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July 26, 2008

Future Shock

Ben Cherington Interview, Part 2

by Kevin Goldstein

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Ben Cherington has spent over a decade with the Red Sox in various capacities, beginning as an area scout, and later working in international scouting. Now the vice president of player personnel for Boston, Cherington has been a major force in the Red Sox' success at acquiring and developing young talent. I spoke to Ben this week about a variety of subjects, but generally related to the Red Sox system and Boston's approach to the draft and player development. In Part 1 of this interview, we covered the draft and this year's international market. Here in Part 2, we talk about having too many players at the same level and position, the resurgence of Daniel Bard, the challenges of having a team in the high-octane hitter-friendly environment of Lancaster, and why right-hander Michael Bowden wasn't a part of the Futures Game and won't be on the Olympic roster.

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Kevin Goldstein: So I did a chat this week, and somebody asked about Michael Almazar and Will Middlebrooks. Both are teenage third basemen, both are guys who got seven-figure bonuses, and both seem from the outside to be guys who would be lined up to play at Greenville next year. How do you deal with a situation like that?

Ben Cherington: As for Almanzar and Middlebrooks, we don't have the answer yet; to a certain extent the players will tell us. We'll look at them this year, and there are some other evaluation factors that go into it, including next year's spring training. It does raise a good question, and it's a dilemma for us going forward in that we have over the last three years signed a lot of young position-player talent-both in the draft and the international market-and obviously when you make such heavy investments, it would be horrible business not to give every one of those players every possible development opportunity, and that means playing every day. As we continue to sign these younger position players, it does create a challenge for us to provide enough development opportunities. I don't think we're at a tipping point yet, but it's certainly different from what it was three or four years ago when there was less competition for at-bats. Right now, particularly in the middle infield and outfield positions, we have a lot of players, but it typically works itself out, and every time you feel like there is going to be an impossible decision to make-and we're not sure how we're going to make it work for everyone-inevitably something happens. That's when a player really comes on, or something else happens that allows itself to work out.

We had a situation earlier this year with Oscar Tejeda and Yamaico Navarro. In a perfect world both of those guys would be playing shortstop for Low-A Greenville in the South Atlantic League, and in a perfect world they'd each be playing there every day and not sharing a position. It's hard for a young player to get into a rhythm and a routine without that situation, but that's what we were forced to do. Earlier, Tejeda had some health-related issues, so the problem kind of solved itself, and Navarro went to shortstop by himself. Once Tejeda was ready, we sent him to Greenville and it was really imperfect. They were kind of playing the position, but Tejeda was playing third base, and even DH-ing a little bit just to keep his bat in the lineup every day. It took care of itself when Navarro proved that he was ready to move up. And that happened to coincide with another young shortstop we have, Argenis Diaz, proving himself at Lancaster, so we were ready to move both of those guys and create an everyday shortstop opportunity for Tejeda. So, you try to solve those things the best you can, and in a perfect world the guys would perform enough, and be ready on time where you could move them up and create the everyday opportunity for the next guy. It doesn't always work that perfectly, and in regards to Middlebrooks and Almanzar-frankly, we're just going to have to read and react. Obviously we want them both to play every day. Almanzar is younger than Middlebrooks, but he was off to such a good start that we thought he was ready to be challenged with the assignment to Greenville.

Also, to kind of come full circle on this, it helps us further create some opportunities in the Gulf Coast League after signing [first-round pick] Casey Kelly and [second-round pick] Derrik Gibson. So now they can play shortstop in the Gulf Coast League, along with a Dominican shortstop named Joatoni Garcia who we also like. So we have three guys, all shortstops, in the Gulf Coast League who need to play, and by getting Almanzar out of there we can move Gibson and Garcia around a little bit while keeping them all in the lineup. It's definitely a challenge. I know our farm director, Mike Hazen, is banging his head against the wall every night trying to figure it out, but ultimately, usually the players take care of themselves. The best ones are going to perform a little more quickly, and therefore move a little more quickly, and hopefully the others will eventually follow them up the ladder.

