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Martinez exit leaves Red Sox fans feeling a draft

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  November 24, 2010 08:48 AM

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At issue here, really, is the way the Red Sox conduct their business. Under general manager Theo Epstein, the Red Sox clearly have operated with a long-term plan and philosophy. But it may be time to ask whether the Red Sox are putting more value in their system than they are in the players.

In baseball, remember, free agency and the draft are tightly intertwined. Whenever a team signs or loses a high-caliber free agent, compensation comes or goes in the form of one or two draft picks. All of those picks come prior to the third round – that is, in the first, second or sandwich rounds – which means that teams can effectively position themselves for the draft by how they manage the free agent market.

In the case of the Red Sox and Theo Epstein, they have manipulated free agency to secure more of those early-round picks (28) than any team but the St. Louis Cardinals (also 28) over the last eight drafts. That period of time coincides with Epstein’s tenure as general manager. Epstein was hired by Red Sox president Larry Lucchino in the fall of 2002, and the draft that took place the following summer was influenced by the decisions that took place during Epstein’s first offseason.

So today, in the wake of the Victor Martinez departure that will earn the Red Sox two picks in next summer’s draft – the first being the 19th overall selection – the question is whether the Red Sox have tipped the scales so far in one direction that they are putting too much emphasis on the draft, at least for a big market team with as many resources as any major club but the Yankees.

Too much emphasis on the draft. Sounds silly, right? And yet, for a big-market team like the Red Sox that can have the best of both worlds – access to the free-agent market and the draft – it seems that the club has, in some ways, closed itself off to some of the better, higher-priced talent on the open market as the result of an aversion to – or is it a phobia of? – long-term contracts.

Let’s use Manny Ramirez as an example. As much of a headache as Ramirez was during his time in Boston, he was worth every penny of the $160 million the Red Sox committed to him over eight years. The Red Sox won two World Series largely as a result of him being here. And yet, knowing what we know now about the current Red Sox’ philosophy, the great probability is that the Red Sox would not have signed him had Epstein (and not Dan Duquette) been their general manager during the 2000-01 offseason, if no other reason than the fact that Ramirez came with obvious deficiencies (read: defense) that might have scared them away.

The point? No Manny, no duck boats. The Red Sox don’t win either World Series without him. The Ramirez signing was an acquisition that forever changed Red Sox history, giving the Red Sox the foundation on which their lineup was built.

Of course, Epstein deserves some credit for those world titles, too. He just doesn’t deserve all of it. In 2002, current Red Sox administrators inherited a team that included Ramirez, Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Tim Wakefield, Jason Varitek, Nomar Garciaparra, Trot Nixon, Johnny Damon, and others. They thought so highly of David Ortiz that they put Jeremy Giambi ahead of him on the depth chart. To his credit, Epstein augmented that core greatly with the acquisitions of players like Kevin Millar and Bill Mueller, though the 2003 Red Sox were consistently plagued by bullpen issues stemming from their investment in the infamous closer-by-committee approach.

Again, to their credit, the Red Sox addressed their obvious issues. They traded for Curt Schilling and signed Keith Foulke, acquisitions that put them over the top and delivered a World Series to Boston. But these Red Sox officials didn’t build that team any more than they renovated it, just as they did Fenway Park.

As for the 2007 Red Sox, let’s not minimize the importance of the Josh Beckett deal. Under the watch of Larry Lucchino, that trade was made by Bill Lajoie and Craig Shipley following Epstein’s temporary resignation. No Beckett, no duck boats. And while the cost of the Beckett deal was steep, it should be noted that Hanley Ramirez, too, was a holdover from the administration of John Harrington and Duquette.

If you interpret all of this as Epstein bashing, stop. It isn’t. Theo is a darned good GM. He’s extremely bright and diplomatic. But he didn’t win two World Series titles in Boston so much as he contributed to them. Anybody with half a brain knows that organizational success requires contributions from all areas. You need some luck, too. If and when you start believing that one person created anything, you need to have your head examined.

To wit: Bill Belichick didn’t build the Patriots. Neither did Robert Kraft. Bill Parcells had a big hand in it. They hit the jackpot with Tom Brady in the sixth round. Take away those elements and Foxborough wouldn’t be what it is today.

Now let’s get back to the draft. Over the last eight years, along with the Red Sox and Cardinals, the Arizona Diamondbacks (27), San Diego Padres (27), Atlanta Braves (26), Minnesota Twins (26), Oakland A’s (26) and Toronto Blue Jays (26) round out the top eight in terms of draft-pick quantity. All of those clubs are small- to mid-market teams who don’t have the resources the Red Sox do. The list of GMs from those clubs all but reads like a who’s who of the Moneyball Era, people who have had connections to Epstein or Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane - or both.

Oh, and excluding the Red Sox, the only team on that list to have won a World Series with its philosophy is the Cardinals, who did so in 2006 – when they won 83 games during the regular season. (Admittedly, it is possible that championships are on the way.) No major league champion in history ever has won as few games as the 2006 Cardinals in a full season, so make of that what you will. You could certainly argue that the 2006 Cards were the luckiest team in history.

With regard to Victor Martinez, the Red Sox clearly made a choice. The Red Sox deemed two draft selections in 2011 to be more valuable than Martinez would have been over the next four years. Obviously, that all depends on the rest of the picture. The Red Sox could still sign a big-name free agent or make a trade – thereby costing themselves draft picks or prospects - and weighing the draft against free agency is best assessed in the aggregate. You weigh what’s coming in against what’s going out, trying to leave yourself with both talent and draft picks.

Over the last eight years, the New York Yankees have had 19 selections before the third round – an average of roughly one draft pick per year fewer than the Red Sox. During that same time, the Yankees have signed Mark Teixeira and C.C. Sabathia, among others, while their farm system has produced Robinson Cano and Phil Hughes. The San Francisco Giants, who won the World Series this year, have had 20 draft picks. Ditto for the Los Angeles Angels, a perennial playoff team that won the 2002 World Series and slipped this past year only after losing John Lackey, Chone Figgins, and Vladimir Guerrero to free agency. (Try replacing all of those guys with draft picks.) The Tampa Bay Rays have had only 19 selections before the third round in the last eight years and their farm system is as productive as anyone’s. The Philadelphia Phillies have had 16 picks in the first, second and sandwich rounds.

Given that the Red Sox have almost routinely spent roughly $140-$170 million during the Epstein Era, here are the questions worth discussing:

Do they really need all those draft picks?

Are the draft picks really what produce the championships?

Or, if championships are the goal more than long-term competitiveness, do the Red Sox need to be more aggressive with some of the bigger names on the free agent market each year?

Just asking.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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