THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

A good sign: Epstein pact appears near

Carlos Pena's game-tying homer in the seventh inning eludes Jacoby Ellsbury (as well as a Red Sox fan in the left-field seats). Carlos Pena's game-tying homer in the seventh inning eludes Jacoby Ellsbury (as well as a Red Sox fan in the left-field seats). (jim carlson/Associated Press)
By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / September 17, 2008
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In stealth fashion, the Red Sox have been negotiating with Theo Epstein and are close to a deal that would lock up the star general manager for several years.

Good idea. Theo is having a better summer than the Wasilla, Alaska, Chamber of Commerce. He's hotter than Paul Pierce was in the Finals.

"Negotiations are done - have been done," owner John Henry wrote in an e-mail yesterday afternoon. "But nothing has been signed. We're focused on the season and lawyers are handling the details."

Get his name on the dotted line. Theo's three-year pact is due to expire at the end of this season, and Sox fans don't want this to stretch out in Scott Boras-like fashion. God forbid we witness Gorilla Suit II.

"We are all on the same page with regard to our vision for the organization," Henry wrote. "The negotiations were pleasant and were all about rewarding Theo for the great, great job he has done in bringing two world championships to the Red Sox. We all look forward to the difficult task of trying to win a third."

The Sox are about to clinch a playoff berth for the fifth time in Theo's six seasons at the wheel. And in September of 2008, they are doing it almost exclusively with Theo's guys.

It somehow has become easy to overlook the Sox GM, which is just the way he likes it. Worshipping at the altar of Belichick/Pioli, Theo has pretty much gone underground and arrived at the conclusion that more is less when it comes to disclosure of baseball operations.

Theo has learned that it's impossible to feed the beast - there is an infinite appetite for Sox news nuggets - so he steers clear of the spotlight and spoons out as little information as possible. He has concluded that there's simply no competitive advantage in telling everyone what you are doing and making yourself available to the media 24/7.

So we don't see him on the set of "10.0" or chirping on a paid radio gig. He is not often hanging around the batting cage or sitting in the Fenway dugout, inviting questions and TV face time. We hardly see him at all.

What we see, instead, is a baseball team carved in his image. We see a team stocked with no-nonsense professionals. We see the kind of relentless offensive machine he predicted when he got the job. We see players who work the count and spoil pitches. We see smart base running. We see pitching, speed, and defense. No more Cowboy Uppers. No more Idiots. No more Savant Sluggers who quit on the team.

In most ways, it's easier to be GM of the high-payroll Red Sox than it is to run a tight-fisted ship like the SS Twins. In Boston, high-priced mistakes (Edgar Renteria, Julio Lugo) are forgiven and your owner will even pay Manny's salary if it becomes impossible to keep him around.

But having lots of disposable income doesn't solve all problems. Just ask the Steinbrenners, who must be wondering what's happened to Brian Cashman. The Yankees are going to get a fourth-place finish in exchange for their $209 million payroll.

So it's not just about the money.

The Red Sox have overpaid for a lot of their talent (J.D. Drew and Daisuke Matsuzaka come to mind), but at this hour, they are getting it done with a lot of young, homegrown talent working on the cheap. Take a look around. The middle of the infield is Dustin Pedroia and Jed Lowrie. Jacoby Ellsbury is in the outfield almost every night.

There is no way to understate the impact, present and future, of those three players. All were drafted by Theo and the Minions. All have bright futures. All are working for low dough.

Through the years, the Sox have won with other people's talent. Now they are winning with a lot of homegrown talent - much like the 1970s, when a brilliant GM named Dick O'Connell presided over a system that delivered Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, Dwight Evans, Carlton Fisk, Rick Burleson, and Cecil Cooper to the majors.

Theo's imprint is no less visible on the mound. Jon Lester is throwing in the mid-90s. Justin Masterson, Michael Bowden, and Clay Buchholz - all drafted by Theo - are potential stars. Some contribute now. Some will contribute later. But the bottom line is that the Sox are finally developing their own pitching.

It goes much deeper. Taking a chance on Bartolo Colon was worth the low risk. Paul Byrd was an even better pickup, and how did the Yankees pass on him? Holding on to Coco Crisp looks pretty good, and Alex Cora has proven to be the Swiss Army knife of Terry Francona's bench. Sean Casey only adds to the depth and professionalism.

The Sox are not without flaws (anybody comfortable with the middle relief?) and could lose a first-round series to the Angels or White Sox. But I doubt it. This looks like a team built for October. Just as in 2004 and 2007.

It's impossible to talk about Theo without referencing the Manny Ramírez deadline deal. The Sox parted with a Hall of Fame slugger who may yet win the NL Most Valuable Player Award. In addition to dumping Ramírez, Boston dealt a couple of prospects and agreed to continue to pay Ramírez. In exchange, the Red Sox acquired Jason Bay, who has been a .300 hitter with power.

The deal was bold, just as trading Nomar Garciaparra in '04 was bold. And it's working, just as the Nomar deal worked. The Sox are a better team without Manny. Francona and friends are free to do their jobs without wondering whether Manny feels like playing today. It has been liberating. And it has made the Sox better.

Locking up Theo for another three or four years would be a good idea.

"I think the results speak for themselves," said CEO Larry Lucchino. "I think Theo and the entire baseball operations department - scouting, player development - have all done a heck of a job. But I'm not going to have a comment regarding negotiations. We're not going to have any further comment on this until we have something to say."

Theo is 34 years old now, still too young to run for president. But he's a six-year veteran with two World Series rings, and his team looks ready for October. And many Octobers to come.

Sign him before Halloween. Today, if possible.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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