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Stitching the Red Sox together

GM Epstein points to deals, player development

His Red Sox are safely in the playoffs, but the ever-diligent Theo Epstein was still working the phone at Fenway Park yesterday. His Red Sox are safely in the playoffs, but the ever-diligent Theo Epstein was still working the phone at Fenway Park yesterday. (JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF)

It's different now.

Theo Epstein is still not old enough to run for president, but he's no longer the youngest general manager in baseball. He's forfeited his status as Boston's most eligible bachelor and doesn't sleep in his work clothes on friends' couches in apartments near Fenway Park. Infrequently seen or quoted, adept at revealing as little as possible, he's become downright Belichickian in his quest for success.

But 23 months after resigning from the Red Sox and leaving Fenway Park in a gorilla suit, and one year removed from a late-season collapse that landed squarely on his handsome head, Epstein has put together a team that won the American League East for the first time in 12 years and enters the playoffs with the highest winning percentage (tied with Cleveland) in baseball.

The Red Sox are in the postseason tournament for the fourth time in Epstein's five-year term, and tonight they play the Los Angeles Angels at Fenway Park in the first game of the Division Series.

"Do I think this team has a chance to win the World Series? Yeah, I definitely do," Epstein said as he sat in a conference room (guitar case on the floor) in the basement offices of the baseball operations department at Fenway last week.

Epstein agreed to a 45-minute interview on the condition that it would involve baseball-related issues only. He would not address published reports that he and his wife are expecting their first child and saw no need to revisit the tumultuous three months spanning his stunning resignation and eventual return to the team. He would not even reveal what tunes are loaded onto his iPod.

But he was happy to talk about baseball and the Red Sox' return to the playoffs after the disaster of 2006.

"This game will make you cry more often than not," said the 33-year-old GM, reminding us that he was a Red Sox fan long before he ran the team. "Not making the playoffs was a horrible disappointment, especially the way it happened. We had the best record in baseball after four months and we were playing a good brand of baseball and then it all fell apart really quickly because of a freakish run of injuries and because of lack of depth that I should have prepared better for.

"Last year I didn't do a good enough job and it caught up with us."

Active offseason

After the late-summer fold of '06, the Sox were aggressive in the offseason. They made their first splash by outbidding every other big league team with a posting fee of $51.1 million that allowed them exclusively to negotiate with the best free agent pitcher on the market, Japan's Daisuke Matsuzaka. They eventually signed him to a six-year, $52 million contract and also came to terms with Matsuzaka's countryman, lefthanded reliever Hideki Okajima. They signed veteran shortstop Julio Lugo to a four-year pact and added Joel Piñeiro to their bullpen. In a particularly curious deal, they signed free agent outfielder J.D. Drew to a five-year, $70 million contract.

Not all of the acquisitions worked out. Piñeiro was gone by July. Lugo started slowly, and most Sox fans still would rather see Orlando Cabrera or Alex Gonzalez back at short. Drew was considered a colossal bust, though he got hot at the end of the season and is an asset defensively. Okajima, meanwhile, was an All-Star, and Matsuzaka won 15 games, struck out 201 batters, and earned his spot as the team's No. 2 starter for the playoffs.

But Epstein and his men take the most pride in the contributions from a raft of young talent - Jonathan Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz, Jacoby Ellsbury - drafted and developed by the organization. Papelbon might be the best closer in the game, Pedroia is a Rookie of the Year front-runner, Buchholz pitched a no-hitter in his second big league start, and the electric Ellsbury has drawn comparisons to the iconic Fred Lynn. All are products of the work done in the former bowling alley below Fenway that serves as headquarters for Epstein and his men.

"It's always different when a guy gets drafted and developed and comes up in his first organization and makes an impact," said Epstein. "There's something special and timeless about it. The whole organization has been really proud and pleased about seeing these kids come up and contribute to a team that's going to play in the postseason this year.

"It probably makes it more satisfying because it's one of our two goals. We want to try and transform the Red Sox into a team like the Braves or the Yankees, where you can almost count on the postseason every year. This will be four out of five years, and that's a nice start."

The 2007 Red Sox are anchored by strong starters, a rebuilt bullpen, a veteran lineup that works the count, and the indomitable Papelbon in the ninth inning. Cy Young candidate Josh Beckett (who was acquired along with 2007 team MVP Mike Lowell when Epstein was not officially working at Fenway), gets the ball tonight in Game 1, and fans who were nervous in mid-September are feeling better now that manager Terry Francona has his lineup intact.

"We have starting pitching that has a chance to dominate," said Epstein. "We have a bullpen that has a chance to do the same. Do we have a sound defensive team? Yeah. And do we have a lineup that can grind out good at-bats against good pitching and score enough runs to win in October? Yeah. It's just a question of playing at our best."

The tough questions

The baseball-related question that makes Epstein most uncomfortable is the one regarding the passive/underachieving Drew.

