8/27/2012 @ 2:25PM |3,973 views
Tom Van Riper, Forbes Staff
Red Sox Were Left In Disarray By Theo Epstein
If Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington could say one thing to predecessor Theo Epstein, it might be: “Well, this is a fine mess you’ve gotten me into.”
With the Sox going nowhere, Cherington didn’t bother undoing the Epstein damage in piecemeal fashion. He unloaded the enormous salaries of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett in one monster trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He’ll ultimately be judged by how effectively he utilizes the newfound payroll flexibility to rebuild the club.
Epstein, who leveraged a pair of World Series titles on his watch into the presidency of the Chicago Cubs, has to go down as the decade’s most overrated baseball executive. Epstein’s story was irresistible, of course. He was billed as the boy genius – a local product who grew up in nearby Brookline, Mass., educated at Yale, achieving his dream job of running the Red Sox before the 2003 season at age 28. He was in charge when the team broke “the curse” by winning it all in 2004.
But the core of the Red Sox championship club was put together by Espstein’s predecessor, Dan Duquette (predecessor in the permanent sense, Mike Port held the GM job on an interim basis for a few months in 2002). Duquette, who was regarded as public enemy No. 1 in Boston in the mid-1990s when he publicly deemed a 34-year-old Roger Clemens to be in the twilight of his career, was ultimately vindicated after he let the Rocket walk to the Toronto Blue Jays.
While Clemens embarked on a major career revival, hindsight suggests he had a lot of artificial help. Meantime, Duquette went about building the Red Sox into championship contenders, letting other aging stars like Mo Vaughan and Jose Canseco sign elsewhere while he acquired major pieces like Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, Tim Wakefield, Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe. He also drafted future stars Nomar Garciaparra, Kevin Youkillis and Hanley Ramirez (later dealt for Beckett).
Epstein would have his moments, certainly, mainly by tinkering with Duquette’s blueprint to help put Boston over the top. Early in his tenure, Epstein picked up David Ortiz, a hitter who hadn’t particularly distinguished himself in Minnesota, on the cheap. When Ortiz flourished in Boston, Epstein had himself lightning in a bottle. He also had the gumption to deal Garciaparra, a big fan favorite, for shortstop Orlando Cabrera and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz. The move tightened up the 2004 infield defense, a big factor in that season’s championship.
Epstein also showed good discipline when he allowed World Series heroes Martinez and Damon to walk as free agents, rather than overpay for them as they reached their mid-30s. And he utilized Duquette’s farm system talent overflow to get Curt Schilling.
But when expectations are high and you’re competing against the free-spending Yankees, discipline is hard to maintain. And that’s just the trap Epstein fell into. Even as he was being held up as a leader of the new breed of sabremetric stat gurus, he veered from that formula often. The list of head scratching moves is a fairly long one. There were the three years and $25 million for Matt Clement. Five years and $70 million for J.D. Drew. Four years and $40 million for Edgar Renteria. Another four years and $36 million for Julio Lugo (possibly baseball’s worst everyday player during his time in Boston). And of course, $80 million over five years for John Lackey in 2010, despite his being on a two-year decline with the Angels at the time.
Those deals add up to $251 million effectively flushed down the toliet. Epstein was also ready to overpay for Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras in 2003, until the Yankees swooped in at the 11th hour (that development sparked Epstein into a famous temper tantrum that wrecked a hotel room). All of this with sabremetric godfather Bill James on the payroll.
And then the recent splurge, all in the name of trying to keep up with the Yankees, who had taken the 2009 World Series after signing CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira: $364 million committed to Crawford, Gonzalez and Beckett. Only one of the three, Gonzalez, lived up to the money statistically, though many have questioned his laid back attitude and his possible role in bad mouthing manager Bobby Valentine to ownership. Those three are the Dodgers’ risks now, as Cherington begins the process of starting over.
Forget beer and chicken in the clubhouse. The Red Sox are victims of a GM who responded to the pressure to keep a winning program going by throwing good money after bad on a continuing basis. Eventually, it blows up on you.