KG: You talked about moving Navarro up to Lancaster. That's obviously a very unique environment because of all of the offense; can you talk about what kind of challenges that presents the organization?

BC: Yeah, that's a good question. I think it does make the evaluation process more difficult than the development process in our opinion. It does create some challenges for us from a development standpoint, but I think our staff has done a really good job of eliminating the excuse of Lancaster on both sides. From a position player standpoint, Lancaster has an environment where hitters can get away from some good habits and still be rewarded and have success. So in that environment, our staff works hard to reward the right things. For hitters, we're looking for them to stay within their approach and within their plan, and those are the things we're talking to them about and focusing on. So we're eliminating the raw stats to a certain degree, and really focusing on other things-the more process-oriented metrics that are more closely related to good at-bats and what a real quality at-bat is.

On the pitching side, I actually think it's helped some guys, although the performance doesn't always show it. A couple of examples from last year, you talked about Bowden, and he actually cruised through the league and I'm not sure it applies to him, but another pitcher we had out there, Kris Johnson, who was a sandwich pick in '06, a left-hander out of Wichita State. He went to Lancaster for his first full season last year and really got off to a rough start. Wichita State is a really good program but he hadn't pitched a lot in college, he came back from Tommy John surgery and wasn't one of those guys who had been a Friday night starter for three years. So he really struggled a lot out of the gate, but to his credit he really buckled down. And we challenged him at the end of April-we sat him down and said, "Look, this is where you are going to pitch, you're not going anywhere else, and you are going to have to figure it out right here."

What it comes down to out there is really what it comes down to anywhere else-execution, throwing strikes, and getting ahead of hitters. Now, when you do those things, the numbers probably still aren't going to be as good as they would be somewhere else, but that at least gives you a chance, and if you don't do those things, it really blows up. Pitchers tend to have a pattern when they go there. They have a couple of real ugly outings, and then they get back to execution and simplifying the game. So I really think it's helped some guys. It helped Kris Johnson, and it helps some with mental toughness. Chris Province, our fourth-round pick last year, he's there after starting the year in Greenville, and he started off with some really tough outings when he first got out there, but he's settled down and is pitching well. So we see those kind of trends. Now in a perfect world, you'd want a more neutral environment, and that would make for an easier evaluation process, but we make the best of it.

KG: Do you ever look at a player and think to yourself, "No way we're sending him there."

BC: Nobody in particular comes to mind. I think there have been guys where we said to ourselves, why risk it? For example, Daniel Bard has come back this year, and we put him in the bullpen last fall in Hawaii so he could get back on track. He came into spring training and it really looked like he was heading in the right direction, but we were still refining his delivery a bit so we took a conservative path and sent him to Greenville and put him in the bullpen. He was a little bit old for the level, but that probably would have happened regardless of where our High-A team was. We really wanted him to have some success at first so we sent him to Greenville. Once he had that success there were a couple things. It was never a matter with Bard of his stuff being good enough to go to Double-A or Triple-A or wherever, it's a matter of execution and throwing strikes. Once he started doing that, it was really an easy decision to just send him to Portland. It's really where his stuff belonged anyway. As a college pitcher drafted in the first round of 2006, that would be a fairly typical path to be in Double-A at this time. So we ended up skipping Lancaster with him, and while the environment may have played into that decision a little bit, for the most part, pretty much all of our pitchers have landed out there, and generally they've done a pretty good job after a few rough outings. Again, the numbers are never going to look as good as they would somewhere else, but developmentally, things can get accomplished there just like they are anywhere. Your ERA might be five, and it can still be a good year for you.

KG: Can you talk more about Bard? Obviously he had an awful season last year, but this year he's been pretty remarkable out of the bullpen. Can you explain the resurgence?

