BALTIMORE -- While it may not seem so to folks alarmed by the Boston Red Sox beginning Tuesday night 10 games out of first place in the AL East, general manager Ben Cherington made a couple of references to it still being “early,” and expressed confidence that external changes are not required for better performance.
Cherington also mocked the notion that he was pressured to re-sign Stephen Drew, saying the club did so on his recommendation. He reiterated his support for rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. as the team’s center fielder, and deflected a question on whether the team was close to pulling the plug on outfielder Grady Sizemore’s attempted comeback, saying “we’ll see” whether Sizemore meets their expectation that he can still be a good player.
He also said no resumption of contract talks with pitcher Jon Lester has been scheduled, indicating the club is content to wait for the pitcher to signal a readiness to do so, but all but ruled out moving Lester at the trading deadline.
“We hope to have a conversation again about his contract,’’ Cherington said. “We’d love to find a way to keep him here. But right now we’re just trying to win games and stay in this thing. I believe we will. When we do, we’re going to want Jon Lester pitching for us down the stretch. So it’s not something we would even consider.’’
The Red Sox began the night with a 28-35 record, 10 games behind the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL East and five games ahead of the fifth-place Tampa Bay Rays. They have lost six of the first seven games of their current nine-game trip, having been swept three straight by the Indians in Cleveland and losing two of three to the Tigers in Detroit before losing the opener here Monday night to the Orioles, 4-0.
The Sox began the night ranked 12th in the league in scoring after leading the majors in runs last season, when they were the only team to score more than 800 times (853). They’re on pace to score 651 runs this season, an average of 1.2 runs fewer per game than in 2013.
“Obviously we’re not happy with where we are,’’ said Cherington, who joined the team here Tuesday and spoke with reporters Tuesday afternoon. “That’s not up to our standard. We still believe it’s going to get better. We believe we have a very good team ahead of us this year. Most of that will come from within, guys here performing, getting back to a level they’re accustomed to.
“And then if we can do that and start playing a little better and win some games and hang in there, we will try to find any way we can to make improvements to the team as the summer goes on. At this point, this early in the season, we’re still mostly focused on the guys who are here, find a way to play better with the guys who are here.’’
Cherington indicated that the Red Sox are not close to making a trade, seven weeks in advance of the July 31 trading deadline. He sounded bemused that the Drew signing has attracted the degree of criticism it has, especially since the shortstop has played in just four games. Drew, who is 1-for-17 this season, sat out a second straight game Tuesday with tightness in his right oblique muscle.
“I don’t know, it seems pretty early to make a judgment on that one,’’ Cherington said. “You all know Stephen Drew. He is a really good major-league player. We all know how good he is. We knew he’s stepping back on a major-league stage, seeing major-league pitching. I don’t think we were surprised it might take a little while to get his timing back and get comfortable.
“We signed him because we thought it would make us better over the course of a season and we still feel that way. I don’t have any reason to think he won’t. ... All the reasons we signed him are still in place and we’ll see how it works out.’’
Cherington labeled “false” any suggestion that he was pressured by the media or the front office to re-sign Drew.
“We know Stephen Drew really well,’’ he said. “We signed Stephen Drew because I made a recommendation to ownership that we sign Stephen Drew.’’
Cherington said signing Drew already was being discussed when third baseman Will Middlebrooks fractured his left index finger, then fell into place quickly after the team learned Middlebrooks would miss significant time.
“We had known if there was an area on the team that we wanted to add to, it was on the left side of the infield,’’ he said. “It wasn’t a reflection on any of the players we had. We want as many good players as we can for each spot. It happened to be that Will got hurt, Stephen Drew was still out there, we felt like if we didn’t sign him we might be putting ourselves in a position to have to make a trade at some point, give up talent to address potentially an area of need.
“So we had a guy who we trust, who we like, who’s a good player, who’s been here and done that, and was available to sign without giving up talent. So we did it, and I made that recommendation. I would make that recommendation again.’’
Even after spending $10 million to re-sign Drew, Cherington said the Red Sox have the financial resources to make upgrades should they elect to do so later this season.
The outfield remains the most underperforming part of the team offensively. Boston outfielders came into Tuesday’s game batting a collective .223, the lowest average in the majors, and their .628 OPS ranked 29th, just ahead of the White Sox (.627). Bradley, batting .203, has been benched the last two nights after striking out in eight of 10 at-bats in Detroit. Sizemore, 2-for-19 on this trip, has been starting in center field the last two nights and is batting .218.
The Red Sox have reverted to having an infielder, Brock Holt, make his professional debut in left field on Sunday, and manager John Farrell did not rule out Holt playing some center field. When he started working out in the outfield last week, Holt first took fly balls in center.
Daniel Nava has shown signs on this trip of regaining his swing -- he’s 6-for-15 -- and would seem to be putting himself in a place to contend for his spot in left field when Shane Victorino returns from his hamstring injury. In the interim, he’s placing right field, with Holt in left.
With Holt and Nava both hitters from the left side (Nava is a switch hitter), there would seem to be little room for Sizemore, unless he can persuade the Sox that he can do the job, offensively and defensively, in center field. That’s a tall order.
“In Jackie’s case, he’s playing really good defense, he’s grinding, he’s making offensive adjustments, he’s here every day working to get better,’’ Cherington said. “He’s a very important guy for us and we feel he’s the right guy. He’s our center fielder.
“In Grady’s case, we’ve seen flashes. I think he would tell you he hasn’t been as consistent as he’d like to be, hasn’t made the impact.
"So look, we’re all in this together. We know collectively we have to get better. We’ve got to perform better. That starts with me. We have to make that happen. We’re not ready to proclaim this has to happen, or this has to happen. It won’t be any particular move."
So he's not close to pulling the plug on Sizemore?
“He’s here,’’ Cherington said. “He’s one of our 25 guys. John’s trying to put him in position to succeed and we believe Grady Sizemore is going to be a good major-league player again. We’re going to do whatever we can to help him be that guy here. We’ll see.’’
Cherington was loathe to single out one area of the team as the reason for the club’s struggles. Nor would he blame injuries.
“I think our job is to be good enough and deep enough to play through the injuries and still win games and hang in there through the tougher times,’’ he said. “So I wouldn’t assign it to the injuries.’’
The general manager said the club expected it would face more adversity than in 2013, when it won 97 games.
“It’s just the way baseball goes,’’ he said. “Offensively, we just haven’t clicked in any consistent way. We’ve been in most games because we’ve been running pretty good pitchers out there, whether starter or bullpen.
“You can’t point to one thing. We have to get better. We believe we will. We’re not there yet.’’