Ben Cherington's biggest mistake

Joel Trunfio
Contributing Writer 

The September collapse of the 2011 Red Sox was historically bad; it was made even worse by the play of the 2012 team. Following September 2011, the Red Sox saw a lot of changes, and even more dirty laundry being aired out. Terry Francona was not only made the scapegoat by ownership, his personal issues were leaked to the general public. Theo Epstein was the next figurehead to leave town, agreeing to a contract with the Cubs on October 12. Two weeks later, Theo's understudy Ben Cherington was named the General Manager. Changing managers and general managers in the same offseason is an undesirable shift for an organization, but it might not have been the most costly move of that offseason for the Sox.

Cherington, brand spanking new to his role, was quickly faced with a management decision that is now starting to come back to haunt him. Jonathan Papelbon's contract expired at the end of 2011, and Cherington decided to not even offer him a contract. Papelbon compiled 475 strikeouts, a 2.30 ERA, 219 saves, and only 29 blown saves in his 395.1 innings as a closer. It seemed to be the perception of Red Sox Nation that Papelbon was losing his grip as one of baseball's most dominant closers. Yes, he had two blown saves in the last four days of that forgettable September, but he also had a six year track record in Boston that brought great memories and, most importantly, a World Series trophy.

As a new GM, Cherington didn't want to disappoint fans from the get-go. I can understand him not wanting to sign Papelbon to a long term deal at the age of 31, with the potential for him to fall apart as he aged and be an albatross to the team's record and the payroll. The September wounds were so fresh, and bringing back someone who had a 7.71 ERA in the last four games of that season might not sit well with fans. Unfortunately, what Cherington failed to realize -- or what he was afraid that fans would fail to realize -- is that Papelbon had one of best seasons with the Sox in 2011. His 1.53 FIP was the lowest of his career, and his 2.94 ERA showed that the previous year's 3.90 ERA was a fluke. His K/9 was his highest since 2007, and his HR/9 was the lowest since 2006. His three blown saves were tied for the lowest in his career, as was his one loss. To put it simply, Cherington let one of baseball's best closers walk for a reasonable 4-year, $50 million contract. 

Letting Papelbon leave without offering him a contract is not completely egregious, but what has transpired since does not make Cherington look very good. Remember Papelbon's 2.30 ERA as a reliever for the Red Sox? That's exactly what his ERA has been in 82 innings for Phildelphia so far. He has been virtually the same pitcher for the Phillies, and has shown no signs of breaking down and falling apart. In fact, despite losing almost 3 MPH on his fastball since leaving Boston, Papelbon has continued to find ways to strike batters out; this bodes well for his future as a dominant closer, and suggests that Cherington may have miscalculated Papelbon's career trajectory. 

Seeing Papelbon succeed outside of Boston is somewhat hard to swallow, but what makes that pill even worse is the closer carousel that has taken place since his departure. Wunderkind Cherington has made three trades to try and replace Papelbon, and so far all have fallen short. 

First, Cherington traded for Mark Melancon, giving up Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland. Lowrie has not shaken his injury-prone tag, but has batted .261 with a .798 OPS, 19 HR, and 29 2B in 128 games in the last 7 months of baseball. Melancon of course was a disaster in Boston, allowing 31 earned runs in 45 innings -- naturally, he has a 0.56 ERA for Pittsburgh this year. 

Melancon was not brought on to close, but was forced to when newly acquired Andrew Bailey got injured. Cherington gave the A's Josh Reddick and two minor leaguers for Bailey, who has been effective yet impossible to keep healthy. Meanwhile, Reddick hit 32 home runs last year for Oakland, and statistically played some of the best right field defense seen in a long time. 

The jury should still be out on Joel Hanrahan, but many fans have already written him off as a bust. Perhaps all of his 2013 results have been caused by injuries, but it did not appear that he showed up to camp healthy so he doesn't get any excuses. One of the pieces the Sox gave up for Hanrahan, other than Melancon, was minor leaguer Stolmy Pimentel who has a 0.74 ERA in 6 AA starts this season.

With Boston's two closers injured right now, it's hard not to consider how much better off the Sox would be had Cherington signed Papelbon. It's important to remember that Cherington practically saved our franchise with the Dodger trade, but that doesn't excuse the sinkhole that he has created at the end of the bullpen. 

Let me know what you think by commenting below or tweeting at me @therealjtrunfio. Read more of what I have to say here