"I think the answer is, be patient," said Epstein, delivering his message in the measured tone of his rare television interviews. "This is a guy who has established a certain standard of performance that he should return to.

"If we've learned nothing else from the last few years, it's that players with high expectations who come to Boston may not perform that well the first year. Edgar Renteria. Josh Beckett. With a lot of the free agents we've brought in, the higher the salary, the worse they've done.

"There seems to be, for some players, a one-year adjustment period to playing here, and it's hard to explain, but we have to be patient. Renteria went back to being a really good player when he wasn't here.

"I still wake up sometimes thinking about how we didn't make the postseason last year. I still wake up thinking about draft choices we should have made that would have impacted the franchise for a long time, but I don't wake up thinking about one individual player move."

That means no night sweats over J.D. Drew.

Regarding return on the $103 million investment in Matsuzaka, Epstein said, "It's hard to say exactly what we expected out of him. There were some unknowns coming in because of the adjustments. I think he's done certainly what we hoped he would do and established a baseline of performance as a 26-year-old that he could improve from going forward. He made every start, was among the league leaders in strikeouts, pitched 200 innings, and gave us a chance to win consistently. Obviously he didn't have as good of a second half. Certain elements of his stuff didn't transfer as well as he had hoped."

The Sox will face big decisions regarding impending free agents Curt Schilling and Lowell, but Epstein will not be lured into discussions of future negotiations.

"This is not the appropriate time to talk about that," he said. "When you ask me about Curt Schilling's future, I think of an exciting baseball month of October where he can make a profound impact on this team and I expect him to. It's the same with Mike Lowell. Obviously he knows that we'd love to keep him going forward. We also know that he'd love to stay here, and there's a time to figure out years and dollars, but that's the winter, not October.

Does the Sox' payroll - $165 million, second only to the Yankees - make his mistakes (Matt Clement, $25 million for three years) more easily forgiven?

"I think there's something to that, but if that's where the statement begins and ends, then it's not fair," he said. "There are certain mistakes that we make for which we can buy insurance. If we make a mistake on a multiyear, guaranteed contract, often times we'll have the ability to address that. It won't hamstring the entire organization the way it would in some markets.

"But there's a lot of things that we have to deal with in this market that other teams don't have to deal with. Performance doesn't always translate for us. There are easier places to build winning ball clubs. So in my mind, those factors in some ways cancel each other out."

Skewed perspective

Epstein is talking about the urgency of winning in Boston every year. He is talking about the importance of the Red Sox in the New England sports marketplace. There is no tolerance for slow starts or rebuilding years. Everything is magnified on a daily basis. It is the mechanism that elevates the homegrown GM to rock-star status.

He embraces this passion of Sox fans but recoils from the daily drumbeat and instant referenda on all matters involving the team.

"Good fans can incite passion in their hearts, especially in this part of the country, and more often than not the negative creates more passion than the positive," he said. "The tough loss motivates certain fans to action more than the come-from-behind victory. The disappointing player is more the focus of attention than the guy who goes out and does his job.

"From my days as a fan, I remember that baseball is best enjoyed that way, but baseball is best understood through a much broader lens. We try not to get that caught up in the day-to-day drama, especially the negatives, and take a much broader look at players and teams."

Epstein triggered more drama than any ballplayer when he walked away from the job because of a rift with Sox CEO (and longtime mentor) Larry Lucchino after the 2005 season. There's still some frost on the walls at 4 Yawkey Way, but the parties have learned to coexist.

"I regret that it came to that and I wish we all could have handled it differently - me included," said Epstein. "But I think what came out of that laid the foundation for long-term stability and long-term success, and I don't know if that could have been accomplished any other way.

"If not for those meetings that we had when we were putting the pieces back together, we wouldn't have the communication and the makings of trust that we have now.

"But was it a regrettable time? Certainly."

It changed his public persona.

"My understanding of the job has evolved," he said. "I realized I was doing some things that I didn't have to do. I was more engaged in the day-to-day goings-on of the team, publicly. So any time a writer needed a filler quote for a story that he's written 500 times before, I'd be outside Tito's office to give him that quote. If there was an injury update, I'd always be there.

"I realized by being that accessible and being that engaged it was impossible to draw a line and say, 'These things I don't want to talk about.' I was also in jeopardy of spreading myself too thin. It hit me after a couple of years that I could pull back without any harm being done to the organization.

"The adjustments have also helped address the relative lack of privacy. I'm not complaining here. It hasn't disappeared; it's a little better now that I'm not on TV every day. I'm not in this job to be recognizable or 'famous' on the local scene. I'm in this job because I want the Red Sox to have a chance to win the World Series every year and I like contributing at this level."

The men who came before him - Eddie Collins, Joe Cronin, Bucky Harris, Dick O'Connell, Mike Higgins, Haywood Sullivan, Lou Gorman, Dan Duquette, and Mike Port - all wanted the same thing.

Some became famous on the local scene. Others are better forgotten.

But none of them kept a guitar in the conference room.

And none of them won a World Series with the Red Sox.

Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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