Some Words On Theo's Legacy

His future's so bright he shoulda worn shades.

As you may have heard, Theo Epstein has left the Red Sox go join the Chicago Cubs. Here at OTM, we will have, as the TV people say, total coverage of Theo's departure and what it means for the Red Sox and their future. I'm honored to kick off our total coverage by looking at Theo's legacy with the Red Sox.

 * * *

In 2002 the Red Sox hired a genius for a General Manager. You might have heard of him. His name was Billy Beane. He took the job, but that was days before he left it. Beane's change of heart came at the last possible second and just like that, the new owners of the Boston Red Sox had nobody to run the shiny new ball club.

Well, not nobody. They had this whip-smart (because nothing says smart like a piece of rope) 28 year old kid who had come over from the Padres. Theo Epstein was, everyone agreed, a GM-in-waiting. Beane's switch-a-roo prompted the question, why wait? From that moment until yesterday afternoon, with a brief three month hiatus banana hunting in the Saharan rainforest, Epstein was the Red Sox GM. During those nine seasons, the Red Sox won 839 games, an average of 93 games per season.

When Epstein took over the reins, the Red Sox, maybe more famously than we'd have liked, hadn't won a World Series since 1918*. That was 84 years ago at the time. As we all know, it grew to 86 seasons before the Red Sox did finally bring a championship back to Boston. Here's some names from the past that you might not have thought about in a while: Bill Mueller, Mark Bellhorn, Kevin Millar, Orlando Cabrera, and David Ortiz. All these players were brought to Boston from outside the organization by Epstein and each played a key role on that 2004 World Series winning team.

*This made the "1918!" taunt all the more ridiculous. Hey fellas, we won that year. Why don't ya try one of the eighty-six since then.

If you're searching to sum up Epstein's legacy in Boston in just a few words, you can start with '2004 World Series Champions'. That was and is Epstein's crowning achievement with the Red Sox. The win itself was amazing and wonderful and all of that, but the way the team won it was as poetic and valiant and meaningful as a sporting event can be. If anything could redeem 86 World Series-less seasons, Red Sox fans being born, growing up, growing old and dying, all without seeing a single World Series wining team, then coming back from the brink of elimination to crush the Yankees and sweep the Cardinals did.

The '04 Red Sox were a modern team in that twenty years prior they, like their predecessors, would have missed the playoffs. Instead, through the miracle of the Wild Card, the 98 wins didn't go to waste. After sweeping a 92 win Angels team, David stepped to the plate against Goliath. And for three games Goliath kicked the crap out of him.

Then the magic happened. Millar's walk, Dave Roberts' stolen base, Bill Mueller's single, David Ortiz's homer. Then Oritz did it again the next night, Curt Schilling's bloody sock, Johnny D's slam and just like that the shoe was on the other foot, my friends. The team that always loses had come thisclose to losing again but, impossibly, had won. And in doing so, they had beaten the team that always wins. Always except that time. 

The '03 and '04 teams showed the best of Theo. Taking over the team, Epstein quickly identified the strengths and weakness of the entire organization and set about fixing them. He realized there wasn't much to be had internally so he set about acquiring veteran players to fill the holes. He brought in character, he brought in talent, but mostly he brought in on-base percentage. Ortiz, Millar, Bellhorn, none of these guys were defensive geniuses. All got paid because as hitters they knew the strike zone. They knew when to swing hard and when not to swing at all. The 2002 Red Sox took 545 walks. The 2004 Red Sox took 659. That helped the Sox go from 859 runs in '02 to 949 in '04 and in the process go from out of the playoffs to World Series Champs.

That isn't to undersell Theo's greatest trade of all time. His acquisition of star starting pitcher Curt Schilling from the Diamondbacks for, I believe, a warm bucket of pig piss, gave the team a second ace to go along with Pedro Martinez. Theo famously spent his Thanksgiving with the Schillings trying to convince Curt to waive his no-trade clause and come to Boston. In the end, Theo's personal skills, exhaustive research, and salesmanship got the job done. Schilling was a vital part of both the '04 and '07 World Series champs.

The '07 squad was more Theo's creation, with Dustin Pedroia, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideki Okajima, and J.D. Drew playing important roles. The '07 Red Sox won the AL East, taking over first place on April 18th and never letting go. In fact, 2007 was the only team in the Theo Epstein era that won the AL East. Once in the playoffs, the parallels to the 2004 team were obvious. The team swept their first round opponent (again the Angels), came from way behind (down 3-1) to win the ALCS, and beat the holy hell out of the sorry National League team that dared stand in their path to glory. Duck boat parade, rinse, repeat.

