Your Alternate Red Sox Universe

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You’ve all heard and read about the Red Sox players running to ownership to complain about Bobby Valentine. Analysis of this is rampant, but I’m going to do something different. Let’s say that Terry Francona wasn’t forced out and as a corollary to that decision, Theo Epstein stayed on as GM to fulfill the final year of his contract. What would the Red Sox look like right now without Valentine as manager; without Ben Cherington in this no-win situation and having his power usurped by Larry Lucchino; without the moves they made to patch over holes while keeping the foundation of the team intact?

Epstein said that his future with the Red Sox was tied to Francona. Epstein was entering the final year of his contract and, in a benevolently arrogant Theo way, would’ve done the Red Sox a favor and stayed under those terms contingent on Francona being retained as manager.

I think Francona wanted freedom from the out-of-control nuthouse and expectations the Red Sox had become. I think his desire to leave was due to his physical and mental health. What had once been appreciated was no longer so; in a state of World Series win or bust, there’s no enjoyment, only relief in winning or devastation in losing. Francona had had it.

I also think Epstein wanted out. Whether it was to escape the pressure of his hometown and the victories that had turned into a burden or that he wanted a new challenge, he needed to move on. Both achieved their ends. Francona is able to sit in an ESPN booth and luxuriate in the accolades of what he presided over and be absolved of the blame for the lack of discipline, overt disrespect, poor play, and questionable decisions that led to the 2011 collapse and set the stage for the exodus.

Is it something new for voices in the Red Sox organization to unload on employees who’ve departed by choice or by force? They did it with Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Johnny Damon, and now Francona. This offended the players? It’s par for the course. They ripped David Ortiz and Jason Varitek before both decided to stay. In 2005 Epstein left in a power grabbing snit and came back. It’s the way things go in Boston. The “grand returns as beloved conquering heroes” for these star players as if there was no bad blood is inherent and hypocritical. It’s not going to change.

Would the 2012 team be different with Epstein and Francona? Would Josh Beckett be pitching better? Would Jon Lester? Would they have moved forward with Kevin Youkilis?

Considering how he views the closer role as easily replaceable, I can tell you now that Epstein would not have traded Josh Reddick for Andrew Bailey. Epstein would also have blunted Lucchino’s incursion into the baseball operations. But it was Epstein who put together the 2011 team. It was Epstein who paid over $100 million for Daisuke Matsuzaka; signed Carl Crawford, John Lackey and Bobby Jenks. Most of the roster and the players who are underperforming and throwing tantrums were brought in by Epstein. It was Francona who let the players run roughshod over all propriety and behave as if they were entitled to do whatever they wanted just because. To think that the club would be better now if Francona and Epstein had stayed is ignoring the fundamental issues that caused the 2011 collapse in the first place.

Both Epstein and Francona can feel badly for players they have affinity for and who played hard for them like Dustin Pedroia, but privately don’t you think they’re wallowing in what the Red Sox are going through now? Loving it? Sitting there with smug half-smiles as they’ve moved along and their former organization is teetering on the brink of revolution?

The Red Sox are 57-60 and are not making the playoffs. It would be the same circumstances with different actors in the drama if Epstein and Francona had stayed. If that had happened, Epstein’s expiring contract would be the hot topic of discussion and those who are looking back on Francona’s tenure with the remembrances of a long-lost love would’ve called for his head in May and the Red Sox would’ve had no choice but to fire him. Do you think the players would’ve defended him? Or, just as they leaked the meeting with ownership regarding Valentine, would they be privately saying that the clubhouse had tuned Francona out and a change needed to be made?

This is not a good team. Valentine has brought on many of the problems himself because of who and how he is, but the players were ready to mutiny the second he was hired before even talking to him and it was all based on reputation. He was a bad choice to patch over the holes that led to the massive changes, but it was either make structural changes to the personnel or put a Band-Aid on them and try to find someone who they felt would handle the stat-studded roster they were stuck with. It hasn’t worked, but they wouldn’t be in a better position with Francona; with Gene Lamont; with Dale Sveum; with John Farrell; with anyone.

The issue of the players failing to look in the mirror and accepting that they’re part of the problem still remains sans Francona and Epstein and with Valentine targeted for elimination. Beckett refused to take responsibility for being out of shape, arrogant and selfish last season and the same issues are in play now. Adrian Gonzalez’s looking toward the heavens and referencing God’s plan at the conclusion of 2011 along with him having been the star player for three teams that have collapsed and his whining about Valentine are validating the perception that he’s not a leader and has a preference to being a background player rather than the out-front star.

