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Cherington's depth obsession leads to best bench in baseball

Ben Cherington has spent almost his entire GM tenure holding on to his excess talent, and now he has more depth than any other team in baseball.

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Three and a half years ago, Ben Cherington took over the general manager position for Theo Epstein, and what has ensued has been one of the strangest runs in the history of the Red Sox franchise. There has been triumph in the 2013 World Series season, and despair in the 2012 and 2014 last place finishes. There have been great moves like signing Mike Napoli, and terrible ones like signing Grady Sizemore and A.J. Pierzynski. These types of runs make a GM like Cherington a polarizing one, and it’s really too black and white to call him either a genius or a failure. Even if we don’t know how to describe Cherington, he’s been here long enough to get a read on his tendencies, and his biggest one is coming to fruition in a big way on this 2015 roster.

As part of a season preview series at Baseball Prospectus, Ben Carsley looked at Cherington’s tendency to pour the majority of his resources to hitting. This offseason brought that line of thinking to the forefront. I’m going to take it one step further. Cherington is more than hoarding all of his resources towards offense, though that’s a big part of his strategy. What the GM wants to do is hoard everything until he absolutely has to. Above everything else, Ben Cherington values depth, as he’s seen firsthand what happens when you play without it.

As the 2015 season gets underway, the Red Sox have built a bench full of players that could easily be starters for at least a handful of teams around the league, and they’ve set themselves up with plans B and C in case of injuries at any spot on the diamond. To start the year, they have Allen Craig, Daniel Nava, Brock Holt and Sandy Leon on their bench. Craig is only one year removed from a three-year run in which he hit to a 136 OPS+ in 1296 plate appearances. Of course, he was atrocious last season, but even then he managed to be a near league-average hitter against lefties with a batting average on balls in play 30 points lower than his normal rate. At worst, he should be a helpful bench bat against lefties at the end of games. Nava has inexplicably turned himself into an average-to-above-average major-league bat who kills righties. On a team that’s lacking left-handed bats, that skill set will come in handy. Holt’s bat probably won’t play like it did in 2014, but it won’t need to with the absurd defensive versatility that he carries.

Photo credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
Photo credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

This doesn’t even cover the guys that Boston has sitting in Pawtucket for the moment. Rusney Castillo is the most prominent of this group, and could very well be a starter by midseason. There’s also Jackie Bradley, Jr., whose elite defense could play an important if unexpected role on this team. Garin Cecchini struggled a bit in triple-A last year, but he’s hit all through the minors and is likely the backup third baseman in the event of a Pablo Sandoval injury. Blake Swihart is possibly the best prospect in the organization, and while he’s not ready right now, there’s a very good chance he plays a large role on the big league team in the second half.

The depth extends to the pitching staff, too, although not nearly to the same extent. Pawtucket has intriguing arms that could very well contribute this year all the way down its roster. The obvious ones are Henry Owens, Eduardo Rodriguez, Brandon Workman, Matt Barnes and Brian Johnson, but it doesn’t stop with them. Heath Hembree, Edwin Escobar, Noe Ramirez, Zeke Spruill and Dalier Hinojosa could all contribute as well.

The thing about this wealth of depth is that Cherington had every opportunity to use it to improve the pitching staff. He cashed in on Yoenis Cespedes to acquire Rick Porcello, but opted to hold on to everyone else. There were calls to trade at least one of Craig, Shane Victorino or Nava for pitching help. In fact, it was almost a foregone conclusion that he would. He had a chance to trade their elite prospects for one of the truly elite pitchers in the game, but he opted to hold on to the quantity over the quality.

All of these years of "prospect hugging" and depth hoarding comes to a head this season. The prospects they’ve been holding on to are on the verge of contributing at the major-league level. The current bench is as loaded as it’s ever been, overflowing into the minors, and better than any other group in the game. We don’t know how it’ll turn out; it’s entirely possible we look back and wonder how Cherington didn’t take some of the excess and deal it for pitching. We know what he’s trying to do, though, and it’s admirable to stick to a plan like this. He finally has everything he wants, with depth and plan Bs, Cs and Ds at every position on the roster. Now it’s time to see if Cherington’s depth obsession all pay off.