BC: Certainly Daniel deserves the majority of the credit for it, but there are people in the organization who have worked hard with him, like Mike Cather, our Double-A pitching coach, and Ralph Treuel, our minor league pitching coordinator. When he went to Hawaii last year, we did feel like he was going to be successful, he just needed to have a little bit of success to gain some confidence. We felt that with Hawaii, it was almost good that it was so far away. It's a nice environment obviously, and we felt like he could relax and go out there and have some fun playing baseball again, because I don't think last year was all that fun for him. And Mike Cather was out there as his pitching coach, and they did make some relatively minor mechanical adjustments in Hawaii, and they studied video from college-but again, it was relatively minor stuff with his alignment and delivery. I think a combination of the environment, having fun again, and these minor adjustments made it able for him to start having some success again, and feel better about himself coming into spring.

This spring he just showed up and seemed like he really had a purpose. He knew exactly what he wanted to do. He wasn't concerned with where he was going. He wasn't concerned with what role he was going to be used in. He was concerned about what he needed to do to maintain his delivery and throw strikes, and get hitters out. When we told him he was going back to Greenville to start the year-and sometimes these higher-profile picks out of college will get bent out of shape by having to be at that level in their second year-it didn't bother him a bit. He said he was going to pitch his way out of there. So he went to Greenville and obviously it's been an unbelievable season for him so far. I think Daniel would tell you that there is still work to be done, and there are still things he'd like to get better at. His breaking ball, even in the last few weeks, has gone from a 77 mph slurve to an 84 mph slider. That's part of his evolution-working backwards from the end of the 2007 season when he really just wasn't having a lot of fun pitching, slowly building that confidence in Hawaii, and bringing it into the spring and into the year. Mike Cather has been great for him, and Ralph Treuel has been great for him, but he's done most of the work.

KG: What about a more advanced pitcher like Michael Bowden? He's had a great year, and a lot of people were surprised to see him not be part of the Futures Game or the Olympic team. Can you talk about the difficult balance with a player like that, who is presented those kinds of opportunities, yet still is most importantly under contract with the Red Sox.

BC: Yeah, this answer isn't specific to Bowden, but our general policy on these things has been that the closer they are to the big leagues-and also pitching versus position players-the more restrictions we have on them participating in events like that. In other words, with a pitcher that is closer to the big leagues, it's going to be harder for us to make that decision, while with a position player that's further away, it's going to be easier. Obviously we want to work with Major League Baseball and Team USA on these things, and we certainly understand what they are trying to do, and obviously we see it as a very worthwhile thing to do and we support them 100 percent. We also have to try to protect our own interests a little bit. In our division, as you know, every game matters a lot, and there are players-and Bowden fits into this category-where we might need them this year. With those kinds of players, we're going to be a little more protective of those guys in situations like this. We do have some players participating in the Olympics-some younger Taiwanese players-and we think that experience will be good for them and help them grow.

KG: When you step back and look at the Boston system as a whole, what do you like and what maybe don't you like?

BC: Well, there are a couple of things. We've graduated some players to the major leagues, some impact players. We have some players at Double- and Triple-A who we think could be some pretty good players. We think Bowden is going to be a very good major league pitcher. Lars Anderson, who we just moved up to Double-A, we feel he has a bright future ahead of him as a hitter. And there are a lot of guys we feel that way about-feel they are going to be good major leaguers. We might not have the same volume of impact players that we had at this time last year. So we continue to work hard to evaluate and sign that potential impact talent, and develop them and hope they turn into those kinds of players. We feel good about our starting pitching at the upper levels. Obviously we have Justin Masterson in the pen now, but he can start, and with guys like David Pauley and Charlie Zink we feel good about our starting pitching depth. We also have some very interesting arms at the lower levels, guys who are still learning, but we're probably not pointing to as many guys at A-ball as we once did and saying, "Alright, this is a major league starting pitcher." So that's an area we need to work on. That's not to say they won't turn into that player, and we think some of them will, but they're not there yet.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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