As Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s pull into Fenway Park, maybe it is best to remember the general principles of Moneyball. In the modern age of baseball, you get two months to evaluate your team. You get two months to renovate it. And then you put it to the test.
On June 1, the ball is now in Theo Epstein’s court.
And so, as the Sox enter Phase II of this topsy-turvy campaign, one can only wonder if Epstein might have been better off were his club to have fallen on its face. Maybe then we would not be expecting anything at all. Instead, the Red Sox are now back in the race for both the American League East title and a playoff berth, courtesy of an 18-11 May during which the Sox went 11-3 over their final 14 games and began to resemble the team we expected.
So here’s the question: are the Red Sox closer to being the team we saw for the first two weeks or last two weeks of this season – or are they somewhere in between? The latter scenario is the likeliest, leaving the Sox with the same questions every team possess at this time or year: Namely, how much help they need and whether they have the necessary pieces to acquire it.
In Epstein’s case, for all that has been said and written about him during his time as general manager of the Red Sox, he has done some of his best work in the middle of the season. In 2003, Epstein’s rookie season, Sox acquisitions included Byung-Hyun Kim and Scott Williamson as well as Scott Sauberbeck and Jeff Suppan. Epstein paid handsomely for some of those moves – Suppan in particular – and his years since have demonstrated a succession of shrewd in-season maneuvers and pickups that have helped the Sox considerably.
In 2004, of course, Epstein made the blockbuster four-way deal that sent Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs at brought back Doug Mientikiewicz and Orlando Cabrera, but the Dave Roberts move was every bit as important. Tony Graffanino proved to be a big pickup in 2005. Epstein picked up Bobby Kielty and Eric Gagne (the right move) in 2007 and dumped Manny Ramirez in 2008, and last year’s flurry of second-half activity brought the Sox Victor Martinez, Billy Wagner and shortstop Alex Gonzalez.
In all of those instances, Epstein identified specific needs and executed them to peak or near-peak efficiency.
As for 2006, that is the season which stands as the exception of Epstein’s resume for a number of reasons. At the moment, it is the only year in which the Sox have not made the playoffs during his career. It is also the only year in which Epstein took a decidedly passive approach to in-season acquisitions. That year, the Sox picked up waiver-wire pitching castoffs like Kyle Snyder and Jason Johnson. Seeking to bridge the developmental gap in the Red Sox player development system, Epstein refrained from making any trades of consequence while the Yankees picked up, among others, Roger Clemens and Bobby Abreu.
At the time, Epstein supporters suggested that the Yankees simply took on big salaries in both of those deals – Clemens was a free agent at the time – and that the Sox were incapable of making such moves. Today, we know that all to be utter hogwash. For starters, the Sox bid a prorated $21 million salary to acquire Clemens. And though they failed, they were unwilling to earmark that money for Abreu, for whom the Yankees gave up very little and who subsequently terrorized Boston pitchers during a decisive five-game sweep at Fenway Park in August.
Don’t let anyone fool you. As we learned in ``Feeding the Monster,’’ Epstein was content to let the Sox suffer in 2006 so that the club could take a big step forward in the long run. In the wake of injuries, especially, the 2006 Sox self-destructed. Epstein’s long-term plan proved fruitful, though the Sox did go out and spend more than $200 million the ensuing winter on J.D. Drew, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Julio Lugo.
Entering this season, much was made of organizational comments from both Epstein and owner John Henry about the Sox operating through a "bridge year," which by no means was a suggestion that the Sox were giving up on 2010. What it did mean, however, was that the Sox didn’t have much minor league talent on the verge of helping the big league team. As such, Epstein may have relatively little to deal should the Sox need to acquire an impact bat, especially now that Clay Buchholz has blossomed.
If these Sox are for real – and that is a big if – Epstein may not need to make big changes. A late-inning reliever currently seems to be the priority. But if David Ortiz morphs back into his April form the Red Sox could be left with the enormous hole in the middle of the lineup that many foresaw when this season began.
At that point, with a potential playoff berth at stake, it will be up to Epstein to fix it.
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