Yesterday afternoon, Theo Epstein spoke to the Boston media not long after the trade deadline had passed. “We gathered around everybody two minutes after the trade deadline and thanked them for their hard work and said, ‘As disappointed as we are not to be able to add a significant piece, we’re certainly proud of the process and actually proud of the results, because it would have been better than getting emotional, reactive, short-sighted in doing something that we would regret and would be detrimental to the health of the franchise.'”
The quote–which, according to some quick and dirty on-line searches, didn’t show up in the main trade stories in the Globe, the Herald, or the Providence Journal–says more about what happened (and what didn’t happen) yesterday, and how the relationship between Epstein and Larry Lucchino is playing out, than anything else Epstein said at his press conference.
During the year I spent with the Red Sox, Epstein talked often about the importance of process. When, throughout the 2005 season he was attempting to work out his contract with CEO Larry Lucchino, he didn’t appeal directly to principal owner John Henry because of his “deference to the process.” When Epstein finally explained to Henry why he felt he had to leave the team, he said that “the process of reaching a new contract” had disappointed him. And when, several months after famously walking out of Fenway in a gorilla suit, Epstein returned as the Sox’s general manager, he explained that the biggest factor had been his and Henry’s shared philosophical approach in regards to putting together winning baseball teams: “We both agree that what’s important is process over immediate, short-term results,” he told me.
In the days and weeks after Epstein left the team last October, there was a lot of discussion about whether or not Epstein and Lucchino were fighting for control over the team’s baseball operations. They weren’t: Lucchino has always functioned as the team’s CEO, and Epstein has always run baseball ops. There was, in addition to personal distrust that had built up over more than two years, a difference in how the two men felt the team should communicate with the public. Lucchino, who’d had to practically beg for fans when he ran the San Diego Padres, believes in doing whatever it takes to bring make the public feel as if the team is listening to their concerns. (This approach even extends to the players: Lucchino told me that one advantage of a July trade is that it shows the players that management is as committed to winning as the players are.) Epstein, especially in the wake of the 2004 World Series victory, believes the Red Sox have a unique opportunity to focus on the long-term instead of always looking for immediate gratification. In some very important ways, this difference in approach exacerbated the rift that led to Epstein’s resignation: when the Red Sox traded Nomar Garciaparra two years ago yesterday, Epstein was convinced that the process that led to that trade–dispassionately weighing the options, calmly considering the alternatives, and carefully looking at the future–was the right one. In the day or two immediately following the trade, when an Orlando Cabrera error resulted in a Sox loss and all of New England was bemoaning the departure of one of its heros, Epstein began hearing rumors that there were people within the organization who were telling the press that this had been a “bottom-up” trade, one orchestrated (and pushed through) by Epstein, not the team’s executives. Epstein not only felt betrayed, he began to wonder if the organization shared a commitment to the long-term goals he had laid out.
In the last two years, the Red Sox have repeatedly made player personnel decisions that reflect Epstein’s philosophy. They decided what they thought Pedro Martinez was worth and then stood firm when the Mets added a fourth year to their offer. Even after Lucchino told me he thought often of Johnny Damon’s “long-term value” to the franchise vis a vis the team’s relationship with its public, the Red Sox decided to not offer more than $11 million a year. But there have consistently been intimations that these moves reflected Epstein’s wishes, the implication being that even though Epstein was in control there were those who disagreed with him.* So far, that has not been the case this year, and the extent to which the Sox have stayed on the same page with their public “message” is striking. “We have a long-term plan,” Epstein said yesterday. “As much as we desperately wanted to do something to help our big-league team, it would have been shortsighted to sacrifice that long-term plan in order to incrementally increase our chances this year. We were asked over and over again for a lot of our good young players — good young players at the major league level who are part of our long-term plan — and it just wasn’t worth it.” The proposed Andruw Jones deal that got so much attention yesterday–in which the Red Sox would give up Coco Crisp, Craig Hansen, and Jon Lester–never was much of a possibility. The one deal that Sox were most eager to make, where Boston would get Houston’s Roy Oswalt in return for a group of players including some combination of Lester, Hansen, and Manny Delcarmen, didn’t work out in the end because Epstein and the Red Sox refused to give up more than they felt Oswalt was worth. This year, the Red Sox weren’t going to be caught up in the frenzy of the day or consumed by a need to counter the Yankees’ pick-up of Bobby Abreu. (An Oswalt acquisition, one article said, “[w]ould have been the classic ‘take that’ response to the Yankees”…which is precisely what the Sox were trying to avoid.)
