With the release of the major motion picture Moneyball following the best-selling book, more attention is being paid to the general managers and front-office decision makers in baseball than ever before. Money and numbers rule the day. Have money to spend, and you can go out and sign your way to a World Championship. Use numbers as they can be used – focusing on sabermetrics and how to get the top quality performances for the lowest cost to your franchise – and profits will skyrocket while performance continues to increase as well. It’s no surprise, then, that the news of the week has been Theo Epstein contemplating bolting Boston to try his hand at fixing the Curse of the Billy Goat – much as he did with the Curse of the Bambino – and bring the Cubs their first World Series title since 1908. Of course, it’s an attractive time for the media to focus on the Red Sox after the most epic September collapse in recent memory, if not ever. Follow that up with reports of manager Terry Francona abusing pain medication and losing the clubhouse, “captain” Jason Varitek showing no leadership role, Most Valuable Player candidate Jacoby Ellsbury having a mere one friend in the clubhouse, and “workhorses” Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and John Lackey (a disgrace in his own right) drinking beer, eating fried chicken, and playing video games as the team battled on the field for the postseason, and you have all the makings for a perfect storm of attention.
As Theo departs Boston for Chicago, it seems as though the majority of experts, fans, and casual observers are troubled. “How can the Sox let Theo go?” seems to be the overarching belief amongst those individuals. On the face of the question, it seems legitimate. The hometown boy who brought Boston its first two championships since 1918 is leaving town for Chicago, the only franchise with a weaker history of championships than Boston has when he got here. Theo is good with the media, a huge positive to anybody employed by the Red Sox organization. He’s a strong talent evaluator, and has worked hard to rebuild the Red Sox farm system after prior general manager Dan Duquette had blown it to bits during his tenure.
So one might wonder why I – a pure-blooded Red Sox fan who eats/sleeps/lives Red Sox baseball from April through September – am so happy, so thrilled, so relieved that Theo Epstein is no longer the general manager of the Boston Red Sox. And that answer is simple, really.
Theo has, supposedly, been privy to the best of both worlds: a “supreme” master of the sabermetrics method of player evaluation, and access to the third-largest payroll in the game of baseball. All this while backed by an ownership group more than willing to do whatever necessary to win. No, I’m not saying that Theo Epstein should have won 7 titles. What I am saying is that as a general manager, Theo Epstein is not the end-all-be-all, and for the most part, is an overrated mind. Do I want Theo as my lead scout? Absolutely. Do I want Theo balancing my checkbook? Absolutely not.
What do the following players have in common: Matt Clement, Julio Lugo, John Lackey, JD Drew, Carl Crawford, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Bobby Jenks, Edgar Renteria, and David Wells. All were signed as free agents by Theo. All were given big money (we won’t even take into account the $51.1 million the Red Sox paid just to talk to Matsuzaka). And all were flops. Has Theo signed a free agent who hasn’t been a bust? Absolutely – Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, David Ortiz. That’s three. Yet, even with those three, there are flaws. Mueller was a batting champion, but after 2003 he didn’t hit .300 in the subsequent two years while suffering from injuries in 2004. Millar was an integral part of the 2004 club that rallied from an 0-3 deficit in the ALCS to top the Yankees and go on to win the title – but after that season, his bravado no longer matched his performance and he seemed to “lose the magic”. Ortiz, arguably a Hall of Fame player and unarguably the most clutch hitter in baseball history, in my opinion, was a lucky “stroke of genius” by Epstein. There is, essentially, no way that he could have thought that he was getting what he was in signing the free agent platoon first baseman from Minnesota – evidenced by the fact that for the first half of Ortiz’s first season with the Red Sox in 2003, both Millar and Jeremy Giambi played above him.
Many would say that while Theo has developed strong talent, in a market such as Boston, you develop talent in order to trade it away for bigger chips. As such, it’d be wrong to chastise and question Epstein’s free agent signings without giving him credit as a trading partner. Yes, he traded away the “shortstop of the future” in Hanley Ramirez, but not even the most anti-Epstein savant could argue with getting Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell back in return, perhaps the two biggest pieces to the 2007 World Series title. He also acquired Victor Martinez, Adrian Gonzalez, Jason Bay, Dave Roberts, and Orlando Cabrera. For sure, these four proved to be successful decisions of Epstein’s. With any general manager, he has also had busts in terms of trades. Those disappointments include Scott Sauerbeck, Scott Williamson, Byung-Hyun Kim, Tony Graffanino, and perhaps more than any other, Eric Gagne. He opted not to resign Victor Martinez in lieu of a platoon of an aged, hurting Varitek and highly-touted-but-never-realized Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
As I have thought about Theo Epstein as a general manager in Boston over the course of the last week or so, I have come to the realization that what I enjoyed most about his time running my favorite team was not his decision making or abilities, but instead the excitement he brought me. No winter was ever boring, and in the city of Boston, it really can’t be. In Boston, teams need to stay relevant in the offseason to sell tickets and keep attention. Theo knew this, and acted on it. This past winter felt like Christmas twice – acquiring Gonzalez from the San Diego Padres and signing Crawford to a lucrative long-term deal. Yes, Theo has always known how to make a splash. In the end, however, splashes don’t win you games, clear from the fact that the four remaining teams in this season’s playoffs are not Boston, New York Yankees, Philadelphia, and the New York Mets/Chicago Cubs. So while I am in some sense disappointed that Theo will leave Boston after being the architect of my favorite team when my passion grew to unknown levels, I also recognize that the foundation and bricks/mortar which that architect used has not been the strongest.
Whoever steps into the shoes of Red Sox general manager after Theo – whether it is someone internal like Ben Cherington, or an external mind – will surely have much on their plate in always being compared to Epstein. But in the grand scheme of things, Epstein made more mistakes than good decisions, lost the organization money and profit with regularity, and did the job of a great scout when getting paid and holding the title of general manager. And because of that, I welcome his departure to Chicago and look forward to the next chapter in Red Sox management.