Tuesday, November 01, 2005

We'll Always Have St. Louis

To paraphrase Theo's Grandpa, of course. So Epstein is out and Boston is wavering somewhere between apoplectic and suicidal. Upon dictionary check, there is little literal difference between those two states. So sorry. But there are two articles I wish you to read before you finish your seizure: Peter Gammons and Bill Simmons. They're both fairly close to right, and you should listen to them.

Simmons, in fact, stole several of my points out of my brain before I could write them. The luxury of a man who does this for a living. But because you came all this way, and as this site is as much for me as it is for you, I'll do it Ninth style.

Theo Epstein was a very good general manager. Certainly one of the 10 best in major league baseball. He was not, however, the front office Jesus. Mistakes were made, but Boston was so giddy over a World Series success that they chose not to notice. Epstein built three major league bullpens in his Boston career, and two of them were awful. Not only were they bad, but they were almost instantly so, giving him plenty of time to fix them. In both cases, he could not. All you have to remember is Carl Crawford's opening day '03 walk-off against Chad Fox to get a reliable snapshot of an Epstein relief crew. Even with a rash of acquisitions, Epstein couldn't clean his messes. Rudy Seanez, Todd Jones, Scott Williamson, Byung Hyun Kim, Terry Adams, Scott Sauerbeck, Bob Howry, Curtis Leskanic, Mike Remlinger, Chad Bradford, Mike Myers, Chad Harville. All came mid-flow, almost all stunk. Kim had his moments, Myers pitched his role, and Williamson was solid when healthy. The rest: pee-yoo, what stinks. But this isn't an indictment. Theo tried, and almost all of these bandaids where good ideas that met with bad luck. What the Ninth doesn't understand though, is why weren't Sox fans angrier? They're not patient and understanding about anything else, why were they with these bullpens? You could make the argument that the Sox relief failure was the single greatest contributor to their limited successes in '03 and '05. In fact, the Ninth thinks you should, because it's true. Say what you will about Grady Little, but if he had a lights-out closer and set-up guy, he might very well have gone to them on that most horrible of nights in New York. I'm not saying Epstein should be criminalized for this, but how about criticized? These problems were rarely mentioned when he was here and entirely forgotten now that he's gone. That's a mistake.

Going further, if you look at the 25 man roster, how many contracts would you dissolve right now if you could? It's a simplistic evaluation sure, but that approach might as well be printed on WEEI's business cards, so let's try it out. I'll start the bidding at Matt Clement and Edgar Renteria, and I'm hearing Trot Nixon, Keith Foulke, Manny Ramirez and even the great Curt Schilling pop up from the floor. But these gentlemen won us a World Series, you cry. And I agree, they did, and I thank them for it. This is not however the purpose of the exercise. Whose contracts would you eradicate at this moment? Clement and Renteria were big disappointments for long stretches, and completely failed in September and beyond. Trot has consistent back problems and has not earned his already hometown contract. Foulke has become a complete mystery with bad knees, and Curt Schilling is a 39 year-old who has missed huge chunks in two of the last three seasons. Manny of course is a pass, as that one inked under Dan Duquette's pen. But these are a handful of large contracts that when complete could look like real stinkjobs. No one thinks this way though because of the World Series. It was 86 years, we needed it desperately, and Theo delivered on his hometown shoulders. Give him a hug and offer up our daughters. That doesn't seem simplistic to anyone else? One World Series won that could've so easily gone the other way? If Bill Mueller pulls that Rivera cutter two feet closer to second base, isn't half of Boston reminding Theo not to let the door hit him on the way out? Of course they are.

