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Hal Bodley

Red Sox making the most of a down year

GM Cherington's roster overhaul has included additions of Cespedes and Craig

Red Sox making the most of a down year

ST. PETERSBURG -- With the bases loaded and two outs in the second inning, diminutive 21-year-old rookie Mookie Betts sent a Chris Archer fastball screaming to the left-field seats, and it was over.

The new-look Red Sox, whose roster was overhauled by general manager Ben Cherington a month earlier, were up, 8-0, en route to an easy 8-4 conquest of the skidding Rays.

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This was Friday night at Tropicana Field.

For Betts, Boston's No. 1 prospect, his shining moment punctuated a storybook summer during which he's bolted from the shadows of the Minor Leagues to the bright lights of baseball's biggest stage.

Really, though, Betts is what the Red Sox -- less than a year removed from their dizzying World Series celebration -- are about today as they look up from the darkness of last place in the American League East.

Cherington deserves enormous credit. The impatient Red Sox Nation may disagree, but when it became obvious weeks into this season that the 2013 glory was nothing but a fading memory, he didn't hesitate.

And this is what the best of baseball's general managers do. They refuse to hold on to the players who helped build a championship, but whose presence will not reverse a downward trend.

Almost from the moment Boston polished off St. Louis last October to win its third World Series championship in 10 years, the roster turnover has been staggering, especially for a championship team.

On the negative side, I believe Cherington miscalculated the value of center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who left to sign a lucrative free-agent contract with the Yankees.

But since the Red Sox played the Rays at Tropicana Field in late-July, pitchers Jon Lester, John Lackey, Felix Doubront, Jake Peavy and Andrew Miller have been traded. Also gone are outfielder Jonny Gomes, shortstop Stephen Drew, outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and first baseman-outfielder Mike Carp.

In dealing Lester and Lackey, Cherington parted with two of Boston's best and most reliable pitchers. But as the dust from the flurry of deals settled, Oakland's best offensive player, outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, was aboard, as is former Cardinals outfielder Allen Craig.

Cherington was able to pull the trigger on these deals because his system is loaded with good young pitchers, a la top prospects Henry Owens, Allen Webster, Brandon Workman and Anthony Ranaudo.

Oh, yes, the 24-year-old Ranaudo, made his third -- and best -- start in the Major Leagues on Friday. He was the winning pitcher and is now 3-0 with a 4.50 ERA.

"If I had done a better job to begin with, we wouldn't have been in the position we were in in July and considering the moves we made," Cherington said. "This all starts with taking responsibility for that. The team's performance for the year hasn't been nearly good enough.

"Ultimately, the offense just didn't perform. We weren't able to get out of that. Going back to last offseason and Spring Training, we felt we had a team that could win."

The pitching was solid, but the Red Sox just couldn't score runs.

"Once we reached that point, we started looking at how to improve the offense and how to build a team that can win quickly again," Cherington said. "We were concerned about going into the offseason and being able to do that. We weren't sure how much offense was going to be available.

"We wanted to focus on getting a head start on improving our offense. As it turned out, we were able to add Major League pieces [Cespedes and Craig] as opposed to the typical prospect deals."

And just last week, the Red Sox signed 27-year-old Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo to a seven-year, $72.5 million deal. He'll play in his first Minor League game Sunday at Fort Myers, Fla., in a Gulf Coast League playoff game. It will be Castillo's first organized game since the end of the 2012 season.

"He's going to play in something similar to a rehab progression," said Cherington. "He's probably going to play three innings, and we'll ramp him up from there. Hopefully he'll be with the big club sometime in September."

After the four-game series against the Rays, the Red Sox will go Yankee Stadium, followed by home games against the Blue Jays and the AL East-leading Orioles.

"We're going into every game expecting and planning to win," said Cherington. "The players are smart. You cannot make up a story like, 'Win 27 in a row and get back in this.' Our approach is this: Every game is meaningful, because we have a chance to make an impact in the race. Secondly, individual players have a chance to tell us something and, to some degree, shape our approach for the offseason."

Manager John Farrell said "regardless of the changes we've made, we cannot sacrifice our standard. That is our preparation, our competitive approach and the energy we play with. To me, those are non-negotiables.

"We do have some answers to get with some young guys," he said. "We have a youthful rotation right now, so getting exposure for them is important for our decisions during the offseason. Our style of play will not be sacrificed."

Betts, as an example, has surprised Farrell & Co. with his power. He's just 5-foot-9 and 155 pounds. Betts didn't make his first start in Double-A until April, but after hitting .355 in 54 games at Portland, he was promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket, where he batted .335 in 45 games.

Betts is in his third stint with the Red Sox this season, but nothing had been as rewarding as his grand slam, especially for a guy known more for his speed than power. He became the youngest Boston player since Tony Conigliaro, who did it as a 20-year-old in 1965.

As for the new-found power, Betts said, "I kind of knew I had the ability to do it. I don't think anybody else believed in me, but I believed in myself to do it. It was just a matter of learning the pitches to swing at and grooving my swing, so when I get those pitches, [I am] able to do something with them."

Pausing, and flashing a smile, he added: "I'm still getting more comfortable each and every day. Every day I run out there, I feel like it's a good thing, so I can be comfortable going into next year."

And "next year" is what these Red Sox are all about.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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