Yesterday, I read a report that said the Chicago Cubs have asked the Boston Red Sox for permission to talk to Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. It has been rumored that the Cubs and chairman Tom Ricketts have wanted the 37-year-old Epstein to make baseball relevant again on the North Side, but the report on Tuesday was a little bit of a jolt to many of us in Red Sox Nation. After winning two World Series titles in nine seasons in Beantown, not only should Red Sox fans be reluctant to let the youngest GM in Major League history leave; they should worship the ground he walks on in gratitude for what he has done.
While I do believe Epstein will stay on for one more year and honor the contract extension he signed four years ago–he is known to have a particular loyalty to the Red Sox organization after it put its trust in him as a 28-year-old–a move to the Windy City could pay dividends for the Yale grad.
Consider the possibilities: Epstein could go down as the man who ended an 86-year title drought for the Red Sox–which he did by assembling a “bunch of idiots” who finally beat the Yankees and broke the curse of the Bambino in 2004–and be the one to stop a more-than-100-year slide for the Cubbies.
In Chicago, he’d have almost as much money as he had with the Red Sox, though it appears that Ricketts actually does have an interest in winning as opposed to merely making money, and he could maybe avoid some of the constant second-guessing and extreme pressure in sports-mad Boston.
The Red Sox’s utter collapse last month will make plenty of residents forget all about the playoff runs and World Series titles and once again begin calling for new blood at the top. But while this season didn’t turn out as most of us fans had hoped–it’s tough to swallow the rollercoaster of emotions that accompany starting 0-6, being the second-best team in baseball for three months and then choking like we had the Green Monster literally down our throats for the final month–I’d like to point out just three reasons why Theo Epstein is exactly the kind of general manager that Billy Beane wishes he was.
Reason number one: Epstein is not afraid to use the money at his disposal. This may sound really obvious or stupid, because most general managers would kill to have a payroll of $161.8 million. But when you have that much money, the temptation is to go out and spend it on anything in sight, no matter the ramifications. Esptein has made several high-priced moves that have backfired big-time–Mike Cameron anyone?–but for those who criticize the signing of Daisuke Matsuzaka, remember that in 2007 and 2008 he went 33-15 with three postseason victories as the Red Sox won a World Series.
And as Carl Crawford’s batting average failed to climb and while his strikeout total made like Sylvester Stallone in Cliffhanger, fans clamored that Epstein had again missed the boat by paying way too much for a ground-ball machine that can only play on turf. But if Crawford plays this poorly next year, I will hang a Derek Jeter jersey above my desk for the playoffs, because the 30-year-old Texas native has too much speed in his legs and too good of a track record not to hit within 40 points of his career average again.
This brings us to reason number two: Epstein uses detailed statistical and sabermetric analysis, but not at a Moneyball level. Beane and his assistants prided themselves on finding players that can produce on paper, racking up a high OBP and OPS even if they look like they just took part in a Morgan Spurlock all-McDonalds diet. But it has been almost a decade since the 2002 MLB Draft that was supposed to be the bumper crop of prospects that would carry the small-market Oakland Athletics to stardom. The 2010 A’s finished with a record of 74-88 and haven’t really sniffed the playoffs since they were swept in the 2006 ALCS by the Detroit Tigers.
Epstein has built up the current version of the Red Sox with some very nice moves in the draft–Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon, Jed Lowrie, Daniel Bard and Clay Buccholz are all homegrown–but he also looks to make moves via free agency or trade, even when they are not the high-profile type. He signed Mike Timlin in 2003 for cheap and turned him into a premier set-up man for the 2004 champs. He traded Henri Stanley to the Los Angeles Dodgers to pick up…Dave Roberts. As any self-respecting Sox fan knows, Roberts is the hero of the 2004 Sox for one play, and one play only: The Steal. Add in a very nice pickup of David Ortiz from the Twins’ scrap heap, a steal of a trade for Curt Schilling and getting rid of Manny Ramirez before any of the failed drug tests and bad excuses, and that’s not too shabby.
And last but not least, we arrive at reason number three: Theo Epstein graduated from Yale, and Billy Beane turned down Stanford to go have a mediocre minor league career. While I would never say that going to Yale is the right choice, if I had no college degree like Beane and was ever in Epstein’s office staring at that diploma on the wall, I’d probably be jealous too.
If Epstein leaves, I won’t cry or throw things or even lose sleep. It would be a shame to let one of the top five baseball minds walk away before he can bring another title to Boston. But if he wants to make his mark elsewhere (specifically the National League), I can live with that. After signing Adrian Gonzalez, Crawford, Pedroia, Beckett and Lester, and drafting Ellsbury and the rest of the young guns, Epstein’s fingerprints will be all over the Red Sox for at least the next seven seasons.
Miles Bennett-Smith will soon have one more Stanford degree than Billy Beane does, but he’ll never be played by Brad Pitt in a feature film. Reassure him that he has a nice personality at milesbs “at” stanford.edu.