SEATTLE — Red Sox owner John Henry was already on the West Coast, and general manager Ben Cherington had been planning this trip for a month, he said. What a coincidence that they were all together here Monday, with manager Bobby Valentine at his most vulnerable since he took the job last December.
Henry said he was on a “fact-finding” trip, speaking to players, coaches, reporters. The only fact he needs to know is that his team stinks.
He said he came to have breakfast with Valentine, not to fire him.
Even if you buy that, the fact is that while Valentine appears to be safe for the remainder of the season — though neither Henry nor Cherington ever actually said that was the case — his future remains in doubt.
Cherington, in fact, said he is somewhat to blame for this bad road trip (0-7 after a 4-1 loss to the Mariners on Monday) because of the roster he left Valentine with after The Trade. But we all know that Cherington is going nowhere. And he knows it, too.
The owners speak glowingly of Cherington, but if two years from now the team is still spinning its wheels, then he will feel heat. But not now.
No, this is Valentine’s heat.
“For any of you who are sorry that I didn’t get fired, I’m sorry that you’re sorry,” Valentine told reporters. “But I don’t think I did this morning, if that’s what you thought was going to happen.”
Asked what was discussed at breakfast, Valentine said, “What do you think we talked about? Art? Liverpool? We talked about baseball, and our team. Obviously. Things that he’s concerned with and things that I deal with.’’
Cherington did not even come close to answering a question about Valentine’s job security, either because he knows it’s shaky or because he’s not going to be involved in the decision. The final call on Valentine undoubtedly will be 100 percent an ownership-level one because the team would have to swallow about $2.5 million on Valentine’s contract.
The uncomfortable part for the owners and Cherington is that they know firing the manager makes him the scapegoat, and they are aware of the awful roster issues the team has had the entire season because of injuries and trades.
Nice set of circumstances to hand to the manager. But the brass knows it has put Valentine in a no-win situation.
“I think we knew when we made the trade [with the Dodgers] we weren’t helping our team win games the rest of this year,” Cherington said. “But that said, it’s still been hard to watch. There’s things that we need to accomplish the rest of the year. There’s things we need to do to learn more about players and get players healthy and get guys in the best position so that we can be well-informed going into the offseason. It is harder to do that when you’re staring at a loss at the end of every day.
“It’s hard for everyone to get the work done that needs to get done. But the only choice we have is to do it — to show up the next day and make sure the work gets done. I believe that will happen.”
Valentine obviously has his own concerns about what he’s been left with and how he’s supposed to turn a Triple A lineup into a winner.
Monday’s game was a perfect example of what Valentine has to deal with, when an accomplished player such as Jacoby Ellsbury, who has a weak arm, can’t make a good throw from center field to prevent a run from scoring, or when rookie shortstop Jose Iglesias can’t get a ball out of his glove and boots it as another run scores.
The general feeling of Henry and Cherington is yes, the roster is challenging, but they expected more.
“We expected to play better than we have,” Henry said.
Cherington said he understands if Valentine is frustrated.
“It’s hard on all of us,” the GM said. “When the manager is in the middle of it, he has to answer questions every day and it’s hard when things aren’t going well. I feel for him. I’m sure there’s times when frustration comes out. It’s not as easy to write out the lineup as he thought it might be. It would be frustrating for anyone.”
Henry is focusing on a variety of things, but the biggest emphasis is on the pitching. He is looking into a general overhaul of the pitching system and philosophy, and is exploring all avenues to make that happen. That includes trying to find a pitching czar who can bring it all together (Rick Peterson), and also to find top evaluators who can scout hurlers better.
The Sox have had a lot of problems scouting, developing, and keeping pitchers healthy over the past few years. It’s become the No. 1 concern of the organization.
“We have to improve on that side of the ball, not just in the first inning,” Cherington said. “I’ve spent a lot of time on that. I don’t have the answers yet. I know [Randy Niemann] and [Gary Tuck] and the catchers have prepared and helped the pitchers prepare and be ready for the game. I don’t think there’s a lack of effort there. Ultimately there are things we can do off the field and on the field to help prepare us. The guys on the mound need to do their part, too.”
Cherington said a manager can’t be judged by wins and losses under these circumstances, but he did outline areas he can be evaluated on.
“I think the team is preparing well and the effort is there,” he said. “We’re just not playing well. A lot of that is simply because the roster is at a different point. It’s different than what it will be down the road. We’re trying to learn things about guys. Sometimes that doesn’t put us in position to be as competitive to win games. It’s a reflection on all of us, mostly me. It’s the painful part of the process. We made a big deal because we felt it would give us the best chance to build the next great Red Sox team, but we’re in a painful process where things aren’t going well right now.”
Henry, who said he does not regret the New York team meeting because it let him know how the players, coaches, and manager really felt about the state of the team, continues to try to find answers on why there may still be communication issues between Valentine and his staff.
The answer is probably simple — Valentine doesn’t trust some of his coaches.
But Henry is really focused mostly on next season. He doesn’t know who the manager will be, who the coaches will be, and who the players will be. Other than that, things are swell.
While Henry spoke about the financial flexibility created by the megadeal with the Dodgers, he said, “We’re not going to go out and spend for the sake of spending. We’re going to make sound baseball, and financial decisions and rebuild this the right way.”
Henry will ask Cherington to seek value free agents, make sound baseball trades. The owners will be more involved in the transactions, and Cherington will not have the carte blanche financially that Theo Epstein did.
One of the reasons for the visibility of the owners lately is because they felt they allowed last September to get out of hand, trusting Epstein to straighten out some of the issues the team faced before and during its great collapse.
It doesn’t appear Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino are going to sit on the sideline in rebuilding the team this offseason.
One strong point Cherington made was when he was asked whether his decisions will be based on the noise from the talk-show callers.
“[They] shouldn’t,” he said. “We need to make decisions we feel are the right ones to make the team go forward. We’re aware that we need to deliver more for the fans. The talk around the team is a reflection of how much the fans care and what they think is certainly important, but we have to try to protect our decision-making process.”