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The Reactionary Red Sox, And Theo Epstein In Chicago

Over the weekend, we were gifted with some "news," if you want to call it that: Theo Epstein was possibly seen in Chicago by some Cubs fan at a Starbucks. 

Reports that Elvis was also present are currently under investigation.

If you can't tell by that, no, I'm not particularly convinced by the story of one non-journalist in Chicago who may or may not have had a run-in with a guy who looks like the Red Sox' general manager. That being said, though, I wouldn't be surprised if Theo ended up there before the year is out either.

When I think about the Red Sox these days, I can't help but get the sense that they're in a state of long-term panic. The owners know that they have a good thing going in Boston between the constant sellouts (be it do to the secondary sellers or not) and NESN, but they also have to know it wasn't always like this, and that the only way they can continue to fill Fenway park with tickets priced the way they are is to put a strong product on the field. Between the bandwagon contingent and the groups that go to Fenway because it's the "cool thing to do," the Sox rely on groups that don't really last through tough times for a good deal of their income, as much as we may not like it.

Unfortunately, while the Sox' recent success has earned them some leeway, it's also earned them high expectations in this town with its vicious media and fervent baseball fanaticism. In other parts of the nation, a team that wins 179 games in two years but doesn't make the playoffs either time could be seen as a success that just needed that one added push. In Boston, it's a catastrophic failure. Just look at the advertising campaign the Sox used this year: "We won't rest until order is restored," they said. 

Of course, they had reason to be confident enough to use that slogan of theirs. When the disaster that was 2010 occured, it was clear what the problem was: not enough talent on the field. Be it through injuries or underperformance, the Sox were clearly missing something on their 25-man roster. Mike Cameron--Theo's attempt to answer an outfield problem without opening the wallet too wide--fell flat, and Marco Scutaro was viewed (perhaps unfairly) as another failed cost-cutting attempt by the Sox, buying a mid-level product instead of a premium one.

So when the offseason rolled around, out came the wallet, and in came the two biggest acquisitions of the offseason by dollars alone:

Adrian Gonzalez

#28 / First Base / Boston Red Sox





May 08, 1982

Carl Crawford

#13 / Left Field / Boston Red Sox





Aug 05, 1981

It was, perhaps, something of a reactionary offseason. While Gonzalez was absolutely a solid pick-up, many others have pointed out how Crawford wasn't an ideal fit for Fenway Park--though by no means should the season have turned out as poorly as it did for him. It was the Sox spending like they hadn't spent before, and to me, when combined with the slogan, it's clear what was happening: ownership was going all-out, knowing that they had to restore confidence after a season which, with just a little bit more luck (Pedroia, Youkilis), could have ended with the Sox once more in the playoffs.

In that respect, the moves were entirely successful. There wasn't a Red Sox fan who didn't think that the team had what it took to at least contend for the World Series. Which is why the ultimate result--another year without October Baseball--is as devastating as it is.

The thing is that this year there's no obvious answer. The product on the field was nothing short of incredible. Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia were MVP candidates by the more advanced numbers, and Adrian Gonzalez was one by the standard numbers. Josh Beckett was a worthy ace with his sub-3.00 ERA, Jon Lester was a good number two, and the combination of Erik Bedard and Clay Buchholz filled in for a decent number three for much of the year. While it's clear that the pitching was what would ultimately kill us in September, between those guys and a mostly lock-down bullpen (no, Daniel Bard's late-season struggles don't change the fact that, on the whole, he was very good) the Sox should have had enough to make it through the year and into October. And lest we forget, they were one strike away in two different games from making it happen.

But it didn't, and now ownership is once again left floundering for a way to restore confidence. And this time they had to turn away from the field.

While I'm still not convinced that Terry Francona was by any means pushed out of Boston, I have a feeling that he would have been were it not for his willing departure. Ownership knows that Terry Francona is not the reason that fans come to Fenway Park, or tune into NESN. They also know that this collapse is the sort of thing that needs to be addressed if they want to avoid a certain level of apathy with the greater Red Sox fanbase, and that to do that they need to shake things up off-the-field, not on it.

So now Terry Francona is gone, and I wouldn't be surprised if Theo Epstein is, one way or another, next in line. I also am not sure that wouldn't be the best thing for the Sox.

I come into this conversation a strong believer in Theo Epstein--a position that more and more is being renamed "apologist"--and I will continue to be one whether or not he's with the team come March. I consider him to be directly responsible for 2004 and 2007--the architect of two World Series titles through the old "OBP Moneyball" approach as well as through his dedication to building up the farm system.

Unfortunately, things do seem to be getting stale of late. Free agent signings continue to be his Achilles heel--from Julio Lugo and Mike Lowell on to John Lackey and Carl Crawford, he seems to have the propensity for choosing those few players who will result in the worst case scenario--and now the better aspects of his tenure are less apparent. His approaches in years past have been intriguing, and smart on paper, but unsuccessful in practice. Low-risk, high-reward just left the Sox with an undermanned unit in 2009, and the focus on run prevention was shot down by physical breakdowns that left Bill Hall and Darnell McDonald making start after start. 

Meanwhile, no matter how much money they pour in, the farm system just hasn't been what it used to be. Every year it seems like Boston's promise lies at the lower levels. Ryan Kalish and Josh Reddick have both seen their stocks rise dramatically over the past few years, only to fall away under the weight of inconsistency in the majors and injuries in the minors. The likes of Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester have been replaced by Kyle Weiland and Felix Doubront--solid but unimpressive minor-league arms that seem destined for either the bullpen or the back-end of the rotation--and the future's best hope in Anthony Ranaudo didn't exactly blow away the competition in Salem.

As it stands the Sox are relying on some much shakier prospects than they're used to. There's the big bat with a very questionable glove in Ryan Lavarnway, and a big glove that may not even have a bat in Jose Iglesias. As stacked as the lower ranks do seem to be (and, I would remind you, they seemed that way in years past as well), that Will Middlebrooks with his underdeveloped plate discipline has so easily risen to the top of the ranks--a position typically reserved for guys that seemed, at the time, like total packages--is indicative enough that things just aren't running as smoothly as we're used to anymore. 

This is not to say that the Red Sox will be better off without Epstein. After all, I do think his strategies in 2009 and 2010 could easily have resulted in the same sort of success as 2004. But ultimately, they haven't worked out, and someone has to take the "fall" for it, even if it's an amicable one. So whether or not Theo Epstein was in Chicago last week, it seems all-too-likely that he'll be there in the near future. And so long as the Sox can find someone cast in the same mould, it could even be a chance to revitalize an organization that seems to be floundering a bit.