Tricks of the trade are subtle
In dealing window, Epstein weighs prospects and projects
DENVER -- Think it's easy being Theo Epstein?
While Red Sox Nation would love for him to make a deal for a big-name player before the trade deadline to get back at the Yankees for stealing Alex Rodriguez, the general manager doesn't operate that way. Maybe he is a disciple of "Moneyball," but he's just as much a disciple of Haywood Sullivan and Lou Gorman, who strongly believed that building a successful team was all about having a steady flow of talent from the minor leagues -- not only to plug into positions but to use in trades.
With the Kansas City Royals giving up the ship last week and declaring Carlos Beltran, Mike Sweeney, et al available (and the Mariners will soon do the same with Freddy Garcia) it will be interesting to see where Epstein falls in line. Certainly he understands that the Yankees will be gunning for Beltran, Garcia, or both. One thing Epstein won't do is give up the future. And getting Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon back is like completing a major trade anyway, right?
"I used to hate to hear that when I was a fan," Epstein said. "In some ways it's appropriate to say that, but if we can get all of our players healthy, that's a real gift. I know you can't always presume that, but we certainly feel we're going to be healthier than we have been."
Here's his philosophy this trade season:
"If we have a trade that we think will help us this year, but if the price is too much in terms of prospects, we'll work to make the price right, and if we can't, we just won't do the deal. We're not going to blow up the farm system. Will we trade a piece here or there? Yes, maybe we'll trade a guy the other team likes more than we do, but we're not going to move the guys that we really, really like.
"It's hard to get there when you trade three out of your best five prospects every year. It's just not something we're going to do. We'll pursue every opportunity to try to get to a point where the talent we're getting back is worth the talent given up. We take very seriously even the loss of one prospect.
"We've studied the history of deadline deals. The ones that actually help you win are the ones where you actually acquire an impact player. Trading prospects we really like that have a bright future and are really going to help us for a spare part or two probably isn't the way to go. At the same time, I think the 25th player is a very important player."
It's not that Epstein thinks he'll eventually have a completely home-grown team. He wants the farm system to be fruitful, much like Gorman's was when he was able to deal Brady Anderson and Curt Schilling for Mike Boddicker or Jeff Bagwell (oops!) for Larry Andersen. Or when Dan Duquette was able to give up Carl Pavano and Tony Armas Jr. for Pedro Martinez.
"I think you can have a tremendously productive farm system without having a predominantly home-grown team in the big leagues," Epstein said. "There are many ways to acquire talent through free agency. What I want is a steady supply of talent to the big league level every year, two or three players, and I want better organizational depth. I think we've made great strides in those areas that by two years from now with our college draft we're going to be right where we should be."
Epstein certainly reminds himself that if he could have one deal back from last season, it would be the messed-up Brandon Lyon deal in which the Sox had to give up Freddy Sanchez for Jeff Suppan and Scott Sauerbeck after the Pirates claimed Lyon was damaged goods. "If it were not for the mess surrounding the Brandon Lyon trade, we probably wouldn't have done it," he said. "Part of that deal was the resolution of the Lyon matter. In the end, it hasn't hurt us yet because Freddy came down with a pretty severe foot injury and hasn't been able to play at all this year. That's the one I'd like back."
Epstein is always looking at the bigger picture. Much like Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli look at a "65-man roster" when they're in training camp to prepare for injuries, Epstein has tried to do the same, especially with his starting pitchers. He'd like to have eight starters, and with the franchise holding its breath over Schilling's ankle, Epstein is sensing the organization is a little short of its goal.
"I kind of always try to imagine the worst-case scenario and operate on that, so, yes, the worst-case scenario being that we have to shut [Schilling] down for a period of time, that concerns me," said Epstein. "I'm still optimistic, and I still think it's likely that he'll be able to pitch every fifth day the rest of the year.
"While I think pitching should be and can be one of our strengths, I don't think pitching depth necessarily is a strength of this club. Back when [Bronson] Arroyo was pitching well and BK [Byung Hyun Kim] threw that one-hitter [over five innings], everyone was asking who the fifth starter was going to be. At the time I said I'm more concerned who our seventh starter is going to be, and that's still my concern.
"In an ideal world, Kim and Ramiro Mendoza could help there." If there's been one deep disappointment in Epstein's tenure, it's been that Mendoza, such a big part of the Yankee championship teams, has never been a factor in Boston.
"Oh sure, it's been disappointing," said Epstein. "A lot of it is associated with a tough two weeks to start last season and the difficulty in adjusting to adversity in a new environment and a new and talented environment."
If Schilling should go down and pitching is too expensive on the market, said Epstein, "We won't be afraid to take a talented kid out of Double A if he has the right makeup where he won't be affected by pitching in the big leagues."
He likely is alluding to righthander Chris Smith (5-2 with 72 strikeouts and only 17 walks) and lefthander Abe Alvarez (6-4, 3.66 ERA), who have started strong for Portland.
Of course, there's always the Yankees to be concerned about, though Epstein says they will never be reactionary with regards to New York.
"We're never reactionary toward what they do, but we have to take them into account in terms of strategy of our method of acquiring players," he said.
"We have a budget. Yeah sure, we're the second-highest payroll and we have great revenues, but we chose to operate with a budget, which is a responsible thing to do. It doesn't mean we're not committed to winning." But don't ask what that budget is.
"I would never say," said Epstein. "One way or the other, it would give our competition an advantage if I told them I had exactly X-amount to spend."
At this moment -- and it's early in the process -- Epstein reports, "We've made more proposals than we've received." You can bet that in the ones he's made, he isn't giving up the farm.