Last year was Theo Epstein’s most criticized as general manager of the Boston Red Sox. He made a multitude of unpopular moves in which he dealt players such as Hanley Ramirez, Andy Marte, Bronson Arroyo, Anibel Sanchez, Josh Bard, Cla Meredith and David Riske. At the same time, Epstein made some equally unpopular acquisitions, including Josh Beckett, Coco Crisp, Doug Mirabelli and Javy Lopez. While the Red Sox team Epstein put together did manage to stay in first place for almost 100 of their 162 games last year, they struggled down the stretch, finishing in third place in their division and missing the playoffs for the first time under Epstein. Many fans began to doubt whether Epstein truly was as good as his reputation would suggest. Some even began to wonder if the 2004 season was a fluke. Even bad GM’s get lucky sometimes. But if there’s one thing that Epstein’s taught us, it should be patience. It’s far easier to seize opportunities than it is to create them out of nothing.
First of all, one must remember what Epstein started with. Many have made the argument that he began with a very good team and that would be hard to argue. When Epstein was hired, the Red Sox already had such talents as Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez and Nomar Garciaparra. However, the team he was given control over lacked two things which are essential in building a good baseball team: youth and quality pitching depth. While the Red Sox certainly had an ace in Pedro Martinez, they also had a rotation consisting of Derek Lowe, Tim Wakefield, John Burkett and Casey Fossum. Those four starters together gave Epstein’s 2003 team an ERA of 4.67.
In addition, to say that Epstein ‘acquired’ a farm system would be putting it politely. It was more like a wilderness that Epstein had to himself cut, clear and then cultivate before he could harvest any talent out of it. When the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, the only true products of their farm system on the roster were Trot Nixon and Kevin Youkilis. That’s hardly Epstein’s fault though; it takes longer than a year for prospects to mature.
In Epstein’s first year as GM, the Red Sox drafted Matt Murton, Jonathan Papelbon, David Murphy and Abe Alverez. In 2004 the Red Sox drafted Dustin Pedroia and Cla Meredith. Then in 2005, they drafted Jacoby Ellsbury, Craig Hansen, Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden. Under Epstein the Red Sox have seen a dramatic resurgence in young talent. Not only through the draft and development, but through trade and the free agent market as well. While many criticized Epstein for dealing Hanley Ramirez for Josh Beckett last year, many may have spoken too soon. Since working with new Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell this offseason, Beckett has been off to a blistering 5-0 start and a 2.48 ERA. Various other developments have made Epstein look rather smart as well. After hitting only .111 through his first 10 games, Coco Crisp has since really turned things around. Over his past 9 games, Crisp has hit .375 while scoring 7 runs, driving in 4 and stealing 2 bases. He’s been flashing some leather in the outfield as well. Also, while many criticized Epstein for not resigning Pedro Martinez after the 2004 season, the future Hall of Fame pitcher is currently on the DL with a torn rotator cuff and it’s questionable whether he’ll ever pitch like Pedro again.
Then there are of course the free agent acquisitions that Epstein has made, the biggest of which was the signing of Daisuke Matsuzaka. Epstein played it coy, expressing no interest in the Japanese superstar when in reality the Red Sox had been scouting him for years. When it came time to bid on the pitcher, the Red Sox stole him right out from under the noses of the Mets and Yankees. At first the Yankees were rumored to be the highest bidders, with a bid around $20 million but it turned out that Brian Cashman had misjudged the market by quite a bit. The Yankees are thought to have bid $30 million on Matsuzaka and they must have thought they won the bidding with what at the time seemed like a humorously high bid. When the winner was announced however, they realized their mistake. Not only did they lose the right to negotiate with Matsuzaka by about a $20 million difference in bids, but they finished well behind the New York Mets as well who bid around $38 million.
Perhaps even more incredible than the manner in which the Red Sox managed to win the rights to negotiate with Matsuzaka, was the contract they were able to work out of Scott Boras. The Red Sox managed to sign the offseason’s best starting pitcher for only $52 million over 6 years, in what was a laughably inflated market. What many considered to be one of Epstein’s smaller moves this offseason, he also acquired Japanese relief pitcher Hideki Okajima. While many didn’t expect much from the veteran set up guy, such thinking was somewhat foolish. Not only did Okajima put up an ERA of 2.14 last year in Japan, but he’s had a reputation as one of Japan’s better relief pitchers for many years. So far in 2007, Okajima has been one of the most dominant relief pitchers in all of baseball. Over his first 13.2 innings in the majors, he’s allowed only 5 hits and 1 run while striking out 18. Epstein also made some key additions in Julio Lugo and J.D. Drew, both of which have worked out well so far in 2007. Hell, Epstein’s even managed to put together the best bullpen in the majors to this point, something he’s struggled with ever since he took over as GM.
Most important of all of Epstein’s contributions to the team however, is how he’s been able to build for the future. Not only has he put together a great pitching staff, but he’s collected young arms will contribute to the team for years to come. In Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jonathan Papelbon and Jon Lester, Epstein has four great young power arms who barring a trade will be with the Red Sox through at least 2010. Other great power arms such as Craig Hansen, Clay Buchholz and Manny Delcarmen are sure to help out as well. And while Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, J.D. Drew, Julio Lugo, Kevin Youkilis and Coco Crisp can’t really be considered young anymore, they are all locked up for quite some time. Epstein seems determined to not make the mistake he made in 2004. He put together a championship team, but not one that could last. In timing the development of his younger players, with the players available on the market, Epstein has been able to put together possibly his best team. Certainly their record so far would seem to indicate such.
Play the Hot Hand: While I’m not convinced quite yet that Pedroia’s a bust, it simply doesn’t make sense to play him right now. Alex Cora is red hot with 6 runs, a double, 2 triples, 2 home runs and 7 RBI in only 25 AB to go along with a .360 average. When he’s put in the game he finds ways to win. Not to mention, he’s a defensive upgrade over Dustin Pedroia so if he’s hitting better than him as well, this should be a no-brainer.