have been no obvious target like Bobby Valentine to take the fall. And there wasn't exactly a Greek chorus of baseball men and media types singing Cherington's praises for the moves he had made to reconstruct a ballclub that had imploded in spectacular fashion twice in the span of 13 months.

Then came the days of miracle and wonder, Cherington winning his bets on John Farrell and virtually every player he and his baseball operations staff had identified as essential to rewiring a corrosive environment. Going worst to first? No one saw that coming on the first day of camp in 2013, though the idea rapidly took hold in the Red Sox clubhouse, as Jake Peavy learned when he was traded to the Sox at the deadline and Ryan Dempster greeted him with, "Welcome to the 2013 World Champion Red Sox.''

No one is suggesting anymore that Theo Epstein's shoes were never going to fit his one-time assistant. Epstein's Red Sox won a World Series in his second season; Cherington's Red Sox have now done the same, even though Cherington probably will never get the walk-on-water treatment experienced by Theo. While Epstein was always regarded as the brightest star in the firmament, the less imperious Cherington, another sharp mind with a relentless work ethic, projects a humility and even-handedness that deflects the attention away from himself.

[+] EnlargeJohn Henry
AP Photo/Steven SenneRed Sox owner John Henry strolled around the Red Sox practice facility in Fort Myers on Thursday, shielding himself from the hot sun.

Some people, when Cherington is on the radio, insist he sounds like Epstein, in tone, manner of delivery, and choice of language. There may be something there [I don't really hear it], but Cherington is very much his own man, one who seems almost preternaturally unaffected by winning it all last year.

"Believe it or not,'' Cherington said here Thursday when asked about the difference a year makes, "it doesn't feel much different. Obviously, it feels good to accomplish something. We're not talking about last year, there's no mention of it inside the clubhouse, other than when we're asked about it.

"We're going to chase winning. We're going to chase process. We're going to be the best-prepared team. We're going to focus on today. It may not be as interesting to read about or talk about, but that's what we believe makes us good, so that's what we're going to focus on.''

The Sox, from ownership to equipment manager, have collectively adopted the mantra that last year is strictly rear-view window material. But there is a component of this year's Red Sox team that makes it easy to focus on the future: the excitement engendered by breaking rookies Bradley Jr. and Bogaerts into the everyday lineup, as well as gauging the gaudy possibilities for a group of pitching prospects unmatched in number, Cherington said, in the 16 years that he has been with the Red Sox.

"Every year brings new challenges,'' Cherington said. "Obviously we're looking at different things, looking at different parts of the team, waiting for things to come together. I think spring training, and really this year, there's an interest around the group of young players we have in camp. We're all interested in seeing them take the next step in their development. That happens in spring training, that can happen in the season.

[+] EnlargeBen Cherington
Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty ImagesCherington is clearly committed to keeping the Sox pointed forward. "We're not talking about last year, there's no mention of it inside the clubhouse, other than when we're asked about it."

"We all know how important that it is for our organization. That's been a conversation going on all winter and certainly this spring. Fortunately, our major league staff is such a development-focused staff, they all come from a development background. We can get a team ready to play in spring training; obviously we have a lot of veteran players getting ready for the season. But we can do a lot of teaching, and that's going on now. It's exciting to see.''

The makings are here for the kind of team Epstein envisioned when he was with the Red Sox, a vision shared and embraced by Cherington. It is one built around talent identified, signed and developed by the Sox themselves. As much as two World Series titles will define Epstein's legacy here, he also left the Sox with an abundance of young talent nearing fruition. Bradley Jr., pitchers Henry Owens and Matt Barnes, catcher Blake Swihart and second baseman Mookie Betts were all part of Epstein's last draft class, in 2011. His scouting director then was Amiel Sawdaye, who remains in that capacity under Cherington.

The responsibility is now on Cherington, his lieutenants Mike Hazen and Ben Crockett, and a player-development staff that is the pride of the organization to bring that talent along. There is romance and adventure to that idea, much more so than merely throwing money at Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez and whatever other expensive bauble appears on the horizon. Everyone prefers homemade, be it apple pie or a baseball team.

"As with everything, we're trying to be better than the competition,'' Cherington said. "When it comes to finishing off development of that group, that doesn't mean we're going to be at 100 percent. But if we can be a little better than the competition at doing that, then that builds an advantage. We've got a lot of good people working at it. We know they're all not going to reach the ceiling that we hope they do.''

But it will be fun to try.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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