THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Balanced approach a big deal with Sox

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / December 6, 2009

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There is a reason Theo Epstein rarely hangs around with his players near the trading deadline. He barely steps into the clubhouse, and no longer travels with the team in the days leading up to July 31. He recalls the sense of urgency surrounding the Red Sox back in 2006, not necessarily commensurate with the reality of the situation.

And though that instance - which happened to have occurred in May rather than July - led to the most-regretted trade in Epstein’s tenure as general manager of the Sox, it also led him to change.

“I think the closer you get to certain situations, the more often you fail,’’ Epstein said yesterday about the trade that sent Cla Meredith and Josh Bard to San Diego for Doug Mirabelli. “I firmly believe that had I not gone on the road trip with the team and been exposed to that panic or been sucked into it, we wouldn’t have made the trade. I got too close to it, so we over-prioritized the rest of the season, we over-prioritized the next start [by Tim Wakefield], and made a bad trade.

“We focused too much on the extreme short term and not enough on the future. And that’s something every organization does and goes through. I think it’s important how you respond to it, if you learn from it. We’ve made our share of mistakes certainly, but it’s just as important to learn from it and use that to become part of the discipline going forward.’’

With such lessons in mind, Epstein and the Sox head into the most active portion of the offseason with this week’s winter meetings. Though the Sox already have added a piece for 2010 and beyond - signing shortstop Marco Scutaro - there remains a long way to go. They still need a left fielder, starting pitching, bullpen help, and bench players.

And on the menu just might be a blockbuster deal. Roy Halladay is on the market, though the Sox aren’t likely to get the Toronto ace unless the price drops. Padres slugger Adrian Gonzalez might be available for the right package. But the Sox tend to value their own prospects - occasionally overvaluing them - and are not known for making the major offseason deal.

It’s a thin line
There is a balance to be struck, a thin line between doing too much and too little, as an organization determines the best course of action in the offseason and at the trading deadline. Then again, Epstein makes it simple: “In balancing present and future, you really have to start with the future.

“I’d say 90 percent of our time as baseball operations is spent trying to build the foundation and build our long-term outlook. Ten percent of our time is spent maximizing our competitiveness in any one particular year.

“Certain times a year, the end of July or mid-December, the short-term focus comes more into play, but as a result of long-term planning. We’re all aware of what the moving pieces are because we’ve been thinking about it for a while. Then it’s just a matter of implementation.

“So the short fix, the shiny toy, it’s always attractive, it’s always a temptation, there’s always a seduction there. I think we talk to each other about staying disciplined and making the move when it actually will have an impact, but not if it hurts us more in the long term than it helps us.’’

As Sox president/CEO Larry Lucchino said, “We have healthy debates about whether this transaction or an event is too much in the present or too future-oriented. That’s just one element that’s considered as to examine possible transactions. There definitely are people that have slightly different views on that, but by and large, that’s why I think it works so well is we have a blend of perspectives.’’

The Sox, like most other teams, are working for 2010, but they also have a long-term plan. Take the Scutaro deal. Boston wanted to keep itself open for 2011 or 2012 when Jose Iglesias, the Cuban shortstop with hands reminiscent of Omar Vizquel’s, will be ready. So they found a bridge in Scutaro, which cost them a reasonable amount of cash - and a draft pick.

The Sox were only willing to make the Scutaro deal because they already had gained a likely first-round pick from the Braves when Atlanta signed Type A free agent Billy Wagner. Otherwise, they might have been unwilling to forgo a first-round pick in the upcoming draft to obtain Scutaro.

Two situations from the past stand out.

The first was the November 2005 trade of shortstop Hanley Ramirez (and others) to the Marlins for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell. That deal was made during Epstein’s hiatus, and it gave up a future offensive cornerstone for the present. It brought the Sox a World Series in 2007. Did it cost them more long-term?

The second was a non-deal. Would the Sox have been interested in Johan Santana, who was traded from the Twins to the Mets in February of 2008? Of course. Were they interested in giving up Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz, and Jon Lester? Certainly not.

Now or later?
It remains to be seen whether this will be a winter in which the Sox decline the big deal to keep their talent or send it off in a blockbuster. The goal is to find the happy medium, the way of remaining competitive every season, never entering into a rebuilding mode, and keeping the pipeline flowing with talented prospects, a task made more difficult by the defection of amateur scouting director Jason McLeod to San Diego.

“The best franchises in baseball are those that keep one eye on the present and one eye on the future, because you can’t be intensively focused on one at the expense of the other,’’ Lucchino said. “The lifeblood of the franchise [is] having young talent coming up year after year. Maybe one guy one year, maybe two or three guys another year, but to have that regular flow, it enables one to do what we’re talking about, to have more of a balance between the present and the future.’’

But there have been reports this offseason that some in the organization (like owner John Henry, who deflected questions for this story to Epstein) are more interested in winning now than are others (like Epstein). But the general manager mostly has been able to hold on to his own vision and long-term plan, despite outside influences. Asked whether the organization sometimes tends to lean more toward the future than it should, Epstein didn’t agree.

He did, however, admit that the “future part is more emotional. Like when we traded for Jason Bay, giving up Manny Ramirez was the easy part. The really annoying part was having to throw in two decent pieces [Brandon Moss and Craig Hansen] that could add more value to the Red Sox.

“I think that’s why we’ve made a conscious effort to ignore the media, ignore the next day’s headlines, ignore anything that focuses on the short term. Because I think baseball is best enjoyed day-to-day, moment-to-moment, but best understood year-to-year, from 10,000 feet up. So you can make an argument that the Red Sox for 86 years were too focused on the next day’s headlines and too focused on what the fans in the stands thought on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis.

“It is important to take a step back and remove the organization from the narrative that surrounds the team and focus on delivering a healthy, long-term foundation and then trusting that foundation will lead to success. When you come off the disappointing years, it’s always harder. That shiny toy looks shinier.

“But in the end you have to realize you’re not going to win every single year, you’re not going to win 95 games every year, you’re not going to make the playoffs every year, you’re certainly not going to win the World Series every year. You have to always do what’s in the best long-term interest of your organization.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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