That was the high point of the Epstein era. The five seasons since have been marked by a slow decline at least when it comes to where the team finished. The year after winning the World Series, the Red Sox lost the deciding seventh game in the 2008 ALCS to the upstart Tampa Rays. They had come back from the same 3-1 deficit they had the previous season, but weren't able to win that last game. Of course, they had beaten the Angels in the ALDS. In 2009, the Red Sox again won the Wild Card and faced the Angels in the ALDS, but this time it was they who were swept. The next year the Red Sox finished out of the playoffs and haven't been back.

There have been some notable failures during Epstein's reign. For example, the shortstop situation up till recently has been a constant source of problems. After trading Nomar Garciaparra at the 2004 trade deadline, Epstein let Orlando Cabrera leave in favor of former World Series opponent (and last out) Edgar Renteria. Renteria was so bad in his first year in Boston that it was his only year in Boston. He was sent, along with cash, to the Braves, and replaced by Alex Gonzalez. This would be a theme. Gonzalez was gone after one sub .700 OPS year and replaced by Julio Lugo, a player Epstein had inexplicably lusted over. Lugo was, in a word, very very bad. Not bad enough to torpedo the 2007 Red Sox single-handedly, but bad nonetheless. The Sox put up with Lugo for two and a half of the four years on his deal, before shipping him to St. Louis, a personal record for Epstein. With cash, of course. Then there was the Nick Green era which was cut short by Alex Gonzalez II. In more recent seasons Marco Scutaro has been adequate enough to keep Gonzalez out of town.

Another of Epstein's seeming failings has been his big ticket free agents. Signing free agents to big contracts has a far smaller success rate than you'd think, and Epstein was no exception. J.D. Drew's five year deal featured two mediocre campaigns, one straight up bad one, with two excellent seasons sprinkled in for good measure. Lugo and Renteria were disasters. The Daisuke Matsuzaka deal is one the Red Sox would probably like back as well. John Lackey has been a catastrophe. Carl Crawford may yet turn into a worthwhile investment, but the early returns are Lackey-esque.

All that said, nobody could spend nine years as GM of the Red Sox and not make mistakes. It's as impossible as breathing on the moon, living forever, or my cat refraining from turning her used litter into projectiles from the cat box.

The team Theo took over wasn't in total dysfunction but there were glaring mistakes in personnel, in management, and in player development. To his eternal credit, Theo fixed all of that. While he took the Red Sox major league team to the heights of two time World Champions, he simultaneously turned the Sox farm system from a joke into one of the consistently stronger systems in baseball. On his watch he drafted and produced Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz, Daniel Bard, Jonathan Papelbon, and Jed Lowrie. He developed Kevin Youkilis and Jon Lester. He drafted and developed the three prospects that brought back Adrian Gonzalez and the three that netted Victor Martinez.

Many of the deals that ended up on the list of Theo's mistakes were as well thought out and meticulously planned as they could be. The Crawford deal especially stands as a testament to the unpredictability of baseball and people. Show me one single person, one scout, one front office executive, one baseball analyst, one blogger, who thought all of Crawford's skills were going to magically vanish upon signing with Boston and I'll hold Theo accountable for the signing. If that signing ultimately fails it wasn't due to lack of preparation, intellect, or hard work.

Also, Theo often doesn't get credit for the deals he didn't make. Pedro Martinez and Jason Bay did and will spend the remainder of their careers clogging someone else's payroll.

Epstein is also culpable for the Great Collapse of 2011. In Bill Parcells' words, he bought the groceries. The under-performance and clubhouse problems of the most recent squad stand in glaring contrast to the rest of Epstein's teams. One hopes that though this was his last Red Sox team, it won't be the one he'll ultimately be judged on.

In the 1990s the Red Sox had some talent, but not enough. The organization spent money unwisely and paid little attention to developing players internally. Before Theo Epstein arrived, the Red Sox were a sleeping giant. He woke them up. It was his skill, perseverance, knowledge and effort that has set up the Red Sox for long term success. While the 2011 Red Sox missed the playoffs, the organization is well positioned for success going forward.

Yet 2004 will be Theo's enduring legacy in Boston. He will always be the guy who put together the team that won for Boston for the first time in forever. He won for Boston. Finally. All the rest after that is irrelevant.

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