Now this is not an effort to prove Theo false. We started this piece off with praise, and it's something he certainly deserves. As RSDD likes to say, In Theo, We Trust. But we can learn to trust someone else. The Ninth feels that all but one of the above contracts were wise moves, (never thought Clement had it), and would only add Trot Nixon to the drop list today if I had the chance. He's just too hard to keep healthy. Overall, Epstein has done well, but it's just not accurate to say he brought us the World Series. Epstein was hired by an excellent ownership (the same one that will be picking his successor, by the way), treated to a very large pay roll, and supported by a top-notch staff. The only deals he made that are hard to imagine another executive pulling off were the Schilling and Ortiz moves, and Big Papi was a bit of luck. Epstein had a lot of money and a great deal of help at his disposal at Fenway, and there is list of other men who could've done the same. It's a short list, but a list just the same. We don't say Kenny Williams brought the Series to Chicago, do we? He has not been cannonized and put on the altar. But he put a huge piece of his team together, with heroes Dye, Podsednik, and Pierzynski all being '05 acquisitions. Would the White Sox fandom fall apart if he was let go? The Ninth doubts it.

The reality here is that Theo Epstein's great legacy in Boston should not be what happened a year ago, but what will happen every year since. The reorganization of the Red Sox farm system, drafting policy, and organizational theory was a far-reaching and future-altering process. The amount of young pitching and skilled positional players that will be flooding Fenway Park in the next three years will make the life of Epstein's successor infinitely easier. He took an erratic, undisciplined system and gave it a focus, the long term benefits of which are nearly boundless. For that, truly more than anything else, Epstein deserves our admiration. But luckily, selfishly, this work has already been done. The groundwork is there, the structure has been built, and it will remain. Unless of course the next general manager is dumb enough to screw it up, but we'll get to that. So if you're dying to cry for him Boston, do it because of what we've yet to see, not for what we saw already. One World Series was a miracle, but it's the three or four the Sox could win down the road that would really make Theo great.

So, where do the Red Sox go from here? A lot has been made of the difficulty Epstein had answering to Lucchino, and how that could limit the job's appeal to other candidates. Understand this though, every general manager in baseball works for someone, and all have to explain their moves. Obviously some bosses are tougher than others, and Lucchino certainly jumps to the front of that list, but many people have it worse. Peter Angelos overrules his executives almost daily in Baltimore, and not only does Brian Cashman need to clear everything with the Stein, but runs the risk of being called "a stupid fucking idiot" in the process. The Red Sox division of power is not ideal, but it's livable, and comes with many other perks to off-set. Like, you know, the tons of money. By Friday, Theo was being offered 1.5 million annually, a fee which truthfully was quite high for his experience level, showing how deeply his return was sought. Were the Red Sox to promote from within or go with a young outside candidate, they would not get the same offer. Should Boston opt for a more proven man, such as Gerry Hunsicker or Doug Melvin, they would certainly offer a commensurate salary. The real trick for the Sox is to find a person who can fit in to an already built organization, but still make it his own. As we said, Epstein has left a top-flight structure in place, and anyone speaking of overhaul should be disregarded outright. Dan Duquette types need not apply. While the easiest PR move is probably an established ace like San Diego's Kevin Towers, the smartest thing could be a high-level assistant out of the Cleveland, Toronto, or Oakland organizations. People who will understand and agree with what Epstein started, and get along with the frat house of young men already on staff. An old school type might send these young guns scurrying after Josh Byrnes in Arizona, and the Sox need to keep them around. At the same time, they need a steady hand, a confident person who will not over-react to the Damon free agency and Ramirez trade demands. In short, another Theo wouldn't be so bad.

In the end, these last few days have been more surprising than anything else. I think we all felt that Theo Epstein and the Red Sox would have a long and prosperous life together, that surely divorce wasn't coming any time soon. Even when whispers of negativity floated under the negotiation door, we never dreamed he would really go. He needed us as much as we needed him. But we were wrong. Theo is a very smart man, and has been an advanced success at every step of his life. Sometimes people like that make bold choices because they want to prove they can. They've known nothing but personal victory, and they want to see how far they can push that boundary. For themselves, and for everyone around them. Anyone could've stayed on in Boston at this point, but I don't think Theo is satisfied with being anyone. He's humble, but at the same time, extremely confident in his own ability to excel. Maybe he needs to have that tested. To find new worlds to conquer. Either way, thanks Theo. You've lived a lot of our dreams, and made others come true. Here's looking at you, kid.
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