Sox Fans Grab Mallets While Theo Prepares to Be The Whack-a-Mole

Red Sox World Series Victory Parade Held In Boston

This will certainly be a defining offseason when Red Sox historians look back on Theo Epstein’s legacy as Boston GM. If the acquisitions work, fans and media alike will sing high praise – and the untouchable GM will become all the more invincible. If the moves fail, he will be chastised and become vulnerable for the first time in his career.

It’s difficult for anyone to give a grade to Theo at this point of the offseason – much less begin to rip him in the media. For one, there’s still so much work to be done that any analysis is incomplete, especially with Mike Lowell hanging in limbo. On the other hand, the fact that there’s been so much contention over every signing thus far means that there’s likely not a single person left in New England that is happy with our GM – and any failure for the free agents in the upcoming season will be overmagnified. Marco Scutaro, John Lackey, Mike Cameron. There is no concensus – lots of very intelligent people have advocated on both sides for all three acquisitions.

Marco Scutaro is the best of a poor class of free agent shortstops. He’ll end up costing the Red Sox a 2nd round pick and is signed to a very favorable 3-year (or some would say 2-year) deal. He’s a late bloomer who some argue is a one-year wonder. Scutaro will have to be every bit as good as his breakout in 2009 for both sides to be satisfied. A good personnel move? Yes. But, it will be hard for Theo to win this one in the media.

The top free agent pitcher on the market, the John Lackey signing represents everything that can go right and wrong with baseball’s free agent system. Lackey will play for five years at around $16.5 million per year. Though he is a very talented pitcher, the length of the deal, Lackey’s age, and declining strikeout rates suggest Lackey could have a tough back end to his contract. It could also mean he’ll underperform this coming year, when he’ll be 32 before the World Series.

Wait… he’s entering the AL East? I’m surprised the detractors haven’t come out of the woodwork yet to criticize Lackey like they have every other non-AL East import. This is a very risky contract for the Red Sox. You can hear the criticism already in 2014. Imagine how loud it will be if Lackey falters in 2010.

And then there was Mike Cameron. I would have hid my excitement for this deal had it not been for the Lackey signing, as signing the Anaheim pitcher all but ended any dream of acquiring Matt Holliday. Committing $16+ million to a starter means that there isn’t room for an elite outfielder too. In that sense, signing Lackey forced the team’s hand to go after Cameron.

In that vein, the signing is brilliant, as Cameron is a 4 WAR player at a 1-2 WAR cost – that’s the kind of efficiency that turns “bridge years” into contending ones. Remember, two wins makes a big difference, so Cameron is quite the signing. However, he is 37 years old and if he struggles, don’t think that people will forget that Holliday or Bay could have been had by this team.

Now, imagine if Lackey AND Cameron struggle in April. I don’t know the last time there was a lynching in Boston, but we could see one after a night game outside the gates of Fenway Park. Three players, all with some kind of question mark – all doubted by a significant portion of the Boston media. Then again, that could be one of the last things on Theo’s mind as he tries to navigate the PR minefield he’s entered.

Never discount the power of the Boston sports media in turning the fan base against a player or team employee. Julio Lugo, Edgar Renteria, and Coco Crisp were all annihilated in the media before the team cut ties with them. Don’t think that it was all about talent. This organization is very concerned about keeping positive PR. Daisuke was a step or two away from the poorhouse last season and is just the latest in an ugly, relentless series of players whose reputations have been destroyed in this ruthless media market.

Doc Rivers felt the burn of the hotseat before the team sold the farm for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Today they love him. Tomorrow, who knows? Even the incomparable Bill Belichick, a coach who transcends the sport with arguably the best reputation since Vince Lombardi has been openly questioned and chastised. There are no headhunters out there yet, but don’t think that people aren’t talking behind closed doors. There are even those who have questioned his dedication. Like alcholism, it’s a 12 step process. This looks like a firm “Step 1: Admitting the Problem.”

Maybe the bigger test will be that levied upon the Red Sox Faithful. This offseason could be one of the biggest trials of the resolve and intelligence of the Boston fan base. Theo Epstein is one of the most intelligent, effective General Managers in baseball or any sport, building a consistent winner in the most competitive, unforgiving climate in sport. However, the fickle nature of passionate sports fans can make an entire city forget about every past success no matter how great.

Will this happen to Theo? Doubtful. Ending the 86 year drought earned him the keys to the city for life – whether or not the Nomar trade was a good idea. Actually, it was probably one of the worst of his tenure. The whole “team chemistry” thing was more than a little overblown – one stolen base and a defensive replacement at first doesn’t equal a Big Three shortstop.

Still, everyone makes poor decisions. Everyone gets both lucky and unlucky.

When you were a child and your mom said to you, “No one’s perfect. Everyone makes mistakes,” it was probably the best piece of advice you’ve ever received – and it applies to every walk of life. No one makes the right decision all the time.

Think about it.

Even Barack Obama screws up during interviews. Even Alan Dershowitz loses court cases – except when he defends O.J. Simpson. Even Tiger Woods’ MR and PR advisors underestimate the impending media firestorm.

Guess what! GM’s make bad signings too!

That’s why I’m not so worked up about Lackey signing for a reported FIVE YEARS. I don’t like it – not so much because it’s Lackey but because we can do so much more with $80 million. But, you always have to take the good with the bad. This one could be the latter, but you just have to accept it and move on.

Just don’t ask the media to have a long memory and spare Theo out of nostalgia from the good ol’ days. That’s why so many superlative GMs and coaches get canned.

If I could posit some sort of grading for a moment, however, it would be on the potential volatility of the media response to Theo’s moves.

Scutaro is the riskiest, as he had the most detractors before and at the moment of signing. Don’t think for a second that all those critics won’t take a jab at the Red Sox’ front office if he struggles out of the gate.

Lackey is next, if out of the size of his contract for nothing else. He might be the best bet of the three to have some sort of “tangible” value, in that he’ll satisfy the screaming media with a good ERA. Cameron and Scutaro have a good amount of their value tied up in their fielding, so it will be harder for critics to “touch” the value.

In addition, there are a lot of people out there who really like the deal, and they risk being called John Kerry for flip flopping on an issue if they change their mind too quickly. No one wants that kind of criticism. Not even Grady Little. At least when he left Pedro out there against New York, he let him pitch until the damage was done.

Cameron is the least risky in that he won’t be expected to do much. He’ll have to perform, but there are no illusions as to his abilities with the bat – you’re getting a low batting average and above-average OPS. His value lies in his fielding.

But, that will likely go unseen other than a few “Yeah, he’s a nice guy to have in left” comments from the straggler at the bar who is trying to rip off party rhetoric like that Harvard reject Matt Damon pwned in “Good Will Hunting”. Don’t be shy. We all know a guy like that and you know he won’t be going home with Minnie Driver. You know what? He’s probably a Yankee fan anyway.

This is a dangerous offseason for our legendary GM, Theo Epstein. Just remember… everyone makes mistakes. Even Good Will Hunting was supposed to be an ACTION FLICK before the studio writers got a hold of it. Then again, maybe Matt Damon and Ben Affleck aren’t the best model for perfection.

I’m sure we’ll learn a thing or two about being a good GM this offseason – either that or we’ll learn about the true memory span or amnesia of the Red Sox fan base. I’m going to bet the team is still a significant contender in what was supposed to be “a bridge year.” For the long-term health of the organization, however,  hopefully Theo won’t step on all three landmines. That would be ugly.

How do you like them apples?