It has been a disappointing couple of months for Red Sox fans. The epic collapse of the team in September was only a precursor for a tumultuous beginning to the offseason, starting with Terry Francona’s departure from Boston. Though most accounts have it that Tito lost control of the clubhouse (and the Boston Globe now reports that he was having personal problems as well), it’s a shame to see the best manager in Red Sox history go out in such fashion.
Now it is being reported that general manager Theo Epstein is headed out the door for an opportunity to take over for the Chicago Cubs organization. As a fan of the Red Sox, I have very mixed feelings about the prospect of Theo’s departure. On the one hand, this is a man who orchestrated the 2004 and 2007 championship squads for Boston, dealing for Curt Schilling along the way. Adrian Beltre was a savvy one-year signing, and Adrian Gonzalez has been terrific since coming over via trade. The trade for Jarrod Saltalamacchia has panned out fairly well to this point, and he shows signs of becoming a solid asset for the Sox in the future. The Red Sox have had a terrific run of success throughout Theo’s reign, but there are certain aspects of his track record that are spottier.
Epstein flipped Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez for Josh Beckett, a move that helped win the 2007 World Series, but sacrificed some long-term success for the Sox (despite Hanley’s mediocre 2011). The Sox have failed to find consistency at shortstop since 2004, bouncing from Orlando Cabrera to Edgar Renteria to Julio Lugo (GAHHHHHHH) to Marco Scutaro, who has been at least passable. Slick-fielding Jose Iglesias has shown signs of competency, but is passable at best with his bat. The Sox have regressed massively in pitching, running through starters at alarming rates. Experiments and reclamation projects with Andrew Miller, Paul Byrd, Wade Miller, and Matt Clement have largely been busts, while Daisuke Matsuzaka raised pulses (and hackles) with his inconsistent performance. John Lackey has been a colossal disappointment at best, and an epic failure by most accounts.
The minor league talent, in particular, has dried up somewhat under Theo; while Will Middlebrooks is an intriguing prospect at third base, the Sox have failed to consistently develop solid talent in the minors. The most pressing need now is pitching, where the lack of upper-level talent means that Boston frequently must turn to the free agent market, prompting signings like Lackey and Clement where internal candidates could go. The Red Sox must look enviously at the Tampa Bay Rays, who have developed a number of outstanding pitchers internally for a fraction of the cost the Sox pay in free agency. Pitchers like Alex Cobb, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis and Matt Moore would nicely replace the floundering Lackey or Tim Wakefield while costing significantly less.
The speculation is that Ben Cherington, Epstein’s assistant GM, is next in line for the job if Theo departs. Cherington has an outstanding reputation in player development, and has all the right assets to do a fine job if given the opportunity. While some outside candidates (like MLB’s Kim Ng, who has too long been overlooked for GM jobs) would do well, the risk of alienating the internal talent like Cherington may prove too great for the Sox to ignore. Ironically, the Red Sox have done better keeping and developing their core front office staff than they have their minor league prospects.
Theo Epstein did tremendous things for the Boston Red Sox, and brought great joy to a fan base long accustomed to losing and bitter disappointment. If he leaves in the next few days, we should wish him well and thank him for the wonderful memories. But his departure would not cripple the Red Sox, and might open the door for exciting and innovative new moves.