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June 20. 2013 11:00PM

Dave D'Onfrio's Sox Beat: Now Cherington's job gets harder

As the rest of Boston's big four find themselves immersed in high-level drama — the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final, the Celtics trying to trade their coach and a hall of famer, the Patriots wondering whether Aaron Hernandez was involved in an apparent homicide — that the Red Sox are happily humming along outside the spotlight is a credit to Ben Cherington.

They're not irrelevant by any means. Not as a first-place team that had Fenway Park nearly packed on Wednesday night, even as the Bruins and Blackhawks staged Game 4 right down Storrow Drive.

But after the way the previous 18 months had gone, the Sox entered this season seeking the restoration of normalcy, and returning to a point where the conversation about them would focus first on the field — and through a series of decisions the Meriden-bred general manager has done just that. He hired the right manager. He brought in the right mix of supplementary veterans. And he identified which holdovers were problems and which were solutions.

Having overseen and orchestrated so much change over his 20 months as head of Boston's baseball operations, he's had a chance to put his stamp on this team — and the fact that this marks the 67th morning in which these Red Sox have awoken as division leaders, while hardly enduring any controversy, speaks to just how good a job he's done.

But now the job gets harder.

Now that civility and sanity have been reinstated, and now that respectability has been restored on and off the field, now comes the temptation-filled challenge of taking things to the next level in terms of contesting for a championship.

The draft done, and first-round pick Trey Ball under contract, the GM's focus shifts even more narrowly onto what he can do to help his team this season. And in Cherington's case, with a club that has thus far proven itself eminently capable of winning the American League East, that means determining where he might be able to upgrade and fortify and pledge his organizational resources.

"We went into the year knowing we wanted to step forward as organization, building something we believe in and sustaining it over a long period of time," he said during a Wednesday meeting with the media. "The wins have come because of great effort by players and staff and talent. The long-term objective is the same: to build something that we can sustain over time."

That's where things have the potential to get a bit tricky for Sox brass, though. Despite their publicly stated sentiments, this was believed to be seen as something of a bridge year for a franchise in transition, yet they entered a four-game series at Detroit with the AL's best record.

On one hand, Cherington is obligated — to fans, to current players, to ownership — to go for it. To do whatever it takes to win the division, the league, the World Series, considering none of those titles are at this point an absurd aspiration.

On the other hand, though, Cherington is obligated — to the front office, and again to ownership — to not forsake the big-picture plan in pursuit of those immediate goals, no matter how tantalizing it may be to cast caution aside.

For instance, let's hypothetically say the Phillies called next month and offered him the chance to acquire superstar starter Cliff Lee, but it would cost Boston top prospect Xander Bogaerts and/or pitching stud Allen Webster. To put it in his own parlance, those are the sorts of "multifactorial" decisions he'll face between now and the July 31 trade deadline, the aggregate of which will certainly influence — if not decide — the direction of the club for years to come.

"We have to weigh and balance the long term and short terms," Cherington said. "We have a number of guys in our system that are sought after and have value by other teams. We're trying to make the right calls, hold on to the core guys as much as we can, but be open-minded. I never thought there were short-term or long-term deals. It's a combination. Sometimes trying to win now helps the team in the long run."

Cherington expressed a belief in the Sox' minor league depth — "We think we have strong enough farm system that, if it makes sense for us, we can do that and still have a strong farm system at the end of the season" — but looking at specific players and positions, instead of general depth, introduces other variables.

For example, if the Red Sox flip one of their better prospects to plug a current hole, it could dictate their approach in dealing with veterans whose contracts are expiring. Jacoby Ellsbury and Jackie Bradley Jr. could be intertwined that way, as could be Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ryan Lavarnway or another young catcher.

Likewise, who knows what influence a cadre of arms within the system has when it comes time to exercise Jon Lester's option this coming winter? Or what influence an influx of high-ceiling middle infielders has on extension discussions with Dustin Pedroia?

Ultimately those are questions that will be answered once the season is over. But they must be somewhere in Cherington's mind as he tries to determine whether to pursue a front-line starter, whether closer Andrew Bailey can be upgraded, whether the Sox need another veteran outfielder, or whether he can parlay what seems a surplus at shortstop and third base into aiding a deficit in any of those other areas.

Somewhere in his planning must also be contingencies for further injury, with MLB on pace to set a new record for disabled list usage. That might be impossible to predict, but preparing the Sox for various scenarios is part of his job.

A job that's about to get harder.

"Our guys have put us in a position here in the middle of June to be right in the thick of things," Cherington said. "It's competitive. The teams that stay on top are going to be the healthiest, have the best starting pitching, best in season adjustments.

"We're going to try to do that, and time will tell."

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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