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Is Theo Epstein to blame for the Red Sox’ skid?

Sep 19, 2011, 12:13 PM EDT

Carl Crawford Signs with the Boston Red Sox Getty Images

The Red Sox’ late season implosion is the talk of the morning, and the focal point of that talk is Jeff Passan’s column over at Yahoo! in which he assigns blame for Boston’s post season collapse.

It’s a failure — or potential failure, depending on how the next ten days go — that has many fathers, but Passan leads with Theo Epstein as the primary culprit. The reason: Epstein left his team’s cupboard bare and made blunders that resulted in the Red Sox’ rotation being painfully thin (Exhibit A: Kyle Weiland pitching critical games during a pennant race).

I’ll admit that it’s an awful state of affairs. But I’m struggling to see how this is a matter of Theo Epstein’s poor planning as opposed to just a lot of rotten luck.  Passan and I have had a lively back and forth on this on Twitter this morning (still in progress as I write this!), in which I have accused him of second guessing and he has accused me of being a Theo Epstein apologist.  But to me it seems that it comes down to whether or not you think Epstein screwed up in only trading for Erik Bedard at the deadline (Passan’s view) or if you think that Epstein did the best he could have done at the time given the situation on the ground.

In my view, that situation saw the Red Sox with a two-game lead in the AL East and a several games lead for a playoff position. It saw them with one real hole in the rotation — Clay Buchholz‘s injury — but with a team that was otherwise in good shape.  It’s obvious now that they’re not in good shape. Beckett has been hurt, Lester has missed time and all manner of other things have gone wrong. But was that sufficiently foreseeable?  To be fair, Passan saw only trading for Bedard as a risk at the time (see #29).

But what else should Epstein have done?  Traded good prospects for pitching when, at the time anyway, the playoffs seemed totally secure?  And what pitching would you trade for?  It was a terribly thin market for starting pitching. Passan just tweeted to me that Boston should have considered “at least one proven starter like Kuroda/Wandy/Fister/EJax/Lowe/Guthrie. Even Marquis or Harang or innings-eater.”  Of course most of those guys weren’t ultimately traded because of their price tag, be it in terms of current salary or the prospects they would have cost. Marquis flamed out.

I’m not a Theo Epstein apologist. I think it’s fair, once a season is over, to look back at what the GM did or did not do and say what did or did not work.  But I think that there’s a difference between that and saying that he “blundered” and is the person most responsible for the Red Sox’ “choke” down the stretch.  Carl Crawford wasn’t supposed to suck. Daniel Bard wasn’t supposed to implode.  Kevin Youkilis, Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz weren’t supposed to have multiple nagging injuries. A lot of stuff has happened.

So what do you think?  Is Epstein the author of this failure-in-progress? Or is this just a perfect storm?

  1. chillidavis - Sep 19, 2011 at 8:54 PM

    Oh dear. The Bostoyork Redyanks are in trouble. Don’t worry Sox fans; your team will just keep emulating your hated Yanks and spend more. It works but it is a dull approach to success. In other words, those of us outside of the big, stupid money franchise (yeh, you and the yanks) are happy to see the Rays sneaking up.

  2. cackalackyank - Sep 19, 2011 at 9:30 PM

    I wonder if there were no rumors of the Cubs interest if this question gets asked. That being said, the “perfect storm theory” comes close to covering it, but not entirely. The GM builds the team…true but can only cover so much of the short comings. The rotation issues were somewhat foreseable, the Crawford situation and some of the other injuries…not so much. Of course if the Yankees slow the Rays down, and the Sox right the ship…none of this will have ever happened.

    • pisano - Sep 19, 2011 at 10:04 PM

      He’s made a lot of mistakes with his free agent picks, but no one can blame all the injuries on Theo or Francona. This coming from a true Yankee fan. He’s made some real good trades and lower free agent signings, it’s the big free agent signings that he’s been burned on.

  3. bigleagues - Sep 19, 2011 at 10:19 PM

    chilidavis

    Welcome back from oblivion. Hey, btw . . . I’ll acknowledge that the Red Sox spend a lot on payroll. when folks like you start acknowledging that spending a lot of money on payroll does NOT equal success.

    Also when you come to terms with the facts – the Red Sox are NO WHERE NEAR the stratosphere of spending that the Yankees are in. But don’t take my word for it . . . just look at who’s paid what in Competitive Balance Tax since its inception.

    The Yankees have paid $192,213,073 of the $209,792,278 (that’s 91.6% of all CBT paid since it began in 2003).

    The Yankees have spent $41,000,000 more in 2011 payroll than the Red Sox – equivalent to the payroll of the Rays or $5,000,000 more than the Royals.

    And yes, that does make what the Rays have done all that more amazing. But it sure sucks when you are working on margin and have a very limited window to win it all.

    http://bizofbaseball.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=4971&Itemid=194

  4. bigleagues - Sep 19, 2011 at 10:20 PM

    Ellsbury just went yard . . . inside the yard!

  5. chillidavis - Sep 19, 2011 at 11:56 PM

    $166.7M for the Sox this year. And yes, the Yankees are even more obscene $206 M. Both figures demand that the Orioles and the Rays and the Jays simply surrender and as for whether or not money equals success it is not about winning the world series (short series, get hot, pitching, blah…) it is about your team being in the hunt for the playoffs (where they too might be the hot, pitching, blah… playoff team) year in and year out. The Yankee model, which the Sox have adopted, is to buy its way all the way into late September and then see how it tumbles. Almost everyone else does whatever they can to get into September for a few years and see how it tumbles, then save up for a decade (watching their stars leave– Prince next year for example– and hope for the best of the cheaper free agents –Aubrey Huff last year for example, hope for some farm stars and do it again in about a decade).
    The owners in the big media money areas will never do it, but god it would be fun if all the teams were on a level playing field.
    Ah well, at least my team is not yet eliminated.

