EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 13, 2012

Cherington's neck on the line if these players don't produce

On Pro Baseball
Christopher Smith

---- — BOSTON — The moves Ben Cherington already has made and will continue to make this offseason will go a long way in defining his tenure as Red Sox GM for better or worse.

His neck is on the line. Unlike last offseason, he has been given the money to build his own team and now is his time to prove his worth.

In the coming years, Cherington will be judged by the performance of the players who he has hand-selected this offseason.

So how is he doing so far? He has added several players who will infuse strong character to a clubhouse that was in need of a culture change. But most all of his additions come with clear risk, too.

Cherington’s new right fielder, Shane Victorino, was introduced here at Fenway Park yesterday after the two sides agreed on a three-year, $39-million deal. Briefly after, the Red Sox signed starting pitcher Ryan Dempster to a two-year deal reportedly worth $26.5 million. Dempster’s deal is pending a physical.

Victorino is coming off a tough season in which he batted .255 with a .321 on-base percentage. The switch-hitter struggled especially from the left-side, batting .229 compared to .323 from the right side.

Struggling from the left side can be even more arduous at Fenway with a deep right-field fence.

“We looked at that,” Cherington said. “He’s had years where he’s hit righties well. We feel confident based on what we’ve looked at in the video and talking with Shane that he’s going to be a productive hitter from the left side. ... He doesn’t have to hit home runs at Fenway from the left side. He has the kind of power to do that but we’re looking at the overall game: What he can do defensively, on the bases, creating havoc in the lineup, covering ground in right field.”

Victorino is a .275 career hitter with a .341 career on-base percentage, 90 homers, 409 RBIs and 201 stolen bases.

If Victorino does return to his pre-2012 form, he could be a terrific addition, largely because of the personality he brings.

He definitely is an extrovert, plays gritty and has proved he can succeed in a pressure-packed market having played seven and a half years in Philadelphia where he made two All-Star teams and won three Gold Gloves.

Dempster, meanwhile, has spent almost all of his career pitching in the National League. He’s risky because he has struggled in his brief time in the American League and his AL-sample size is miniscule.

Last year, Dempster posted a 2.25 ERA in 16 starts for the Cubs, then recorded a 5.09 ERA in 12 starts for the Rangers in the only AL stint of his career. Pitching against AL teams in interleague play during his career, Dempster is 11-15 with a 4.63 ERA in 50 games, 35 starts.

The big reward with the 35-year-old Dempster is that not only is he another extrovert with the reputation of being one of the friendlier players in baseball, but he is a durable starter. He pitched 200-plus innings in four consecutive years entering 2012.

“One of the things we’ve been lacking is just the reliability — someone who can be a reliable, durable part of a rotation,” Cherington said.

Cherington said a pitcher’s success and limited exposure in the AL has to be taken into account when signing free agents.

“You have to look at (his) stuff, performance track record and where he’s done it and who he’s done it against — and what he projects going forward, his makeup, how he fits in,” Cherington said.

In his moves to date, Cherington has re-signed DH David Ortiz to a two-year, $26 million deal and signed outfielders Jonny Gomes (two years, $10 million) and Victorino.

He has inked Dempster, catcher David Ross (two years, $6.2 million) and talented right-handed reliever Koji Uehara (one year, $4.25 million).

Cherington also still is trying to complete a deal with first baseman/catcher Mike Napoli (three years, $39 million). The Red Sox have been quiet on the reason why the Napoli deal hasn’t been made official. It is quite possible the Sox did not like certain results of Napoli’s physical and they are trying to work out certain contract language to protect themselves if Napoli does miss time due to injury.

Obviously, Napoli and Ortiz can swing powerful bats but with both players comes injury concerns. Napoli spent time on the DL in 2012 with a strained left quad muscle. Ortiz missed a good portion of ‘12 with a strained Achilles tendon.

Cherington would not comment specifically on whether the issues holding up the Napoli deal are medical.

“Every time we sign a free agent to any sort of guaranteed deal there’s a number of things you have to come to agreement on and then get resolved,” Cherington said.

“Some of it’s contract language, some of it’s terms and money, and then there’s a physical with all these agreements. Until all those things are done and all been agreed upon, just can’t comment on it. All I can say, is we continue to talk and it’s just a dialogue. We’ll continue to do that and work to resolve the issues.”

Napoli, Gomes, Ross, Ortiz, Victorino and Dempster all should help change the clubhouse culture. But they better produce on the field, too, or Cherington probably won’t get another chance to build his next team.

Follow Eagle-Tribune baseball writer Christopher Smith on Twitter @ChrisSmithET