Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington begins second roster overhaul

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For the second time in 22 months, Ben Cherington must find a way to turn a last place team into a winner — and fast.

Boston isn’t a patient place. Long, gradual improvements don’t go over well for a fan base which has enjoyed three world championships in the last 10 years and pays some of the highest ticket prices in the game.

Rebuilding? That’s for other teams in other cities.

In Boston, the turnaround has to be on-the-fly, with little time elapsing before an also-ran becomes a title contender again.

After the disastrous 2012 season, when the Sox finished with their worst record since the mid-1960s, Cherington took an aggressive approach to off-season.

He re-invested the massive financial savings that came out of the mega-deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers into solid major league free agents in their prime.

The plan worked like a charm then, as the Red Sox improbably went from last to first by winning the World Series in 2013.

On Thursday, Cherington began his second overhaul in much the same way.

He shipped out Jon Lester, Jonny Gomes, John Lackey, Andrew Miller and Stephen Drew, but instead of accumulating a host of prospects, mostly focused on obtaining proven, established players in return.

Throughout, Cherington was guided by one principle: “To be as good as we can, as quickly as we can.”

In the off-season that followed 2012, the Sox targeted the likes of Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, David Ross, Ryan Dempster, Gomes and Drew.

He wasn’t interested in stockpiling more potential and waiting to see if the talent evaluations were on-target.

It was the same approach on Thursday. He didn’t look for the best high-ceiling, low-cost prospect from the A’s in dealing Lester and Gomes. Instead, he received a 28-year-old power-hitting outfielder, who himself is under control only through the end of next season.

And when he shipped out Lackey to the Cardinals, owners of one of the best and deepest farm systems, he didn’t hold out for blue-chippers Oscar Tavares or Carlos Martinez or Stephen Piscotty. He opted for Allen Craig, 30, and Joe Kelly, 26, both part of the Cardinals team that faced the Sox in the World Series last October.

Why? Because Cherington was in a hurry.

The Red Sox aren’t the Rays, whose best return for ace David Price was an 18-year-old shortstop at Single A. No, the Red Sox intend to try to win next year.

Potential? The Sox already have plenty of that, especially starting pitching (Anthony Ranaudo, Matt Barnes, Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, Henry Owens, Brandon Workman) and left-side infield help (Garin Cecchini, Deven Marrero).

No, what they wanted was a short-cut. The two biggest trades that Cherington pulled off were old-fashioned baseball trades.

You have pitching? We need hitting.

You need hitting? We have pitching.

And so, deals were born, though they weren’t easy to execute.

“Prospect deals are typically easier to pull off,” said Cherington. “Most of the time, you’re getting calls from contenders and it’s tough to get proven major leaguers from contenders because it doesn’t typically make sense to give up proven major leaguers if you’re contenders.

“But I think the quality of our guys (being shopped) and the fact that they’re playoff tested and recently playoff-tested. As far as the return, time will tell. We’re happy with what we did. We think it fits with what we’re trying to do, which is to focus on major league or near-ready major league talent.

But as painful as it was to get to this point, we really wanted to see if we could take advantage of the unfortunate circumstances and make it into something better.”

There’s more to do, of course. Either by packaging some of their own prospects or by signing free agents, the Red Sox need more established starting depth this winter. It would be foolish to head into next season with the fragile Clay Buchholz and the still improving Kelly as their own experienced starters.

But this much is clear: the club’s offense is vastly improved over the last 24 hours and so is its own inventory of young pitching.

There’s no guarantee that they can execute another quick turnaround. But they determined Thursday that there was only one way to try: to do what worked when they were faced with the same challenge two years earlier.

Keone Kela’s return gives beleaguered Pirates a boost

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PITTSBURGH — A surprising positive COVID-19 test when he arrived at summer camp forced Pittsburgh Pirates closer Keone Kela to find creative ways to say in shape. Really creative.

With PNC Park off limits while he followed Major League Baseball’s health protocols, Kela started riding around the city with a stash of balls, a net and time to kill. He long tossed into a net in the parking lot at the Pittsburgh Zoo. He played “Wall Ball” off the pillars of the Fort Duquesne Bridge. He rolled through the South Side bar district in search of open space to let it rip.

“I’ve seen Pittsburgh now during this quarantine,” Kela said with a laugh on Wednesday.

The view will change considerably on Thursday for Kela when he joins the injury-ravaged Pirates for a four-game series in Cincinnati. Six Pittsburgh pitchers currently find themselves on the injured list, including relievers Kyle Crick, Clay Holmes and Nick Burdi. The strain on those left has been obvious.

The last-place Pirates are 27th in the majors in ERA (5.32) and the turnover in the bullpen has been particularly jarring. Nearly two dozen pitchers have taken the hill for Pittsburgh through 16 games, including catcher John Ryan Murphy, who actually tossed a scoreless ninth in a loss to Detroit last Saturday.

The fiery Kela’s arrival provides some semblance of a return to normalcy. Or at least whatever passes for normalcy in 2020.

“Getting him back in our clubhouse and his leadership and the person he is, I’m excited about that,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “Secondly, the guy that we talked about being our closer the second day of spring training is now back in the fold, so it kind of lets guys go into regular roles moving forward, as much as availability allows.”

Kela isn’t worried about being bit by the injury bug that’s made throwing a baseball this season a dicey proposition. He is confident in the path set out by pitching coach Oscar Marin and is confident the form that helped his record 25 saves for Texas in 2018 before moving into primarily a set-up role after being traded to Pittsburgh at the deadline is not far off.

“I don’t really feel like I’ve lost much of the pep in my step,” the 27-year-old said. “The ball’s coming out hot. Curveball is sharp. I feel like I have my command. I’m convicted when I’m up there. I have confidence. I don’t feel like the quarantine necessarily knocked me off my game.”

Kela returns to a team that is a major-league worst 3-13. He’s aware that opportunities to be a difference-maker in the ninth might not come along that often. He’s told Shelton to feel free to use him in whatever high-leverage situation works best and if that’s not the final frame, so be it.

“With the way that we’ve been playing ball, I just want to be able to get out there to secure the innings that are most important for us to move forward and put a (win) on the board at the end of the night,” Kela said. “If I have to face 3-4-5 in the eighth inning because that’s the most pivotal inning, that’s what I’m here for.”

Though Kela is careful to talk only in the present tense, he’s in an unusual spot in his career. The Pirates are in the beginning stages of a reboot, and Kela is one of the few tradeable assets they have. He’s also on the brink of free agency and it’s unlikely Pittsburgh would spend big on a closer for a team whose return to contention might still be a few years down the road.

Not that Kela is in the mood to think about the future. It’s been enough of a journey just to get to the present. He endured a chaotic 2019 that included getting suspended for igniting a brawl in Cincinnati with a couple of wayward pitches and being hit with a two-game ban from the Pirates for an altercation with a member of the team’s support staff.

He talked extensively in the spring about his eagerness to turn the page. Six months later, it’s finally time to do just that.

“This is a game of a lot of failure,” Kela said. “You have to go through the ups and downs and to stay even-keeled through it to find success.”

NOTES: Burdi (right forearm strain) will receive what director of sports medicine Todd Tomczyk called a “biological injection” and at the moment will not require surgery. He will be re-evaluated in 10-12 weeks. … Starting pitcher Mitch Keller (right lat strain) has yet to play catch but could return at some point this season. … Crick (forearm sprain) will attempt to throw to live hitters next week.