Even though he’s gone, they’ll manage fine
The Theo Epstein era was never solely about Theo Epstein, of course, because it was really about the system. And so as he finally walks out the door, after the Red Sox and Chicago Cubs settled the issue of compensation last night, the real question is not whether the Sox can replace Epstein (they can), but how.
Will new general manager Ben Cherington merely implement the same methods Epstein did? Or will he do things his way, emphasizing things Epstein did not and eschewing others?
With regard to GMs, evaluating them can be a tricky business. Since the start of the 1998 season, six of the 13 World Series have been won by teams put together by Epstein or the Yankees’ Brian Cashman, who have had the highest (or among the highest) payrolls in baseball during their tenures. During that same period, the Braves have won only four fewer regular-season games than the Red Sox - no world titles, mind you - but the Sox and Yankees have so dominated the conversation that maybe we have lost sight of how general managers should truly be evaluated.
In the end, this is all really about the draft and player development, because that is the one area in which teams are generally operating on an even playing field. The free agent market - domestically and internationally - comes down to money. Executives such as Epstein and Cashman can make multimillion-dollar mistakes that other executives cannot. And more often than not, they can endure them.
So, are Epstein and Cashman truly among the best GMs in baseball, more capable than Terry Ryan (former) and Bill Smith (current) of the Twins, Andrew Friedman of the Rays, or Jon Daniels of the Rangers? Or are they just more talked about?
We suggest the latter.
That said, no one is suggesting Epstein is a bad GM, either. But he is hardly irreplaceable. (When you get right down to it, who is?) Under Epstein, the Red Sox drafted and developed, among others, Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Daniel Bard, and Clay Buchholz. Why the Sox hit a developmental gap in recent years is as much a part of their 2011 story as anything else, and the truth is we won’t be able to get a real read on Epstein’s tenure until a few years down the road, after his final draft classes have played out.
Remember: The Red Sox won 93 games in 2002, the season before Epstein was elevated to GM. They won 90 this year. Epstein made some shrewd maneuvers and acquisitions during his tenure, but he also made some bad ones. Every general manager does. The net result was a darned good run, including two world titles that will define Epstein’s legacy in Boston.
Was he a good GM? Of course. But he was never, ever irreplaceable.
Let’s make something clear here: Epstein is an extremely intelligent, levelheaded, and hard-working man, but his career has been shrouded in an extraordinary level of hype. Because of his local roots, he was written about here when he was an intern with the Padres. He became the GM of the Red Sox at 28, his status as a hardball prodigy only fortified when he took his first two teams to Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, and then a World Series sweep.
And yet, during his time in Boston, Epstein’s major free agent signings have included Julio Lugo, Edgar Renteria, Matt Clement, J.D. Drew, John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Carl Crawford. The Red Sox are now trying to explain many of these maneuvers by suggesting that major free agent signings almost always fail, though it’s worth noting that Manny Ramirez (Red Sox), Randy Johnson (Diamondbacks), Greg Maddux (Braves), CC Sabathia (Yankees), and Mark Teixeira (Yankees) all turned out quite well.
Know what those players have in common? They were all bona fide, indisputable superstars. This cannot help but make one wonder if the Red Sox merely have extended themselves on the wrong kind of free agent, stopping short on someone like Teixeira, then paying out the nose for players like Drew and Crawford.
In baseball as much as any other sport, it is nearly impossible to overpay a superstar. During his time in Boston, for example, Ramirez was worth every cent. But players like Drew and Crawford look more like supporting actors by comparison, neither having been able (thus far) to fill a role the Red Sox had earmarked for him.
All of this brings us to Cherington, who actually preceded Epstein in the Red Sox organization. Cherington served as an intern with the Sox while he was a student at Amherst College and was later hired by Amherst alumnus Dan Duquette, then the general manager. Cherington is regarded as a good evaluator, a skill that undoubtedly will serve him well, and, like Epstein, he is smart and levelheaded. Now we just need to find out if John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino regard Cherington as the fuse to replace Epstein in the fuse box, or whether they will actually allow him to make independent decisions on independent factors.
And we need to find out whether Cherington even wants to, or whether he merely will continue to run the existing operation.
In the end, without question, Epstein had a hand in two world championships during his time in Boston. But it was only a hand. Duquette left him Ramirez and Pedro Martinez, among others. Bill Lajoie acquired Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell. Cherington would be wise to preserve the elements of Epstein’s operation that worked during Epstein’s tenure, and would be wise to alter those that left the Red Sox, to be kind, wanting.
The Sox, after all, did well during Epstein’s time here. But they were hardly perfect.