Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Leave Theo Epstein Alone!

October 17, 2004, Boston, MA - It is the bottom of the ninth in Game 4 of the ALCS. The Red Sox are down 3-0 in the series and 4-3 in the game. A loss sends the team home for the 87th straight year without a World Series Championship. On the mound for the hated Yankees is Mariano "GOAT" Rivera. At the dish is Kevin Millar, the player that general manager Theo Epstein bent the rules for to sign away from a Japanese team. Millar works the count to 3-1, but alas, succumbs to Rivera's patented cutter for strikes 2 and 3. 1 out. Next up is Bill Mueller, a glorified role player until Epstein signed him in 2003 after which he won the AL batting title. On a 1-1 count he smacks a ball up the middle, but the cat-like Rivera snags it and throws him out at first. 2 outs. Finally, Doug Mientkiewicz, a player acquired at the deadline as a defensive first baseman, steps to the plate. He tries to bunt his way on, but is thrown out. 3 outs. Season over. Curse lives.

October 18, 2007, Boston, MA - In Game 5 of the ALCS, the Red Sox are down 3 games to 1 to the Cleveland Indians. Red Sox ace Josh Beckett squares off against Indians ace C.C. Sabathia. The two lock into an epic pitchers' duel, each going 8 innings with Sabathia surrendering 2 runs and Beckett only 1. Second year closer Jonathan Papelbon, drafted and developed by Epstein and his staff, enters in the ninth to preserve the win and send the Red Sox to game 6. DH Travis Hafner opens the inning with a double down the left field line. He is followed by catcher Victor Martinez who homers on the first pitch he sees from Papelbon. Game over. Series over. 89 years since a World Series title.

This is what happened in those two years right? We are going on 93 years without a World Series title in Boston right? Wait, the Red Sox won both of those years? Mostly behind a collection of players that Epstein either signed, traded for, or drafted and developed? Sheeeeeit, the way people been talking on the radio this week you'd think this guy never did anything right.

I have seen at least 3 columns this week placing blame on Theo Epstein for the Red Sox current swoon (these columns have also made it seem like a foregone conclusion that the Red Sox will miss the playoffs even though they are up 1 with 7 to play). The main arguments made against Theo have been bad free agent signings, not accumulating pitching depth this season and not developing enough home grown talent lately. Let's take a look at each of these arguments to see if Epstein is really to blame.

Bad Free Agents
This argument stems from the John "Wilbur the Albatross" Lackey and Carl "I'm Sorry" Crawford signings. Each have had disappointing seasons (especially Lackey) and neither has done much to endear themselves to Boston (specifically the media). The thing is, Epstein was not criticized when either signing happened (besides probably length and amount of contract). Crawford was widely viewed as the best available position player this winter and was coveted by (among others) the Yankees and Angels. Just because he hasn't lived up to his contract doesn't mean Epstein made a bad move, it just means that the whole industry whiffed on Crawford. Lackey may have been first-guessed by the stats community, but the mainstream media found it to be the best move of that off-season, as reported in this Jayson Stark column. Also, I have a hard time believing this WASN'T a move pushed for by ownership.

Epstein has made his fair share of big free agent signings that have failed (Renteria, Clement, Matsuzaka, Lugo, Cameron), but the only ones that I can remember being questioned while the ink was still wet were Lugo, Cameron (by the mainstreamers, not the stat-heads), and J.D. Drew. Lugo was an absolute disaster and the result of a strange crush harbored by the boy wonder. Cameron's poor play was the result of injuries, but I guess this should have been suspected given his age. The mainstreamers may think that they were right on Drew also, but this is because they have a lack of understanding on what helps win baseball games.

Having John Henry money burning a hole in your pocket will lead any sane man to crazy spending sprees. The argument people have been making lately is how good would Epstein be running a team like the Rays without Uncle John's checkbook saving him from himself. But I think a more interesting question would be how would Andrew Friedman (the Rays GM) do in Boston with all that money to play with and all the pressure to win every year? I think he would make every big signing that Epstein made, except maybe Lugo, simply because ownership would allow him to. The question is would he also be able to make great low risk signings like Ortiz, Mueller, Millar and Aceves or huge trades like Schilling, Victor Martinez, Bay and Gonzalez?

