Success for some, incompletes for others in rebuilding
Success in baseball is often much more than a three-year plan, but don't tell that to Ben Cherington.
The Boston Red Sox general manager is coming off a World Series championship as he begins his third season at the helm of the legendary American League team, and he did a lot to help bring that title back to Beantown. Cherington inherited a fractured clubhouse and the double departure of his former boss, Theo Epstein, and manager Terry Francona after the club's collapse at the end of 2011.
The team floundered with Bobby Valentine at the helm in 2012, but Cherington brought aboard skipper John Farrell for 2013, and he revamped the roster with quality additions such as outfielders Shane Victorino and Jonny Gomes, first baseman Mike Napoli, shortstop Stephen Drew, pitchers Ryan Dempster and Koji Uehara and catcher David Ross. All contributed to a Boston summer and fall that won't be forgotten anytime soon.
Granted, there was plenty of talent left over from Epstein's stint, which Cherington had helped cultivate as an assistant. He made reference to that after accepting the Executive of the Year Award from Sporting News this offseason.
"I consider this to be an award for the organization, not for me," Cherington said. "Coming off the year we had in 2012, I also sort of see it as usually an organization that does work over a period of time, not necessarily one year. So it's a great honor for the organization. I think it speaks to the hard work that a lot of people have done. It's about our ownership and the people who work for me and [manager] John Farrell and his staff, and the players. Sort of the same themes we talked about after winning the World Series. I guess this is just another symbol of a good year and a lot of good work from a lot of people."
Good work is going on in other organizations who have had front-office remodels in recent years, too, even though it might be hard for some to see.
Epstein left the Red Sox at the end of 2011 to become president of baseball operations for the Cubs, and he took his former assistant, Jed Hoyer, away from the GM post in San Diego to be his GM on the North Side. Epstein took the helm of a team that had gone 71-91, and he immediately began a long-term plan of stocking the farm system, trying to bring in young and controllable -- or undervalued -- talent to the big league club, and getting rid of big contracts.
The team took a step back in 2012 with a 61-101 record, then improved slightly to 66-96 in 2013. This offseason, Epstein hired a new manager, Rick Renteria, who hopes to usher the club into a new era of Cubs success that could be defined by the future performance of current players Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Junior Lake and Welington Castillo, plus the army of prospects that gave the organization seven entries in MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Prospects .
Epstein and Hoyer and Co. are being patient as Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, C.J. Edwards, Jorge Soler, Arismendy Alcantara, Pierce Johnson and others develop in the Minors. Some might jump up in Spring Training and announce they're ready for the Majors now.
"With the players who have been discussed and talked a lot about, we have multiple guys who have the ability to get [to the big leagues] and be stars," said Cubs director of scouting and player development Jason McLeod. "That makes me feel really good. History tells me that not all of them will become the player we think they're going to be, or that they could be, but we have more volume of those impact-type players. That makes you feel good as an organization."
The Orioles have to feel pretty good as an organization, three winters after Dan Duquette took over the reins as their executive vice president of baseball operations. Duquette inherited a losing team that had a solid core of talent from the previous front office helmed by Andy MacPhail. Duquette also had a determined manager, Buck Showalter, who already was working on changing the culture of the club.
Duquette and Showalter conspired to make subtle but significant roster and on-the-field moves that paid off quickly, such as signing off-the-radar pitchers Miguel Gonzalez and Wei-Yin Chen, and off-the-map outfielder Nate McLouth, while giving first baseman Chris Davis everyday playing time.
The O's went from last place and 93 losses in 2011 to a 93-69 record and a playoff appearance in '12 to an 85-77 season in '13. That's two winning seasons in two tries for Duquette, who is trying to build off the resurgence by improving the team this winter.
Things haven't been as fruitful lately in Anaheim, where the Angels hired GM Jerry Dipoto in the winter of 2011. Dipoto made a huge splash right away, signing Albert Pujols to a monster 10-year deal, but the team improved by three games, to 89-73, in 2012, and didn't make the postseason.
Dipoto signed another huge-ticket free agent last winter, landing Josh Hamilton. Pujols and Hamilton were banged up and underperformed, and the Halos' pitching woes did them in as they finished 78-84 and out of the playoff picture again last season despite the second of the first two incredible years of young outfielder Mike Trout's big league career.
This could be a pivotal season for Dipoto and the Angels, who traded Mark Trumbo this winter and landed pitchers Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago to try to resuscitate the rotation in a tough division.
It'll be another year of building for the Astros, who brought on Jeff Luhnow as their new GM in December 2011 after Jim Crane took ownership of the team. Houston went 56-106 in 2011, 55-107 in Luhnow's first year, and 51-111 last season in the team's first go-around in the AL West.
All the while, the Astros have been stockpiling prospects to the point where they have seven of the top 100 Minor League prospects in MLB.com's rankings, compiling the best farm system in baseball, according to rankings released Tuesday by ESPN.com's Keith Law. Houston might not have a winning season in 2014, but the plan to key on player development and smart, low-cost additions is in place, and Luhnow has not wavered from it.
"Collectively, we can look at our 2013 season, and we will not spend a lot of time talking about 2013 as a whole," Astros manager Bo Porter said.
"Just because I want to put that season behind us and really look forward to the bright future that we have for the Houston Astros organization."