Of all the questions swirling around the Red Sox this offseason, from the future address of outfielder Manny Ramírez, to the role of pitcher Jonathan Papelbon, to the keep-him-or-not debate over shortstop Alex Gonzalez, there is one that evidently has been put to rest, perhaps with no more than a handshake. No signature required. No furtive departures on the agenda.
Theo Epstein intends to be back in 2007.
``Oh yeah, we worked that out," Epstein said last week when asked to address the matter of his return, even as he sidestepped the issue of whether he had signed the contract drawn up by the Red Sox. ``There was nothing to work out."
The full weight, then, of how the Sox proceed this winter will thus fall upon the 32-year-old general manager, unlike last year, when a fractured front office made decisions that profoundly affected the shape of a team that faded badly after operating for half a season with what turned out to be deceptive smoothness.
Epstein was at best a shadow presence last offseason, offering counsel behind the scenes when the Red Sox traded their best prospect, Hanley Ramírez, to Florida in November as part of a package for pitcher Josh Beckett and third baseman Mike Lowell, a trade whose merits are likely to be analyzed for some time to come, especially if the arc of Ramírez's career ascends to the heights promised by his sensational debut or Beckett flat-lines.
Epstein, according to Sox insiders, was not an advocate of making that deal, though he now champions Beckett. But he chafes at another deal for which he takes full responsibility, the one he made May 1 in which he gave up promising relief pitcher Cla Meredith to San Diego to meet the urgent need of finding someone (Doug Mirabelli) who could catch Tim Wakefield's knuckleball.
That deal, in his view, was a betrayal of a principle he considers essential to the future success of the ball club: having patience with your prospects. It is a mistake he is determined not to repeat as he plots the moves he intends to make this winter. His operating philosophy is the same one he espoused back in the spring, when he said the goal is to integrate young players while maintaining the momentum of winning.
``I still think that's the goal," Epstein said. ``I think there were several missteps along the way, there were several obstacles along the way. Now the challenge is to apply the things that we've learned from our mistakes and do a better job."
``Everything we tried didn't work as an organization, and I'm responsible," Epstein said. ``We didn't do the right thing. He didn't [succeed] for a whole calendar year, basically. He was without his stuff, his velocity was down, his sink was way off, his secondary pitches didn't develop at all for essentially a full calendar year. This guy had gone backwards and was very fringy. Our failure was a lack of patience in not giving him longer than a calendar year to right himself."
And so the Sox, caught up in the immediate need for Mirabelli, gave up on Meredith, who in San Diego set a club record for consecutive scoreless innings (34) while the Boston bullpen imploded. ``We didn't handle that situation well, and obviously it led to a really bad trade.
``We intend to be patient," said Epstein. ``We will not be the organization that we want to be without being patient. We can't control the patience of our fan base or our media, but we can absolutely control our patience, and that will be done."
The Sox were wildly successful with entrusting the closer role to a rookie, Papelbon, and awarding first base to Kevin Youkilis, a player in his first full season. They appear bent on giving another rookie, Dustin Pedroia, every chance to claim the second base job next season. They were forced, mostly by circumstance, to assign greater responsibility than intended to young pitchers Jon Lester, Manny Delcarmen, and Craig Hansen, with decidedly mixed results.
``I think the second-half decline, if you want to use broad strokes, there were two things," said Epstein. ``One, it revealed we had flaws on the team, weaknesses on the team, that were revealed some but not exposed in the first half. Two, everything that could go wrong did go wrong, to an extent that I've never seen before and probably was close to unprecedented in modern baseball.
``But those are two separate and distinct things. One does not wash the other for us. The most important factor is the first one, not the second one. The second one, there's nothing you can do about.
``Look, we knew that there were players being pushed into roles that we thought at this point in their careers would be fortunate to [succeed]. Go back and look at June, how well Lester was pitching right off the bat. That's rare for that stage. Not everyone has the same assimilation to the big leagues as Jonathan Papelbon. That happens about once a generation. Hansen and Delcarmen, because of other failures in the bullpen, were being pushed up the bullpen totem pole."
``There were things that didn't get exposed in the first half, when everyone was fresh and healthy," Epstein said. ``Those things would have been exposed inevitably, but they were exposed much more quickly and dramatically because of the injuries. Then the injuries took on a life of their own. They became freakish, and would have devastated any team."
