Most of the time, when you inherit a last place team and not only win your division, but win an unlikely World Series Title as well, your legacy as that team’s manager is fairly secure.
Unfortunately for Red Sox manager John Farrell, this is not “most of the time.”
The Red Sox have had back-to-back seasons in which they’ve finished below .500 and in last place. That’s a combination that most teams would find unacceptable. For a franchise that annually has one of baseball’s five highest payrolls and has won three World Series titles this century, that’s an even less acceptable set of results.
If you remove Farrell’s massively successful 2013 campaign, you’re left with a manager who has managed for parts of (Farrell missed the final 49 games of the 2015 season while undergoing treatment for Lymphoma) six seasons.
The only season he’s ever led a team to a record over .500 was 2013. His career record is 379-396, subtract 2013 from those totals and you’re left with 282-331. That’s not good, it isn’t even close to good.
On August 14, 2015 John Farrell revealed that he had been diagnosed with Burkitt, a non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Farrell would miss the remainder of the 2015 season to undergo treatment. He and his doctors were optimistic that he would make a recovery and be able to return to the dugout in 2016.
That’s exactly what happened. By late October of 2015 Farrell’s cancer was declared to be in remission, and he was slated to return to the dugout for spring training 2016.
For the final 49 games of the 2015 season, the Red Sox were managed by bench coach Torey Lovullo. Lovullo is a baseball lifer. He was a backup catcher in the majors for parts of 11 seasons. He had managed in the minor leagues, most recently guiding the Red Sox triple-A club in Pawtucket to a 66-78 record in 2010.
In 2015 he took over a 50-63 Red Sox squad that was in last place in the AL East. The team had already suffered a season-ending injury to closer Koji Uehara. High-priced and high-profile free agent signings Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez had been hurt, and when they were healthy, they had played well-below expectations.
Nearly every member of the starting rotation had underperformed. The bullpen had been shaky prior to Uehara’s injury, now it was almost completely lacking reliable arms.
There were very few reasons to expect the team to be anything short of awful under Lovullo. A .500 record would have been a victory, an over .500 record was simply not fair to expect.
Yet that’s what the Red Sox and their fans got. The Red Sox went 28-21 the rest of the way.
Rick Porcello and Joe Kelly started to come around. The Red Sox got a handful of memorably good starts from Rich Hill. Jackie Bradley Jr, a once-promising prospect who had become an all-glove, no-bat major leaguer suddenly transformed himself into one of the league’s hottest hitters.
A previously unknown prospect named Travis Shaw was playing first base and hitting for both power and average.
The bullpen was still bad, but the improved Red Sox starters removed some of the pressure on the relief corps by going deeper into games and leaving those games with leads.
There was no fairy tale comeback. The 2015 Red Sox did not go on to become the 1989 Michigan Wolverines. Boston was able to rise to as high as third place in the AL East in the final week of the season, but they finished the season with a four-game losing streak that plunged the team into their second consecutive last place finish.
There was no question that bringing Farrell back as the Red Sox manager was the right thing to do. Losing one’s job because of an illness or injury is not an unprecedented occurrence, but it is an unusual one.
To remove Farrell from his job while he was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment would have been unacceptable. Farrell deserved to return to the dugout, but he can’t undo what Lovullo accomplished while he was the Red Sox manager for nearly the final third of the 2015 season.
Fairly or unfairly it is against that backdrop that Farrell is managing the 2016 Red Sox.
It would be tough to find anyone who would be able to say that this year’s roster, one which isn’t identical but is similar to the one that Lovullo inherited last August was not significantly improved from that time.
Uehara is healthy. The Red Sox have added one of the game’s premier starters in David Price and one of the sport’s best closers in Craig Kimbrel.
That’s why the team’s 7-7 start is a reason for concern.
Yes it is early. Yes there are injuries and there have been some flukey losses.
Farrell simply does not have that much leeway.
All too often the decision to fire a head coach or manager comes down to not just the level of performance of the current manager, but whether or not there’s an acceptable and attainable replacement waiting in the wings.
In this unique case that factor has already been mitigated.
The Red Sox know that Torey Lovullo can do the job, they’ve got nearly a third of a season of experience from less than one year ago fresh in their memories.
Lovullo assumed control of the team with less than 24 hours notice, and responded very well to the immediate pressure and dramatic changes in his job description.
All of those factors mean that Farrell is under immense pressure. It isn’t often that a team gets to actually hold an audition for a potential manager. In this case there’s already been one, and Lovullo performed pretty well.
The other thing to consider is that Farrell was hired by former Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington. Cherington resigned less than a week after Farrell left the team to undergo chemotherapy. Former Detroit Tigers president Dave Dombrowski was brought-in to replace Cherington.
There have been no overt signals that Dombrowski does not like Farrell, but the fact remains that Farrell is not a Dombrowski hire. Lovullo is not a Dombrowski hire either. It is notable that Dombrowski was in charge when Lovullo was offered, and signed a two-year contract extension that makes him among the highest paid bench coaches in major league baseball.
Farrell won’t be fired if the Red Sox are competing for the playoffs, and he probably won’t be fired in the team is over .500 and playing well.
If the Red Sox are barely over, or even under .500 by June 1, 2016 then expect Farrell to be on shaky ground.
He’s operating under unusually restrictive circumstances. This Red Sox roster is by no means perfect, but it is good enough to be over .500. If it isn’t? The Red Sox already have the potential solution waiting in the dugout and under contract.