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Monday, April 30, 2012

Theo Epstein's Part in the Problems of the Red Sox

It has now been a little more than six months since Theo Epstein left the Red Sox after a near decade run as the team’s GM. The two World series titles he helped bring to the long suffering Boston fans defined his legacy forever, and rightfully so, but what seems to be lost in his departure and the accolades is the shabby shape he left the Red Sox when he signed on as the new president of the Chicago Cubs this past October. A lot of the blame for the disastrous way the Red Sox started this season has been heaped on new manager Bobby Valentine, but much of what has gone wrong can be laid at the feet of Epstein.

One of Epstein’s most distinctive calling cards during his tenure as GM was his ability to find diamonds in the rough and turn them into useful pieces for his team. Sure, he had some notable misses like Jeremy Giambi and Wade Miller, but acquisitions of little known players like Bill Mueller, David Ortiz, and Kevin Millar showed his ability to identify guys who could flourish if in proper system and used the right way. Looking back at the last few years one could say that Epstein lost his eye for bargain shopping. Rocco Baldelli, Brad Penny, Casey Kotchman, Jeremy Hermida, and Andrew Miller are indicative of the pattern of failure in this department over the final third of Epstein’s tenure. His inability to find effective bargains over the past few years contributed to the team throwing more money at marquee free agents to fill the voids. This exorbitant spending has also become part of the disarray of the Red Sox.

No GM has a perfect track record when it comes to acquiring players- particularly those with big dollar contracts. However, the past several seasons saw Epstein push the Red Sox to the reaches of their spending limits- something most fans thought they would never see- and thus far get back sub-standard returns. No contract can be fairly evaluated until they have run their course, but in the moment, the last notable signings Epstein made with Boston have put the team in a precarious situation.

The three contracts that must be focused on are those of John Lackey, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez. In 2010-2011, Epstein signed the trio to long term contracts at a cumulative cost of $378.5 million. Lackey turned in a combined ERA of 5.26 over the past two seasons before becoming the public face of the 2011 collapse and then discovered he required Tommy John surgery that is causing him to miss all of 2012. Crawford turned in his worst statistical season ever in 2011, posting a WAR that was exceeded by the likes of Yuniesky Betancourt and Miguel Olivo. He hasn’t appeared in a game yet this year, currently rehabbing injuries that will keep him out of at least half the season. Gonzalez has produced as advertised during his first year and change, and in comparison to contracts recently granted other first baseman like Joey Votto and Prince Fielder, may end up being a steal. The downside is that Gonzalez isn’t wired to be a vocal team leader, something the team is currently in desperate need of.

There is ample time for all three players to make good, or at least better, on their long term deals, but teams like Boston live in the present and Epstein’s spending has hamstrung the franchise. Many fans were shocked to hear this past off-season that the Red Sox had spending limits and were unable to competitively bid for free agent starting pitchers like Edwin Jackson. The team obviously is a cash cow, but ownership felt they had reached a ceiling at which they didn’t feel comfortable extending themselves, forcing the team to make due with what they have for this season.

Building a deep and sustainable farm system is the final area of Epstein’s legacy that seems curiously lacking in the wake of his departure. Despite having spent as much or money on player development than any other team in baseball, the depth of the Red Sox system today is shockingly thin, particularly when it comes to pitching depth. There are bunches of intriguing prospects dotting the lower levels of the minors, but only third baseman Will Middlebrooks appears to anywhere near being ready to contribute on a major league level. For a franchise once seen as a model for player development, it’s current status as extremely bottom-heavy minor league system is no example to follow.

The early days of Epstein’s regime demonstrated his acumen for player development. The team debuted home grown players like Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz, and Jonathan Papelbon; all cultivated from the draft. Unfortunately, the past few years showed a steep decline in the farm system production under Epstein’s watch. Daniel Bard, who debuted in 2009, is the last player of consequence to come up from the minors. In addition to the lack of depth, the team has gone some time without having a “can’t miss” prospect in their system.

So, while Epstein can never be thanked or appreciated enough for what he brought to Boston, he must also shoulder a major portion of the blame for the position the Red Sox find themselves today. The team is in the midst of a hot streak which has brought their record closer to respectability, but major issues still exist that will take time and resources to fix. While blaming any and all of the team’s ills on Bobby Valentine is in vogue, people should look at the “Boy Wonder” GM who brought two World Series titles to Boston, but saw his performance slip in recent years and left town when the getting was good.


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