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Candid Theo

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  September 30, 2009 06:00 PM

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The day after the Red Sox secured their sixth playoff berth in his seven seasons as the club's general manager, Theo Epstein engaged in a lengthy and engaging interview with Michael Felger and Tony Massarotti this afternoon during their show on "98.5 The Sports Hub."

Among other topics, Epstein discussed Victor Martinez's catching partnership with Jason Varitek, Alex Gonzalez's impact on the infield defense, the health of Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, and his 55-45 theory on player acquisitions.

On whether he takes a moment to appreciate what the Sox have accomplished

Epstein: "Yeah, I think you have to. It's such a grind if you don't. Not as an individual thing, but for the guys in the office, many of whom have been here for all seven years, it's nice to sit back for a minute and think about it. It's probably been the best seven-year run 1912 to 1918, they won four World Series, it's nice to be a small part of that. But we still have a lot of goals ahead of us at the same time."

On how he celebrated the achievement:

Epstein: "I knew I was getting old, because I remember back to '03, the first time we clinched, and it got raucous, I probably did my fair share of celebrating that night. Last night, I had to get up with my son this morning, so I was in bed trying to stay awake for the end of the game. I sent out a couple of text messages and hit the hay. I don't know if growing up or growing old is the right phrase."

On whether this was one of the Sox' more challenging seasons in recent years

Epstein: "It was one of the more difficult years . . . [but] I think just about every year has been difficult. History makes us characterize certain years in certain ways. We all look back on '04 and say, "Aw, it was easy. That team was so good. Once we got past the trade deadline it was smooth sailing." But the reality was that there was a huge part of even that year when it looked like there was no chance of us making the playoffs. But we ended up winning the World Series. In '07, people just seem to remember the good times, but there was tremendous turbulence in the middle of that year where we felt like we had a fatal flaw on that club as well. We had to make a move in order to give ourselves a chance. In other years, in the winter, we try to create as much redundancy as possible . . . to give ourselves a chance to put a 95-win team on the field. Through the course of the year you find out you're right about some things and wrong about some things, and you make moves to adjust in the middle, and I think we did, and players find their sea legs . . . and the paper predictions are basically reality despite some things not going according to plan."

On whether it's gratifying that his in-season acquisitions -- Victor Martinez, Alex Gonzalez, and Billy Wagner -- have all panned out:

Epstein: "I think it's more gratifying for the organization because of the process that's in place. Virtually any trade you make is a crapshoot. When things don't work out, people like to give us a hard time. That's their right, and I would do the same thing as a fan. But reality is that we're not shooting for perfection. In baseball, we're shooting to shift the odds of being right from maybe 50-50 to 55-45. Because we're in the business of predicting future human performance. You simply can't do that. What we try to do is put thorough processes in place with really good people and stick to our organizational ideals and try to shift the odds from 50-50 to 55-45. To me, I believe in our process. I believe in our people. We're looking to be right 55 percent of the time, especially on a midseason deal in which you're getting two months' worth of a player, and the fact that these deals have worked out make you feel really good, I think it was an important part of getting to the postseason this year. But I don't sit there and pat myself on the back and say, 'Oh, wow, we went 3 for 3, great.' Instead, I think we try to take a step back or 10,000 feet and say, 'OK, the processes we used were sound, is there any way we can improve the processes going forward and maybe shift the odds to 56 percent instead of 55 percent, and how do we learn from it and go forward? But the exact same processes we used in these deals were the same we used in the Eric Gagne deal. I think that was a good deal. It didn't work out, because he went from a really good pitcher to a really bad pitcher the second he showed up here. But . . . I'm proud of the organization, I'm proud of the people, I'm proud of the way we approached these deals. But the fact that they all worked out this year doesn't mean that I'm puffing my chest because I know how fickle it is."

On Jon Lester's health and whether he'll be the Game 1 starter against the Angels in the ALDS:

Epstein: "Once Tito gets back here [he was away during the afternoon for his son Nick's graduation from Marine officer school], we'll talk, and once we're ready to make those public, we'll move forward with the announcement. We feel like we have two number ones in Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, and we are optimistic that both of them are really healthy and over their recent injuries. In Jon's case, we got really lucky. I know on video it looked like that line drive hit him right in the knee, but it actually hit him about an inch above and to the side on the quad. That saved us. He's going to be ready to take the ball and be ready to pitch in the postseason. And as I walked in here for the interview, Josh Beckett was outside throwing the ball and he looks really good from a distance from what I saw. I'll go get the update on him. He's going to be healthy and ready to go, and no matter who starts Game 1, we feel like we have two number ones."

