On Friday, Theo Epstein indicated that the issue of the starting shortstop was one that would be decided by the players, their respective performances in Spring Training, and perhaps the early parts of the season.
How it shakes out in terms of playing time will be up to Tito - and, ultimately, the players will determine their own roles. If we're a better team with one guy playing two-thirds of the time and the other guy playing one-third of the time and moving around, that's what we'll be. If it looks like we'll be a better team with a more traditional arrangement or a time share, that's what we'll do. Players, ultimately, make those decisions for you.
It seems, initially, like an obvious and ultimately pointless statement. Of course the best player will play, right?
What makes it interesting is how it subtly contradicts the very man that Epstein says will be making the decision, and what it says about the distribution of power in the organization. Allow me to make a mountain out of a molehill, and compare them to the other financial superpower and eternal foil: the New York Yankees.
How The Other Half Lives
When the Yankees signed Rafael Soriano on Thursday, it did not take long for the rumors to start circulating that a Steinbrenner was back in charge, presumably reacting to the poor results in big-name free agent negotiations to that point in the offseason. Control, it seemed, had been wrested from the grasp of general manager Brian Cashman. After all, it had been just a week since Cashman publicly pulled the Yankees out of the Soriano race.
"I will not lose our No. 1 draft pick," Cashman said, according to the Westchester Journal News. "I would have for Cliff Lee. I will not lose our No. 1 draft choice for anyone else."
So much for that. Not only does Cashman no longer have said draft pick, but he's down a cool $12 million for the next three years, too.
Of course, the Yankees are probably the only team that can afford to operate like this. While their payroll is not unlimited, as many like to say, it is very flexible. Is the Soriano signing "smart" when you consider years, money, and the position they were in, bidding against themselves, essentially? Certainly not. But this is probably less a stupid signing as far as its impact on payroll, and more resembling an impulse-bought luxury car. When, in 2013, the Yankees' budget is coming up short for excellent player X, then Cashman will just remind Hank that Soriano was his purchase, and the purse strings could well loosen.
Henry & Epstein
Not so for the Red Sox. Are they an extraordinarily wealthy team that spends a ton? Yes, but there's always that idea of a budget. They fuss about the CBT threshold, putting at least a general limit, if not a hard cap on their expenses. With that in mind, the owners know who they want spending their money, and who they want running their team: Theo Epstein.
That's what the GM's job is, after all: to be smarter than everyone else when it comes to putting together a team. I don't imagine that the Steinbrenners think they're smarter than Cashman when it comes to free agency, but at the same time, if they're willing to overspend on somebody, then they won't let him stop them.
Still, that doesn't stop them from pushing elsewhere too. Late in April of 2008, Hank Steinbrenner came up with this:
"It's all of our intention to try to get [Joba Chamberlain] back into the rotation by the end of the year," Steinbrenner told The News. "I've addressed it many times, as did Joe [Girardi] and [Brian] Cashman. I'm just saying it would be nice to have him there right now. He's going to be great anywhere we have him but, my preference is as a starter and that's everybody else's preference, too.
Joba Chamberlain would spend much of the next year-and-a-half starting. Sure, Hank makes it look like everyone's on board, but it's no coincidence that Steinbrenner's quote coincided so nicely with the actual change.
But when's the last time you heard John Henry sound off on an issue like that? If we ignore the pleasantries when introducing new players and the like, it's certainly rare. Gordon Edes does a great job of illustrating just how light-handed Henry seems to be when he details the circumstances of the Carl Crawford signing:
Baseball history was made: The first transaction at the winter meetings that required a middle-of-the-night, trans-Atlantic phone call before it could be consummated. Epstein awakened owner John W. Henry, who was in Liverpool, England, to watch his soccer team, with his call, seeking permission to add a couple of million dollars per year to the team's offer to Crawford. Henry gave his OK, and the members of the Sox war room exploded with joy when Epstein made the stunning announcement that Crawford was coming to Boston.
It's not clear if that was the first that Henry had heard of the Crawford deal or not, but it certainly appears as though any involvement was minimal at best. That Theo actually goes to him seeking a special boost to the budget even implies unforeseen circumstances. "Hey, boss, you're not gonna believe this..."
Meanwhile, there's Terry Francona. There is no question as to his ability to manage the personalities of the team. Dealing with some of the loudest, craziest, and in some cases most arrogant players of the last decade, Francona only once had things reach a boiling point (Manny Ramirez, and that after a good seven years of drama). The debate rages on, however, as to how he grades out strategically. Still, Theo and Henry let him have control for the most part. When Jacoby Ellsbury moved to left field to facilitate Mike Cameron last year, it was Terry's call. And when Ellsbury is back in Center this year, it will likely have been Terry's call again.
In many of these situations, there's not exactly a right answer. Epstein understands that, while statistically it would likely make sense to stick Crawford in center and Ellsbury in left, the personalities that Tito is dealing with might make that a route best avoided should it send their shiny new $22 million, 7 WAR player into a funk. Daniel Bard should have been closing last year by conventional wisdom, but maybe it made better sense to leave him as the guy who can put out fires anywhere. Even the moves we hated--like ever, ever seeing Eric Patterson play--kind of made some sense. What, after all, were the Sox really fighting for at that point without Youkilis and Pedroia? This team does not play for Wild Card appearances, but for World Series trophies, and giving Marco Scutaro or J.D. Drew some time off during their grueling seasons might just make them more ready to go in 2011.
In those cases, it's Terry's call. He's down there on a day-to-day basis, and he gets free reign. Consider, then, this most recent Lowrie situation one where there clearly is a right answer-not that Jed Lowrie should be the starter, but that the best player should get the lion's share of the playing time. Terry Francona seemed to be erring on the side of Scutaro being a set-in-stone starter-the sort of move you might expect from a player's manager-and Theo Epstein is nudging him back towards the middle. Just as Francona might nudge Epstein regarding a need (he had been quite the advocate for Crawford), and Henry might nudge him with the budget.
Is this to say that the Red Sox have the right way of doing things? Well, sort of. Theo makes his mistakes, just as Francona does, and Henry certainly doesn't stop it. But it's what works for an organization like this that can afford to throw around money, but can't just toss $12 million at a setup guy and hope for the best. The Yankees' system by-and-large works for them, and the Sox' by-and-large gets the job done in Boston.