    • bigleagues - Sep 20, 2011 at 2:27 AM

      With all due respect your opinion is detached from reality. Probably because you are fixated on the dollar amounts and not on what actually makes a team successful or a perennial loser.

      First of all, don’t be hate the players, hate the game. These are the rules we play by.

      The Yankees have an estimated revenue of close to $500 million this year. They will pay a hefty competitive balance tax as they do each year. The proceeds from that CBT will go to the smaller market teams. It has been well publicized that many of these small market teams bank the CBT proceeds and record it as profit rather than putting it into player development and signing talent.

      The Yankees play in the largest market in the United States, as do the Met’s. Why is it that the Yankees are so successful and the Met’s are seemingly the model of affluent futility? The Met’s have been poorly operated – the Yankees on the other hand have been exceptionally operated.

      LA is the 2nd largest market. Why haven’t the Dodgers been able to “duplicate” the success of the Yankees? Chicago is the 3rd largest market – why haven’t the White Sox and Cubs been able to duplicate the Yankees success and been perennial contenders?

      The Rangers play in the 5th largest market – and had a billionaire owner – yet its just the last couple of seasons that it seems they have finally found a formula that could lead to being yearly contenders.

      The Bay Area represents the 6th largest market in the US and plays host to your Giants and the hapless A’s. Now I realize that the A’s situation is complicated – but the Giants (I worked for their AA affiliate, BTW), who currently sport the 8th highest payroll have kept that payroll low in recent years while they developed and brought up the core of their world class pitching staff. Consequently they hadn’t been a legit WS contender until last year.

      Finally, we get to the Red Sox who play in the 7th largest market in the US. Yet, somehow they have maintained one of the top 2-3 payrolls in baseball over most of the last 10 years. And unlike the Mets, Dodgers, Cubs, White Sox, Rangers, Giants and A’s – all teams who play in larger markets – the Red Sox have been a contender virtually every single year since the Henry regime took control. Why is that? It simply can’t be just money.

      The answer is, the Red Sox, Rays, Phils, Yanks and Brewers are among the very best run franchises in MLB. High revenue or not – all of these teams have one quality in common – they excel at drafting and developing major league caliber talent that can either be used by the ML team or traded for impact players.

      In fact, as great as Andrew Friedman has been in Tampa – I maintain that the Brewers are the best run team as Milwaukee is by far the smallest market in MLB. The Brewers have the 17th highest payroll at $85.5mil – yet they play in the 35th biggest market. Meanwhile, the Rays, who play in the 15th largest market – have spent just $41mil – 2nd lowest. (The Twins, Rockies, Marlins, Cardinals, Pirates and Padres all play in smaller markets and have higher payrolls than the Rays).

      But again, I cannot emphasize this enough – the Red Sox are light years from the Yankees in terms of revenue and resources. Not only will the Yankees have spent $40 million more than the Red Sox (the Phillie’s have outspent the Sox this year as well, btw) – but the Yanks will also spend 10’s of millions more in Competitive Balance Tax.

      • aceshigh11 - Sep 20, 2011 at 12:11 PM

        What a great post. Nothing like pure facts to set the record straight.

      • bigleagues - Sep 20, 2011 at 1:23 PM

        Thanks!

        This has become a bit of a hobby for me and I’ve been thinking of ways to create a ‘competitive economic index’ that encompasses a myriad of known or reliably estimated factors as a manner of evaluating how effectively a MLB team leverages its given market into being competitive and turning the whole thing into a blog.

        We place players performances in context – but there is virtually no equal for franchises.

  6. chillidavis - Sep 20, 2011 at 12:02 AM

    p.s.
    I’m “chillidavis” cuz sometimes the game in its present state leaves me cold; but I can never abandon baseball … what a game. Tigers, Rays, Snakes, and the Cardinals and Braves in a pinch for this year … unless my banged up Giants go miracle on me.
    Cheers

  7. scribebob - Sep 20, 2011 at 11:30 AM

    No one with any sense of fairness would say that the list of injuries suffered by the Red Sox — both the number and the quality of those affected — should have been expected and planned for. Every team does have injuries, but not the likes of the Sox’ total front line pitching staff, with the majority of them out for either long periods or the entire season, as well as some of the most critical players in the fields, the likes of Youkilis, Drew and Crawford, to name a few. But the Sox are known for a ton of hitters, and even with all of those setbacks, the would have come through with just a slightly smaller curse on their front line pitching. And add to that the fact that one of their very expensive so-called “front-liners” — Lackey, was a total bust. And, sadly, one of our greatest, most trustworthy and longest active guy — the knuckler who has finally knuckled under — has seen has best days. Even the pen collapsed. But no matter what happens, let’s never forget the out-of-this-world contributions of three great hitters — Ellsbury, Gonzalez and Ortiz…any team with 3 guys playing like they have this year should win everything, no matter what. Their greatness will live forever.

    • bigleagues - Sep 20, 2011 at 1:25 PM

      Scribebob,

      Forgive me good sir . . . but I’m not ready for any eulogies on this season!

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