Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Defending Theo Epstein

Theo Epstein has left Boston and the bashing has begun. It seems every article and every talk show host list every single bad move Theo ever made as GM of the Red Sox.

Revisionist history suggests that 2004 team was really built by Dan Duquette and the 2007 team was built in the weeks in which Theo had walked out in the gorilla suit. The sentiment by way too many people is that Theo's time in Boston was overrated that he really was The Boy Blunder. It is time to defend Theo and it really isn't a hard defense.

Before we get to the facts, I will admit that I am biased when it comes to Theo. I was a fan from the day the Red Sox hired him as the GM back in 2002. Here was a guy who was just a year older than me and grew up living and dying with the Red Sox. I saw myself in him. When Theo was hired he talked about being 12 years old and how devastated he was watching game six of the 1986 World Series. I blogged about my experiences on that awful night and they were eerily similar to what Theo had gone through  I felt a bond with him right away. He was living out my dream. Who wouldn't want to call the shots for the team they have loved since they were a child? I was living that dream vicariously through a guy who was around my age and both knew the pain of being a kid watching their favorite team fail when being so close to winning it all in 1986. Theo wrote and op-ed piece for the Boston Globe in which he said his farewell to Boston. Ironically, it was published on October 25th, twenty-five years after that awful night that bonded myself with Theo.

Let's get to the facts now. The first charge is that the 2004 team was really built by Dan Duquette and Theo really had nothing to do with it. Theo took over after the 2002 season. The Red Sox had won 93 games that season but it wasn't good enough for a playoff spot. A late season swoon cost them. The team was very talented and of course had the likes of Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra and Johnny Damon. All of them would be key contributors to the 2004 championship team but the roster had a ton of holes, holes that Theo started plugging right away. The 2002 team had infield of Tony Clark, Rey Sanchez, Nomar and Shea Hillenbrand. Does that sound like a championship infield to you? The Red Sox DH was Brian Daubach. I loved Daubach, but is he a guy that should be the DH for a championship team? The rotation of course had Pedro at the top followed by Derek Lowe, John Burkett, Frank Castillo and then a combination of Casey Fossum and Tim Wakefield. Does that seem like a championship rotation to you?

Over the next two seasons Theo went to work building that 2004 championship team. It started with the infield when he acquired Kevin Millar from a team in Japan. Millar was a grinder at the plate and a huge leader in the clubhouse. He would also prove to have two very huge walks in that amazing 2004 ALCS. Theo then picked up Todd Walker for the 2003 team to play second base and then picked up Mark Bellhorn for the 2004 team. Bellhorn was another guy who grinded out at bats and he would have big postseason home runs in 2004. Theo upgraded at third base with Bill Mueller who would win the batting title in 2003 and come up with clutch hits in the 2004 postseason. An aging and often injured Garciaparra was traded for Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz at the trade deadline in 2004. The entire infield was built by Theo for the 2004 world champions. There is no getting around that or somehow distorting those facts. There is also no way around the DH that Theo Epstein brought to Boston. No more Daubach, instead a guy named David Ortiz. How did that work out?

Theo did not do much to the starting pitching rotation for the 2003 team which is one of the reasons why they fell short. Epstein corrected that problem prior to the 2004 season by trading for a guy named Curt Schilling. Theo then went out and signed Keith Foulke who was instrumental in the title run.

Theo then upgraded the bench and bullpen depth with guys like Mike Timlin and speedy baserunner named Dave Roberts. Leadership was also important with the addition of Gabe Kapler who was a very vocal leader in that clubhouse along with doing a great job in right field filling in for an often injured Trot Nixon.

Moving on to 2007. The big debate is who really made the trade for Mike Lowell and Josh Beckett. The Theo bashers will tell you that when Theo stormed out in the gorilla suit the trade was made and Theo never would have done it. Of course these same Theo bashers criticize him for not having an elite shortstop since Nomar. This is the classic case of the Theo bashers wanting it both ways. They say in one breath not to give credit to Theo for Beckett and Lowell and in the next breath point to the weak shortstop position under Theo. Well, if it is true that Theo never would have made the trade then a guy named Hanley Ramirez would be the Red Sox shortstop.

I find it had to believe that Theo would not have made the trade for Beckett and Lowell but for the sake of all the Theo bashers we can pretend Theo had nothing to do with it. So let's look at the rest of the 2007 team and let's see how much Theo's moves really had to do with that title.

Curt Schilling anchored the staff in 2007 while the bullpen was stacked with Jonathan Papelbon, Hideki Okajima and Mike Timlin. Papelbon was drafted by Epstein, Schilling as we mentioned was traded to the Red Sox and Okajima and Timlin were free agent pick ups by Theo.

The lineup still had Manny but they also had his tag team partner in the lineup, David Ortiz. Once again, not a bad free agent pick up by Theo. Dustin Pedroia was the starting second baseman for the world champs and was also named Rookie of the Year. He would win the MVP in 2008 when the Red Sox were a game away from going to the World Series. Epstein was ridiculed for drafting Pedroia so high and was criticized even more when Pedroia got off to a slow start in his first season. Theo was right about Pedroia and Pedroia was a key to the 2007 title and continues to be the key for the franchise.

Jacoby Ellsbury was also drafted by Epstein and he would have his breakout moment in the World Series hitting .438  Ellsbury is only getting better as he is coming off an MVP caliber season in 2011.

J.D. Drew was a controversial signing by Epstein but without his grand slam in the 2007 ALCS the Red Sox don't go on to win it all.

Even if you throw out Beckett and Lowell, the 2007 team has Theo's stamp all over it just like the 2004 team.

The facts are the facts. The moves are the moves. Has Theo made bad moves? Of course he has and it is real easy to list them all. However, the list I just made outweighs the bad list and if you struggle with comparing and contrasting the two lists then simply remember that Theo Epstein was the GM of the Red Sox when they won two world championships. Case closed.

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