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Shhh!: Don't tell Red Sox fans, but Buck Showalter is right about Theo Epstein

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  March 28, 2011 02:59 PM

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Theo Epstein has a tough job; any man who ever had to hide from the media in a gorilla suit knows how much pressure comes with being the Red Sox GM. But can anyone deny the justice of what Orioles manager Buck Showalter said in Men's Journal? "I'd like to see how smart Theo Epstein is with the Tampa Bay payroll,'' Showalter growled. "You got Carl Crawford 'cause you paid more than anyone else, and that's what makes you smart." Those Bostonians rising up against Showalter, led by Sox manager Terry Francona, should sit back down. Epstein is a smart guy, but Showalter's not disputing that. He's just highlighting the inequities in baseball financing, and they are vast. Last year, the Red Sox spent about $162 million in player salaries, while the Pittsburgh Pirates spent about $35 million. Tampa Bay's payroll was $72 million and dropping, while the Yankees' was $206 million and rising. Showalter's Os were at $82 million — or about half the Sox level.

Epstein, who has wisely declined to comment on Showalter's little dig, would probably note that in addition to the demands of fans and owners who expect a constant winner, a big-market GM has to figure out how best to spend all that loot, and it requires a vastly different set of considerations than would face a small-market GM. Break the bank on a solid but not-quite-sure-thing pitcher like John Lackey? Not if you're in Kansas City, where a top-dollar free agent would pretty much have to carry the franchise. But a big-payroll team stays good not just because of its stars, but because its overpaid second-tier players are well above average. So the extra dough spent on third starters and middle relievers isn't as foolish as it seems, even if those guys don't live up to their salaries. They keep the team respectable even when the stars don't come through.

Epstein is paid to keep the Sox in the hunt, thereby creating excitement and justifying the high ticket prices. He's done a great job. But baseball scouts and GMs also like to measure themselves by their ability to spot future stars. By that measure, Epstein would deserve a lot more credit if Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the relatively unsung catcher he long coveted, turns in an All Star season, than Crawford, the speedster whom everyone acknowledges is at the top of his game, even though the Sox will keep paying him long after his legs begin to stiffen. Of course, even if Salty turns out to be stinky, the Sox will still win their share of games. And that's a margin of error that Epstein enjoys but his lower-budget counterparts do not. It's possible to love Theo and still admit the unevenness of baseball teams' finances.

Globe file photo: Theo Epstein in 2010.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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