Does this mean Lucchino’s power has been diminished? No, not necessarily; it means only that, when John Henry and Tom Werner promised Epstein that his running of the team’s on-field operation would not be compromised by leaks or outside pressure, they meant what they said. Lucchino, whose role within the team has never been clearly understood by the public, will continue to oversee every aspect of the organization and focus on the team’s revenue enhancement and long-term, off-field plans. And judging from what happened yesterday, Epstein will be freer than ever to shape the Sox’s roster without worrying about what’s going to show up in the next day’s papers.
It’s hard not to support Epstein’s push towards a future in which the Sox are less concerned with public reaction to the team’s every move. (At Saturday’s game, I listened as a very loud and very agitated fan bemoaned the fact that Willie Harris was not pinch-hitting when Jason Varitek was sent up late in the game to execute a bunt. Disregarding the fact that Willie Harris currently plays for Pawtucket, there are so many boneheaded sentiments expressed in that one sentence I barely knew where to begin. It would be frightening if the Sox did pay attention to this type of fan, who often shout the loudest but make the least sense.) But Epstein has always been more concerned with reactions in the clubhouse than on the street. On Sunday, in response to the Abreu trade, David Ortiz, who likely wanted a teammate on which he could unload some of his burden, asked a reporter, “What are we doing?” Baseball clubhouses are incredibly cliquey places (just ask Coco Crisp), and Epstein, who didn’t play baseball beyond high school, doesn’t have the easy rapport with players that former assistant general manager Josh Byrnes did. (Brynes was never a prospect, but he was a standout at Haverford, setting the school’s all-time home run mark.) “Josh is one of the people in the organization that I feel like I really have a good relationship with,” Gabe Kapler told me last September. “If I were to say you should go talk to somebody about the pulse of the organization, Iâ€šÃ„Ã´d say go talk to Josh. Heâ€šÃ„Ã´s going to be a great GM. Iâ€šÃ„Ã´m a big fan of Josh.” In October, Byrnes left Boston for Phoenix to become the GM of the Diamondbacks. If I were a fly on the wall this year, I’d be fascinated to watch how Epstein’s relationship (and his comfort level) with the players evolves.
* Believe me, I know Esptein wasn’t technically back when Damon signed with the Yankees; I know the Red Sox didn’t even have a chance to offer Damon $11 million a year; and I know Pedro didn’t go back to the Sox for a counter-offer when the Mets offered their four-year deal. The overall point holds, and if you want the nitty-gritty about all of these machinations, check out the book.
EDIT: Reactions like the one in the comment below offer a decent illustration of the fundamental misunderstandings that often accompany baseball comings and goings (as well as a total misunderstanding of what I was trying to illustrate above). 2004_champs writes: “Theoâ€šÃ„Ã´s view on Pedro was wrong. I donâ€šÃ„Ã´t care how bad Pedro is in 2008, he was still a better value than the other options such as Matt Clement. There was more to the Pedro non-signing than baseball. Theo made that personal, and it cost the Sox last year, this year, and the next two years as well. Theo needs to be held accountable. … How bad do you really think Pedro will be in 2008 for his $13 mill?”
Whether or not Pedro will or won’t be worth $13 million in 2008, and whether or not Pedro is or isn’t a better value than Matt Clement, is totally besides the point for two important reasons. First, the Red Sox didn’t have a chance to counter the Mets’ four-year deal. They were told, explicitly, that if they offered Pedro a guaranteed three-year contract that equalled the Mets’ three-year offer, he would re-sign with Boston. Obviously, that wasn’t true. (Nor was it true, as Pedro said in June, that he had a concrete four-year deal on the table before the Mets made their last-minute offer.) Second, whether or not the Pedro ends up being a better value than Matt Clement has little to do with anything; the point I was trying to illustrate is that the Red Sox believe that if they consistently follow the process they’ve articulated (internally, not externally), they will, more often than not, come out on top. Of course some deals won’t work out: players get injured, or they underperform, or they can’t adapt, or whatever. But the same process that led to the Sox’s signing of Ramiro Mendoza also led to their signing David Ortiz; you can’t bitch and moan about one without acknowledging the other. (It’s worth pointing out that Boston wasn’t alone in thinking Matt Clement would be a better value than Pedro going forward; many people in the Mets thought that, too, but Omar Minaya told his staff he thought Pedro could help bring the Mets some of the attention that had previously been concentrated on the Yankees. It’s also worth pointing out that there were 28 other teams in baseball who didn’t even get into the bidding.)
Fans’ reactions are supposed to be emotional; that’s what makes us fans. And hopefully, the reactions of the front-office are based more on reason that feeling.