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Oct 8, 2006:

20/20 Commentary

Theo Epstein: Stewardship or Sewership

OCT. 8, 2006 -- You don't have to know rocket science or the Theory of Relativity to understand the depth of concern that Red Sox fans have for the organizational direction. Not since 1966 has the franchise appeared so mediocre but not average as the Sox did during the final two months of 2006.

From 2003 to 2005, the Red Sox finished second in the AL East three times, advanced each year to the American League playoffs, and won the World Series in 2004. To an extent, long-suffering Sox fans give the organization a mulligan for 2006, including a disastrous series of illness and injuries and trades that (as always) require longer samples to judge fully. By what metric can we baseball outsiders judge the performance of the front office, most notably, Brookline's Theo Epstein. The GM stated, “We were a strong club. We took on so many holes because of injuries. With those gaps we got to a certain performance level...”

Last offseason the Sox wallowed in confusion, the Gang of Four at the Winter Meetings, key Sox front office figures defecting to other organizations, and a rumored bitter power struggle extant between Larry Lucchino and Epstein. Epstein apparently won, although we cannot know the terms of Lucchino's surrender. The Sox at least head into this offseason with a stable staff, although we must determine how we will evaluate Epstein going forward.

Obviously, Baseball Operations require 'bottom line' evaluation. Did the Sox win (enough), and if not, was the failure tactical or strategic? A strategic goal would include minor league development, to allow the Sox to compete for a championship annually, with a manageable payroll? Another strategic goal (including the business side) requires revenue growth to service debt, and improve the finances for capital expenditures on players. A third strategic goal includes defining the core of the team and securing its presence. As a corollary, extending David Ortiz's contract satisfies part of that goal of attracting and retaining talent. A fourth strategic choice is the use of Sabermetric evaluation versus 'traditional' player evaluation.

Epstein seems to have the people skills and communications ability to succeed.

Tactical skills might include roster management (trades, free agency, player acquisition), talent evaluation, contract negotiation, and interaction with other franchises. A trade might pay immediate dividends (Pedro Martinez last year) but prove inadvisable later (Pedro Martinez' 2006 campaign and pending shoulder surgery).

Even the most compulsive fans (include many of us here) have problems evaluating both the strategic and tactical plan. Theo Epstein has said, “It's not time enough for a really adequate sample size, but we have to be patient." I sense a number of solid pitching prospects at the lower levels (Doubront, Bard, Johnson, Masterson, etc), some progress in the middle (Buchholz, Hottovy, Dobies), and question marks concerning the upper levels (including the development of Hansen, Lester's health, and so on). The business strategies have likely remained on track (Lucchino's doing), and the core of the team has become old (Schilling, Wakefield), frayed (Varitek), or declining (Nixon). Pedroia will get the chance to have a full spring training to show what kind of player he can be, given time to make considerable adjustments.

We will likely assess Epstein's value over the offseason, as he faces a housecleaning challenge worthy of Hrecules and the Aegean stables. While 2006's failures can be attributed to bad luck and performance dropoff beyond statistical norms, even the most 'patient' fans won't endure another season on the fringe with equanimity. To quote Theo Epstein, “It's not fair to attribute my decision to any one factor or any one person... there were many factors that went into the decision." I'm sure that all Sox fans agree with Epstein's sentiment, “We want to win 95 games next year and get back into the postseason. We want to try to do that every year.”

They say that you shouldn't judge a cake before it's baked. Don't bet that Sox fans believe that too strongly. GMs have to adapt, just as players do. Fans won't adapt to losing.

This offseason will determine both the direction of the Sox and their GM. No matter what Epstein does, wins and losses will determine his legacy.

-- Ron Sen, Boston Dirt Dogs contributor and founder of Red Sox Reality Check

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