Is Valentine to blame for Beckett? For Lester? For Daniel Bard? For Crawford?

No. But he’s the scapegoat.

Red Sox ownership is going to have to confront these hard truths. Yes, they can fire Valentine and install whomever as the new manager, but is that going to fix things? Will the players suddenly rediscover a work ethic that’s sorely lacking? And if Pedroia is so hell-bent on winning and doing things the “right” way, why didn’t he confront the players who were clearly acting in a manner that was diametrically opposed to winning and was affecting the team negatively last September?

The team doesn’t need a new manager. It needs a mirror. A big one.

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Don’t Expect Miracles From Theo Epstein

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The Cubs paid a lot of money and are going to send undetermined compensation—a prospect or prospects—for the right to hire Theo Epstein while he still had a year remaining on his contract with the Red Sox—Boston.com Story.

Only hindsight will tell whether or not this is a wise move.

In similar fashion, the Red Sox were set to hire Billy Beane from the Oakland A’s after the 2002 season and send a young infielder named Kevin Youkilis to the A’s for the right to do so.

Beane backed out on the deal that was worth over $12 million and had some insane perks such as letting Beane spend a chunk of his time on the West Coast and run the Red Sox from there.

Retrospectively, it’s hard to see Beane having replicated the success enjoyed by Epstein and his staff with the Red Sox. Two championships; an annual contender with homegrown talent; and daily sellouts speak for themselves.

Now Epstein’s the man with the reputation.

But 5-years at $18.5 million? For a team president?

I’m dubious.

What’s Epstein going to do with the Cubs?

First he’s hiring trusted acolytes from the Padres and his days with the Red Sox including current Padres GM Jed Hoyer.

I wondered yesterday why the Padres were letting Hoyer go without compensation since he’s under contract through 2014, but they’re going to receive prospects from the Cubs as well.

I wouldn’t give up players for an executive, but this is the way business is being done today. Don’t automatically dismiss how good the prospects might be because few knew what Youkilis was before Moneyball.

If anyone’s thinking the Cubs are going to be a lean machine of inexpensive “finds” that the “genius” Epstein discovered using some arcane formula that he and only he knows, you haven’t been paying attention.

Back when Beane was set to take over the Red Sox, an important factor in his potential for success or failure is that the details of Moneyball and Beane’s strategies weren’t widely known because the book had yet to be published. He was operating from a personal strategy borne out of desperation that not all were privy to; now, everyone has the same stats and are, again, reliant on old-school scouting techniques; an intelligent manager; superior coaching; smart trades; good free agent signings; and luck.

Those who point to other clubs who’ve been successful on a budget aren’t delving into the requisite factors of a team like the Rays maintaining excellence without any money and a decrepit, uninviting ballpark—they’ve got a load of starting pitching from being so consistently terrible for years; locked up key components like Evan Longoria; and have been masterful at finding bullpen arms and putting them in a position to succeed with an altered approach and a superlative defense.

There’s a baseline of talent with the Cubs—just as there was one with the Red Sox when Epstein was placed in charge there. It’s not as deep nor as good, but they have some starting pitching with Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster and Carlos Zambrano (who’s a lunatic, but might be salvageable); they have Starlin Castro; and relievers Jeff Samardzija, Sean Marshall and Carlos Marmol.

It’s not a barren wasteland and there’s no mandate to cut costs due to monetary constraints.

This whole series of events is a bit incestuous and reminiscent of the decried “old boys club” of yesteryear when former players or loyal executives were placed in the perch of GM rather than finding someone qualified to do the job with a breadth of experience in every aspect of running an organization.

Epstein, who wanted to leap from the Red Sox Hindenburg, got his out—and a lot of money and power—with the Cubs.

Hoyer is leaving a situation where he couldn’t spend big and is grabbing the Epstein ladder to be his top lieutenant and run the club on a day-to-day basis while Epstein acts presidential.

Another former Epstein assistant, Josh Byrnes, is taking over in San Diego.

This is a similar dynamic to that which was rebelled against with Moneyball—that “old boys club”. Outsiders have become insiders, except that now, it’s not a litany of former players and longtime employees, but young college graduates who cut their teeth as interns, crunched numbers and worked their way up; it’s reaching its logical conclusion with the failures of such names as Paul DePodesta, whose tenure with the Dodgers was a nightmare that cannot be conveniently laid at the feet of Frank McCourt as many set out to do in his weak defense.

Beane himself has become a punchline.

And that’s a far cry from what was essentially a blank check and contract that Red Sox owner John Henry used to lure Beane to the Red Sox.

