Greetings from the Big Apple. I’m on vacation right now but I was happy to set time aside for an article here at my old stomping grounds. Much has changed since I last wrote an article at Fire Brand. There’s plenty to be excited about with the Red Sox up 2-0 in the Division Series. And while I could easily write an article on how awesome that is, I’d rather take a step back and look at the larger picture.
Theo Epstein may not be everyone’s favorite GM. He has received mixed reviews even among his own team’s fans. Those mixed reviews are in fact justified. Many of his free agent signings this offseason have been suspect. There is of course the $70 million J.D. Drew contract and the $36 million Julio Lugo contract. Don’t forget the signing of Daisuke Matsuzaka to a six year deal.
For GM’s however, the more money you have, the more foolish you’re going to look. There’s quite a bit of time left on those contracts, but because those players are so expensive, they get little leeway. As much as Epstein has been criticized this year, he has done one thing very well. Epstein has quietly laid down the framework for a team that can compete at a high level for years to come.
So how has Epstein created such a framework? It all starts with pitching. Last offseason Epstein acquired the cornerstone of the Red Sox rotation for years to come when he dealt for Josh Beckett. He then quickly extended Beckett at a discount price, locking up the young righty through 2009 with a $12 million club option for 2010.
Epstein then acquired another cog of the rotation the next offseason. In signing Daisuke Matsuzaka, he acquired another 26-year-old strikeout artist. Like Beckett, Matsuzaka was signed to a discount contract for the long term. Matsuzaka is under contract with the Red Sox through 2012.
While Matsuzaka was not an ace caliber pitcher this year, it will be interesting to see how he does next year, with a year of major league experience under his belt. If his second year adjustment to the American League is anything like that of Josh Beckett, the Red Sox may find themselves with the best rotation in baseball.
Epstein is also beginning to reap the benefits of his revamped farm system. This is his most significant contribution as general manager. The farm system, more than anything else, is what will allow the Red Sox to continue to compete at a high level for years to come. From the farm system, the Red Sox have acquired one of the best young closers in baseball. The farm system has also provided the Red Sox with another young, possibly ace-caliber starter in Clay Buchholz.
Furthermore, the Red Sox farm system has worked to round out the lineup. Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury provide the Red Sox with players who are fundamentally sound in almost every aspect. All three players can hit for average, get on base and play spectacular defense. And like the young members of the Red Sox rotation and bullpen, they are under the control of the Red Sox for many more years.
It certainly appears as if Epstein learned from the offseason following the 2004 season. After 2004, many important Red Sox players were up for free agency at the same time. Much of this was not the fault of Epstein’s as he only became GM in 2003. Still, the difficulties of rebuilding after that offseason are something Epstein will never forget. Since that offseason, Epstein has extended players like David Ortiz and Josh Beckett to discount contracts and he’s staggered the years in which key players are up for free agency.
In doing so, Epstein has protected the Red Sox against another “retooling” year like 2005. He’s also provided a rather wide window in which the Red Sox can challenge for championships. The 2007 season is only the beginning. Regardless of how far into the postseason the Red Sox advance, fans of the team are sure to be left salivating over their chances next year.
The Red Sox underachieved much of this season, winning seven games less than their Expected Record (see Bill James’ Pythagorean therom of baseball). Still, they finished with the best record in baseball. How could they do next year with Clay Buchholz in the rotation? How might Daisuke Matsuzaka and J.D. Drew adjust to the American League? How might the Red Sox offense fare if they have a healthy David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez? What kind of fires could they start with Jacoby Ellsbury leading off?
Epstein deserves some credit when questions about the team leave you more enthusiastic than anxious.
-Michael Edelman
[UPDATE BY EVAN] If Joe Torre doesn’t pull off a 2003 Red Sox comeback, he’ll be fired. Wow. He also slammed Bruce Froemming, who is probably the most recognizable and popular umpire in the game, saying that Froemming would never umpire a Yankees game again. George, not only is he retiring after this year after being the longest-tenured umpire in history, you can’t control who umpires your games, I’m betting. Way to stay classy. Ron Burgundy, you are not.
The search for the new Yankees manager? It’ll start and end with Joe Girardi.