Pitching Depth
I touched on this Monday. Injuries have forced this team to use its 9th (or 10th or 11th) starter this year, while the Yankees and Rays have gone beyond 6 starters for no more than 4 starts.

One more quick point on this. Some are saying Epstein should have done more at the trade deadline to acquire pitching depth. This ignores the fact that he DID do something by acquiring Erik Bedard. He was also close to acquiring Rich Harden but they didn't like his medical report, so why would people want Epstein to acquire another already injured pitcher? There also was not a whole lot available at the deadline this year that would have improved the team at the time. Finally, on July 31st this year, the Red Sox were in first place in the AL East with 2 games over the Yankees and 11 over the Rays. There was no reason for them to compromise the future to shore up their rotation depth at this point. The current disaster was completely unforeseen to nobody's fault.

Homegrown Talent
This argument ties into the lack of pitching depth. Mainstream columnists look around the league and see Ivan Nova with 16 wins for the Yankees, Vance Worley with 11 wins for the Phillies and an entirely home grown rotation in Tampa and they wonder why the Red Sox weren't able to find pitchers like these this season. This argument conveniently overlooks the following facts:

  • Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are homegrown talents who have debuted with the Red Sox since 2007. Both have the talent to be ace pitchers. Both are better than Vance Worley and Ivan Nova and 4/5 of the Rays homegrown rotation (David Price is better). Unfortunately, Buchholz is injured and Lester has been almost boringly dominant for 4 years now that it seems like he's been around forever so people think that the team isn't developing young pitching.
  • Justin Masterson and Casey Kelly are pitching talents developed by the Red Sox that were used to acquire offensive stars Victor Martinez and Adrian Gonzalez. I don't know anybody who would argue with these trades, even in hindsight.
  • Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard are two more homegrown pitchers who, until this month, have been two of the most valuable relievers in baseball. With the volatility of bullpens, developing two shutdown relievers in the span of 6 years is no small feet.
  • The team may be in a down year or two of exciting rookie pitchers, but in overall homegrown talent, this team is as strong as any of its contemporaries. On any day, the team can start 3 of 4 homegrown infielders, a homegrown catcher, 2 of 3 homegrown outfielders, 2 of 5 homegrown starters and 2 homegrown relievers to close the game. This is similar or better to the Yankees (2 infielders, 1 outfielder, DH, 2 starters, 2 bullpen), Rays (2 infielders, 1 outfielder, catcher, 5 starters, 0 bullpen) Rangers (3 infielders, 1 outfielder, 3 starters, 1 bullpen) and Phillies (3 infielders, 1 outfielder, catcher, 2 starters, 1 reliever).
There is one more point to make on homegrown talent. More than any area of talent acquisition, drafting and developing players is an organizational effort and there are other positions like the director of player development and director of amateur scouting who play a larger role here than the GM. Epstein's biggest responsibility here is hiring the right people to fill these roles and giving them the autonomy to make the right moves. Since 2003 I would say he has absolutely succeeded here, but in this success he has also lost a lot of key personnel like Josh Byrnes and Jed Hoyer. It is similar to the Patriots losing coaches like Charlie Weiss, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangina and Josh McDaniels. So maybe there has been a slight drop off in the last two years of minor league talent, but this is not something you should put on Epstein. 

This post is not meant make Theo Epstein seem like some kind of golden god. He has made some mistakes in his tenure as GM, but no man is perfect. The great thing about him is that he has balanced a lot of these mistakes with even more successes. The player development machine is still working, it is just in a very brief down period. The mainstream media may want to complain about his failings and put this swoon on him, but what will they do when he is delivering the Chicago Cubs their first World Series title in over 100 years while Brian Sabean takes the job in Boston and signs 4 35 year old first basemen in one offseason? It has been just 4 years since Epstein's creation won a second World Series in 4 years. Let's not be idiots and run this guy off just yet, ok?

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