But Epstein has little patience with those who criticize the Sox for not making a significant move at the trading deadline, and even less for those who contend the club turned down the chance to acquire a Roy Oswalt or Andruw Jones because they were unwilling to trade more prospects. The reality is that the club held onto their prospects instead of making lesser moves, and were in the end unable to persuade either the Astros, in Oswalt's case, or the Braves, in Jones's case, to part with the players.
``There's a lot we regret about the season as baseball operations, and a lot I personally regret," said Epstein, ``but what happened at the trade deadline is not one of those things.
``The force at play this offseason is balancing the urgency everyone feels to address some holes -- to put ourselves in position to win and win soon -- balancing that urgency with patience, especially in regard to young players and prospects.
``You can be aggressive, you can go all out in an attempt to fix problems, but that urgency cannot turn into desperation. Otherwise we'll never be the type of team we want to be."
That's a formula not likely to placate the legions of Ramírez supporters here.
``The relationship between a player and the club, issues between a player and the club, are best kept between the player and club -- until we give that player a plaque," Epstein said with a laugh. ``I don't see what good that comes for anybody to discuss that publicly. Manny, while he was in there, played very hard, very well. He made real contributions. Anything else -- questions about how happy he is -- if Manny doesn't want to answer them, I don't want to speak to them."
Ramírez missed almost all of the season's last six weeks with a sore right knee. Epstein would not address the question of whether Ramírez could have played. ``He was diagnosed with a case of patellar tendinitis that has caused him discomfort, and some rest has been prescribed," said the GM, ``but it's not anything that would limit him in any way going forward in 2007 and beyond."
Imagine, for a moment, the Sox replacing Ramírez with, say, a .259 hitter, one who hit just five home runs. Disaster, right? Well, that's what the Seattle Mariners did when they didn't re-sign Alex Rodriguez, after a 2000 season in which he hit 41 home runs, drove in 132 and scored 134 -- numbers even more meaningful because they were produced by a shortstop -- and replaced him with Carlos Guillen, the .259 hitter in question. In 2001, the Mariners won 116 games.
Or consider the impact on David Ortiz's performance if he no longer had Ramírez hitting behind him. Let's say, for example, whoever hit behind Ortiz batted a collective .255, with a paltry slugging percentage of .389?
Well, that's what Barry Bonds had to deal with in 2004, his last healthy season, and while he walked a staggering 232 times, he also hit .362 with 45 home runs and 101 RBIs.
Ortiz had some experience in 2004 hitting without Ramírez behind him, his protection coming instead from Kevin Millar and Jason Varitek. In 186 at-bats batting cleanup, Ortiz hit 14 home runs; projected over the 582 at-bats he had that season, that would be 44 home runs. The Sox, of course, won the World Series that year.
Losing Ramírez, then, while a considerable loss, would not necessarily prove fatal.
A word, by the way, on Ortiz, from the general manager. ``I think David is an invaluable presence for us, both in the lineup and in the clubhouse. His production is staggering and speaks for itself."
``If it's determined that [starting] is what's best for his long-term health, that that is what keeps him pitching for the next 15 years, gives him a chance to pitch for 15 years, that's what we're going to do," Epstein said.
Other key issues:
``All he needs to do is make the adjustments that are very typical of power pitchers in their mid-20s and are certainly not unprecedented. Look at power pitchers throughout baseball history. Each one made a slight adjustment -- developing another pitch or throttling back to get better command, slight adjustments in delivery, mental adjustments. Josh toward the end of the season demonstrated his ability to make those adjustments."
``Anyone who has ever seen Coco play had suspicions his hand wasn't quite right," said Epstein. ``You're talking about a guy who was one of the best fastball hitters in baseball. He wasn't this year. You're talking about lightning-quick bat speed, and he was clearly affected. He relies a lot on his hand speed, the explosion of his hands, to generate tremendous bat speed to catch up with any fastball and he didn't show it after the injury. Bat speed doesn't disappear from a 26-year-old without reason."
``I think offensively he took a big step forward, especially when he played a great part of the year, both early and late, with a sore wrist that will get better with a couple of weeks' rest after the season."
``Where would Keith Foulke fit remains to be seen, but there's always a crucial role on your club for an effective Keith Foulke," said Epstein. ``We would die to have a very effective Keith Foulke. I think Foulke was very effective in spots this year. He's a key guy, but we can't rely on him to be the Keith Foulke of 2004 because if we relied on him, we couldn't recover if he wasn't. But there's always a crucial role for Keith Foulke."