BOSTON — The more experienced baseball general managers understand that success can be serendipitous, which is why a lot of them — most of them, in fact — decline to drive any suggestion that they are doing something better and different than their peers. Most of them remain humble even when they have reason to brag a little.
When everything went right for Boston Red Sox GM Ben Cherington leading up to and throughout the Red Sox's 2013 championship season, he remained the same as always, self-deprecating and reticent, deflecting credit and absorbing blame for the few things that didn't go well.
That's because Cherington and a lot of his peers understand this: Success in a sport saturated with arm injuries, sunken costs and volatile draft success is fragile and tenuous, a reality demonstrated by Boston's decisions leading up to the 2015 season. Almost all the moves were regarded as reasonable, well within the bounds of logic, and incredibly, they have almost all turned out badly. It's as if the Red Sox consistently called tails for a flip of a coin that has come up heads time after time since the middle of last season.
They traded John Lackey, a pitcher with one year and two months left on his deal, to the Cardinals for strong-armed pitcher Joe Kelly and infielder Allen Craig. Kelly struggled so much in the rotation that he was sent to the minors, and Craig is in Triple-A, seemingly unable to recover the skills that once made him an All-Star.
The Red Sox traded Jon Lester for Yoenis Cespedes, and then in the winter, flipped Cespedes for Rick Porcello, a 26-year-old pitcher coming off the best season of his career; they subsequently signed Porcello to a four-year extension for $83 million, a deal viewed by some rival executives as perhaps a little steep relative to the market and Porcello's history, but far from a huge mistake. Whether it's because Porcello has put too much pressure on himself to live up to Boston's investment, as some friends think, or he's in the midst of evolving in his pitch selection, his performance has been disastrous: a 5.51 ERA in 19 starts.
The Red Sox signed Justin Masterson to a one-year deal, which, at the time, was thought by rival executives to be something of a short-term gamble, considering Masterson's inability to get the ball down in the strike zone in 2014. Masterson was so bad that he, like Kelly, lost his spot in the rotation.
Boston signed Pablo Sandoval to a five-year, $95 million deal. The third baseman rejected similar overtures from two other teams, the Giants and the Padres, so it wasn't as if the Red Sox's bid was way beyond the market. Sandoval has had a terrible year: His average is down to .255, he has just 30 RBIs in 344 at-bats, and his weight is apparently up again. According to some scouts, his defense has also regressed significantly.
Mike Napoli, signed to a two-year, $32 million deal before the 2014 season, has had problems at the plate most of this season. Shane Victorino, a postseason hero and a crucial piece in 2013, has been taken off the field by injury.
At the time the Red Sox signed Hanley Ramirez to a four-year, $88 million deal, the general perception was that Boston overpaid for him, relative to the market, and that the Red Sox plowed past concerns about Ramirez's relationship with teammates in L.A. to make the deal. But the notion that Ramirez, a longtime shortstop, would at least be able to serve as a below-average left fielder wasn't really questioned.
But as with Carl Crawford in 2011, Ramirez's defense has been shockingly poor; by at least one metric, he's easily the worst defensive player in the majors, and he has a minus-15 defensive runs saved, also the worst.
The Red Sox had significant competition from other teams in their bidding for Cuban Rusney Castillo, landing him for $72.5 million after having tried and failed to sign Jose Abreu. But Castillo has not played well this year, and whether he can contribute is now an open-ended question.
In early April, a rival general manager took stock of the Red Sox lineup. "My God, they're going to score a ton of runs," he said. "They're going to beat the hell out of teams."
That's not how it has turned out.