On the three minor cortisone injections Beckett had to help treat his his back spasms:

Epstein: "Yeah, usually when you have cortisone shots in the back, usually what you're talking about is that someone has a bulging disc, the area is inflamed, there's no way to calm it down, so basically you send a whole shot of cortisone into the area and hope that it will calm the inflammation down, or you do a cortisone shot into a joint and hope that it's a temporary fix and hope that it calms down the structural problem. In this case, Josh didn't have a structural problem whatsoever. There's nothing wrong with him besides that he had a muscle spasm in that area of his back. So he had small amounts of cortisone, on a pinpoint target basis, injected into areas of the muscle, just to prevent it from spasming. It's far more routine and far less drastic. And it's not an area of concern for us. Had we given him a legitimate cortisone shot -- and I know we're talking semantics since cortisone is involved -- had we given him the cortisone shot where we were just going to the joint and praying it would calm down inflammation, we'd be worried. This cortisone is the kind where he can go throw a full side-session the day after getting it. The other cortisone shot, there would have been no activity for a few days, then gradually ramped up. I know there are conspiracy theories this time of year, but we're not hiding anything. He just had a muscle spasm and we think it's pretty minor."

On Alex Gonzalez's impact on the defense:

Epstein: "There's no doubt that he's stabilized the shortstop position defensively, and he's been solid defensively since coming over here. The things he does well, he does extraordinarily well. His instincts, his ability to put himself in a position to make a play, and the accuracy of his throwing arm, his reliability, it's just outstanding, and he's brought all those things to the table and then some. And I think it's important to look at the fact that we were not getting good shortstop defense prior to having him. We didn't have to bring in a Gold Glover to get improvement at that position. We were well below where we wanted to be defensively this year. If we had just brought in someone who was league-average, it would have represented a significant improvement. And we have had improvement at that position. By our numbers, we're still not the defensive club we want to be. But we're better. On certain days with certain lineups out there, we can use defense as a weapon to help out our pitching staff."

On whether Victor Martinez will be the everyday catcher during the postseason, and whether Beckett's preference for throwing to Jason Varitek is an issue:

Epstein: "Well, that's not something I'm going to address right now, and it's not my place to address going forward. Obviously, Tito makes out the lineup, and as customary I think, will announce it the day before the first playoff game. Victor's done a really nice job since he's been here with the pitchers, all of them, since he's worked with them. Paul Byrd might be the one starter he hasn't worked with . . . A big part of it actually has been Jason's team-first attitude. A lot of people assume, because his role has been reduced somewhat and he hasn't been performing that well lately, that he's unhappy. And that's not true. I give 'Tek a lot of credit. When we made the trade, he made it clear that his priority is that the Red Sox win. Part of his job when Victor got here is to take him under his wing and bring him up to speed with the idiosyncrasies of each pitcher, the game plan, how they prefer prepare, different pitches they can execute, different pitches they stay away from in certain situations, and he's done a really good job with that. I know this might seem like a bit of a cop-out, but their catching situation is a partnership right now, and when Victor's out there, he's got a lot of Tek's preparation in him because those two are working together to put the Red Sox in a position to win."

On whether Varitek knows enough Japanese (Felger actually said Chinese) to properly communicate with Daisuke Matsuzaka:

Epstein: "You guys were out celebrating until 3 in the morning, weren't you? I'm glad we signed Yao Ming when we weren't looking . . . Daisuke knows a lot of English. Those guys communicate very effectively without the aid of an interpreter. Every now and then, details, nuance, issues, the interpreter will be used, but Daisuke knows everything he needs to know to communicate effectively about all baseball matters."

On the Angels' aggressive running game:

Epstein: "Obviously, we've know for a while that we're going to be playing the Angels. There's a lot of preparation and advance work across the organization that goes into the that. And in certain phases of the game, where an opponent's strength matches up with our weakness, of course we focus on that area. We look for all opportunities to mitigate that advantage. That's all I have to say about it."

On David Ortiz's redemptive second half after a prolonged slow start to the season:

Epstein: "It's been a really trying year for him. I don't want to go out of my way to say that baseball players who go through slumps or who have off-field issues aren't heroes because they fought through the adversity. We all know that real heroes are something else, not doing what I do or you do or what David does. But he has been through a lot this year. And it would have been easy to mail it in or land on the DL or tell himself he'll get them next year. He's found a way to adjust, and maybe he's not the exact same guy he was five years, four years, three years ago, but you have to give him credit for making it work with what he has, and for grinding through and helping this team win. Pretty impressive. I thought you guys were going to ask me about J.D. Drew having the highest second-half OPS of all AL outfielders."

On Drew's contributions:

Epstein: "Sometimes you guys get stuck in the world of evaluating players on home runs and RBIs. It's not the way that most clubs do it these days. You look at the lineup performance of a lot of our guys, they bring more to the table than just the counting stats. J.D. certainly had another really good year for us and he's right up around a .900 OPS right now and playing really good defense in right field. He deserves an awful lot of credit for that. He's been pretty darn good for the three years he's been here if you look at the underlying performance. He seems to only be brought up on certain stations when he's in a slump and it's time to pick on him. I think he deserves a tip of the cap sometimes when he's played as well as he's played."

Download the podcast of Theo Epstein's interview on 98.5 The Sports Hub here.

Read more of Theo Epstein's thoughts on the Sox heading into the postseason from the Globe's Nick Cafardo here.

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