Column: Theo Epstein is still the most important Red Sox this century

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Former Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein has played a pivotal role in Boston’s success, even during their latest World Series. Photo courtesy of Flickr/ Creative Commons

Yesterday, the world champion Boston Red Sox paraded through the streets. There was screaming, tears and lots of beer-chugging. But one man, incredibly crucial to the team’s 2018 success and the success of the Red Sox this century as a whole, was nowhere to be found. His office is now in another ancient ballpark almost a thousand miles away. In fact, it’s been seven years since he last worked for Boston.

Theo Epstein, the youngest general manager in MLB history, was the architect behind the first Red Sox team to win a title since World War I ended, broke an 86-year curse and won another title three years later for good measure. Before Epstein’s arrival in 2002, Boston’s strategy to assembling a championship contender was to open the checkbook as wide as possible. Epstein was the first one to combine one of baseball’s highest payrolls with the new-age thinking that would later become famous in “Moneyball.”

Like Billy Beane and his small-town Oakland Athletics, Epstein put emphasis on finding market inefficiencies. Stats like on-base percentage and slugging became critical evaluators. Although he wasn’t limited to the bargain bin like Oakland was, Epstein saw value where others did not. In his first few months he acquired David Ortiz, Mike Timlin and Bill Mueller, critical pieces to the famous 2004 team.

Epstein’s eye for talent extended to the farm system as well. Under his supervision, the Red Sox scouting and player development department’s produced players like Kevin Youkilis, Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury. And those are just players that made in to the majors in time for the 2007-title. In 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010, the Red Sox had a farm system that Baseball America ranked in the Top 10. For a team that was always in the mix for championships, Epstein struck the perfect balance of spending money wisely and conserving the prospects they still had.

Which is why it’s all the more infuriating that Epstein was run out of town after the Red Sox collapse in 2011. The Sox became the first team in MLB history to have a nine-game lead at the beginning of September and fail to make the playoffs, going 7-20 in the regular season’s final month. The man with the keyboard took a large brunt of the blame for the on-field performance and Epstein was allowed to walk the following winter. The most common criticism was his lack of success in the free agent pool in recent years, mainly the signings of John Lackey, Carl Crawford and Mike Cameron. This line of thinking ignores that the Red Sox still had a path to success because Epstein’s farm system was still producing stellar prospects. Epstein treated the free agency pool exactly as a team with Boston’s money should. A safety-net to fall back on. It is always better to overspend for talent than to overtrade for it. Epstein’s farm system was the lifeblood of the Red Sox and still is to this day.

The Red Sox won the World Series again just two years after Epstein’s dismissal. Ben Cherington might have taken over as general manager but Epstein’s fingerprints were still all over the roster. Cherington brought in veterans who had career years, but the core of the team was still made up of products of Epstein’s baseball operations department. Of Boston’s 25-man roster during the 2013 World Series, 15 were originally brought to Boston under Epstein’s watch, whether by trade, draft or free agency. Veterans like Ortiz, Pedroia and Lester were the heart and soul. Even Lackey, previously claimed as a black mark on Epstein’s resume, was the winning pitcher in Boston’s World Series-clinching game.

Here we are, five years after that title, parading through the streets and we still owe credit to Theo Epstein. Mookie Betts, the likely 2018 American League MVP, Jackie Bradley Jr., the ALCS MVP, Xander Bogaerts and Christian Vazquez came under Boston’s thumb in 2011, Epstein’s final year with the team. That’s just about half of the regular starting lineup. Betts and Bogaerts, along with 2015-draftee Andrew Benintendi make up one of the brightest young cores in baseball. Even Bradley, the elder statesman of Boston’s outfield at a decrepit 28 years old, still has plenty of baseball left in him.

And I can’t forget Matt Barnes. We’ve had our differences over the years, but the 2011-draftee was lights out in the playoffs, letting up just one earned run in Boston’s three series. He made me look stupid for doubting him and made Epstein look smart for drafting him.

Without Theo Epstein, the Red Sox don’t win in 2004. They don’t rewrite the book on how a big-market team evaluates talent. They don’t develop one of the consistently great farm systems in all of baseball. He’s provided them with the core to win now and in the future despite leaving seven years ago.

The Red Sox are in a golden age right now. No man is more responsible than Theo Epstein.


Bryan Lambert is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at bryan.lambert@uconn.edu.

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