When 28-year-old Theo Epstein was named the general manager of the Red Sox in November 2002, the mission statement was slightly but irrefutably different than what it is for 36-year-old Chaim Bloom, who was named the Red Sox’ chief baseball officer Monday.
Then, the goal was to win a championship, singular, to end the drought and the curse, to exorcise all ghosts, to alter Red Sox history for the better after so many agonizing autumns.
After one more agonizing autumn – perhaps the most agonizing of all — in October 2003, that goal was accomplished the following fall, and in the most satisfying, affirming, see-following-this-stupid-team-so-passionately-was-worth-it way imaginable.
All the disappointment was worth it to get to the 2004 payoff, and it changed everything for the better.
It was coincidental, but it did not go unnoticed that when the Red Sox introduced the impressive Bloom – a Yalie with an analytical baseball mind like Epstein, but also an executive lauded for his interpersonal skills – the press conference came on the day after the 15th anniversary of the 2004 World Series victory, and on the precise anniversaries of the 2007 and 2018 World Series clinchers.
It was a reminder of how many good times Red Sox fans have had in the last 15 years, yet also a reminder that change happens rapidly when they don’t contend. Three Red Sox general managers or baseball operations bosses have won World Series titles this century (Epstein 2004, ’07. Ben Cherington ’13; Dave Dombrowski last year). Only Epstein retained the job for a long stretch.
It should not go unnoticed that one of Bloom’s primary roster-building tasks is rather similar to what Epstein faced when he took over officially in 2003: adding quality depth at a relatively low cost to the roster. Epstein’s predecessor, Dan Duquette, acquired all the right stars – Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon – but faltered time and again in building a complete team.
He made one historic veteran-for-prospects trade, getting Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek for flammable relief pitcher Heathcliff Slocumb in July 1997. But for the most part he plugged the roster with sore-armed veterans, former Rated Rookies who peaked in Triple A, and fading, egotistical quasi-stars.
Epstein remedied this immediately, bringing in the likes of Bill Mueller, Mike Timlin, Kevin Millar, Todd Walker, and a Twins discard by the name of David Americo Ortiz in his first offseason. Some of them became the heartbeat of a clubhouse that completely changed the franchise’s culture, and in 2004, its course.
A similar task awaits Bloom now, though the scenario is not an exact replica of what Epstein faced entering ‘03. These Red Sox he inherits are star-laden, though perhaps not as much as they will be should J.D Martinez opt out of his deal and Chris Sale and David Price fail to return to previous form. (We’ll get to Mr. Betts in a moment.)
But what they really need in the wake of Dombrowski’s spend-spend-spend approach is to find some diamonds in the rough to accentuate what they already have.
Bloom seems extraordinarily equipped to do this. With the Rays, who had a $57 million payroll in 2019 (or roughly $3 million more than what the Red Sox paid Price, Nate Eovaldi, and Steve Pearce), general manager Erik Neander, Bloom, and the other collaborators in the Rays’ front office consistently found undervalued talent.
Do you know what these names – Willy Adames, Avisail Garcia, Ji-Man Choi, Brandon Lowe, Travis D’Arnaud, and Yandy Diaz – all had in common? Well, right, they were all 2019 Rays. Good job, Sherlock. They also all had more home runs than Andrew Benintendi last season.
And then there’s the knack for finding pitching. After watching the Red Sox parade a bunch of Quadruple A pitchers through the clubhouse last year — I’d swear half of them were named Josh — it will be satisfying when they unearth the kind of finds the Rays always seem to come up with, such as Nick Anderson and his 41 strikeouts in 21.1 innings. We’ll take three of those, please.
Of course, Epstein never faced the dilemma Bloom must deal with immediately: Decide what to do with his best all-around player, someone who does everything well and right, someone who is 27 years old, has already won a Most Valuable Player award, and is so consistently excellent that some in the fanbase have started taking him for granted.
You know the deal: Mookie Betts has one year remaining on his contract. He wants to get the most money for his services, which means he’s probably headed to free agency. The Red Sox have signaled intentions to cut roughly 15 percent of the payroll to get below the $208 million luxury tax threshold.
This does not seem to indicate that Betts will be a Red Sox lifer like he should. It’s possible he could be traded this offseason. That would be devastating in a lot of ways. With one year left on his deal, it’s hard to figure how they’d ever get anything close to an equal return.
Here’s hoping the Red Sox recognize that they have the resources, talent and brainpower to be much more like the rich-in-everything Dodgers than the discount Rays. With the proper alterations and good health, they should be a really good team in 2019. I deeply hope Mookie Betts is part of it.
But if he’s not, I trust the new boss to get the highest possible return for him. I just hope we never have to find out what that is.