In today’s world, a GM has to be savvy to finances, scouting, development and stats; he has to delegate; and he (or she—Kim Ng is going to interview for the Angels job) has to be able to express himself to the media, saying things without saying anything to get into trouble.

Epstein has all these attributes.

But so did Beane.

Could another GM candidate like Jerry DiPoto or Tony LaCava go to the Cubs and do essentially what Epstein’s going to do? What he did with the Red Sox? Spend money, draft well, make some trades that might or might not work out and cover up any free agent mistakes with more money?

Yes.

And could they do it at a cheaper rate than $18.5 million for Epstein; presumably another $5 million for Hoyer; and the prospects that are going to the  Padres and Red Sox?

Again, I say yes.

Time will tell if this was a smart move. Just as the Red Sox were fortunate that Beane backed out on them and they hired Epstein, the Cubs could see one of the people they had a chance to hire go elsewhere and become the man they think they’re hiring now, except another club will benefit from that unknown.

The Cubs got the man they wanted.

We’ll see if it works out or if they would’ve been better off to have had the negotiations come apart, leaving them to hire someone younger and with the same attributes that got Epstein the Red Sox job in the first place.

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This Is Not About Theo Epstein (That Comes Later)

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Panic abounds in Boston as the prospect of a trifecta of organizational dysfunction beckons. Following the humiliating collapse and requisite sniping, backbiting and blaming one another has come the departures of the two men who were out front of the Red Sox revival, manager Terry Francona and GM Theo Epstein.

Never mind the fact that many managers could have and would have won with that roster full of talent; ignore that there are GM candidates everywhere and no one is irreplaceable, it’s a triple shot of torment to an organization that had grown so used to success that they’ve forgotten how expectantly painful it was to be a Red Sox fan.

Here are the facts with Epstein and the Red Sox: they were gutsy; they were lucky; they filled the front office with smart people; and they won.

Will Epstein have the same success with the Cubs?

Maybe.

Maybe not.

Do you know how the Red Sox managed to draft Clay Buchholz? Dodgers scouting guru Logan White wanted to draft Buchholz, but was overruled by Paul DePodesta who wanted Luke Hochevar.

The Dodgers drafted Hochevar…and failed to sign him.

So the Red Sox got Buchholz.

They were lucky with David Ortiz, whom they signed as an “oh him” guy.

They were lucky that no one ever took them up on the multiple times they tried to dump Manny Ramirez.

They were lucky that the exalted genius Billy Beane turned down the offer to be GM after initially accepting. (Be funny if they hired him now!)

They were smart in ignoring conventional wisdom—Moneyball and otherwise—and wound up with the likes of Dustin Pedroia.

The key for the Red Sox was the utter ruthlessness with which they dispatched players who either wanted too much money or too many years as free agents or were no longer performing and were traded.

The dealing of Nomar Garciaparra in 2004 was an act of heresy; without it, they likely would not have won the World Series that year.

There never would have been a trade for Josh Beckett had Epstein not resigned in a power-grabbing snit after 2005; and with that trade came the MVP of the 2007 World Series, Mike Lowell—whom they were forced to take!

Letting Pedro Martinez and Jason Bay leave turned out to be prescient decisions that didn’t work out well for the players in any aspect aside from their pockets and has ended positively for the Red Sox.

The era of the rock star GM has created this concept of the all-seeing, all-knowing expert at the top of the pyramid. It’s nice, neat, salable and a load of garbage.

People don’t want the truth that Epstein was hired as a face of the franchise in part because Larry Lucchino didn’t want to do the GM grunt work. But the puppet started tearing at his strings quickly as his reputation grew and the struggle became an uneasy truce.

The Red Sox will get someone else if Epstein leaves. Presumably it will be someone intelligent and willing to listen to others—something that perhaps Epstein no longer wants to do.

It could be an inspired maneuver like the Rays decision to hand control over to Andrew Friedman; or it might be as disastrous as the Jack (Amazin’ Exec) Zduriencik tenure as Mariners GM.

Who deserves the credit or blame? The person who wrote the song? The guy who sang it? The producer? The background musicians or the promoters? Is it a combination?

Without Ed Wade and Mike Arbuckle, there’s no appellation of “old school baseball genius” for Pat Gillick with the Phillies.

Without Bobby Cox laying the foundation for the Braves of the 1990s, John Schuerholz is not heading for the Hall of Fame.

Without Gene Michael, there’s no Brian Cashman.

The line between genius and idiot is narrow and has little to do with the individual, but chance, circumstance, courage and support.

It could be terrible decision for Epstein to leave. Or it could be one for him to stay. But it can’t be judged now.

And life will go on.

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