In a wide-ranging interview on Boston's 98.5 The Sports Hub, Chicago Cubs general manager Theo Epstein discussed his decade as GM of the Red Sox and admitted that his "one regret" during the period was big-name free-agent signings made in response to pressure from fans and management.
Speaking with Felger and Mazz co-hosts Mike Felger and Tony Mazzarotti, Epstein said that while his philosophy during most of his tenure in Boston from 2002-2011 was to have strong drafts and build the team from within, he gave in a bit after winning a World Series to what he and his baseball operations team referred to as "The Monster."
“You had the realities of being in a big market and being in a really competitive atmosphere and a place that wasn’t that patient,” Epstein said. “Then, on top of that, we had the reality of what we came to call “The Monster"—which was what happened after we won in ’04. There became such an emphasis in the Red Sox organization of doing things bigger, better—pushing to be more marketable, more profitable, not to lose any fans, to keep pushing these numbers. It’s perfectly understandable, and I don’t blame anybody for it. It’s sort of a natural consequence of winning and a natural consequence of being in business."
Epstein was pushed by Felger to comment on whether certain free-agent signings that have hampered the team in recent years like outfielder Carl Crawford and starting pitcher John Lackey were made by him or by team president Larry Lucchino and ownership. After the Red Sox suffered an epic September collapse last year to miss the playoffs and then spent most of the first two months of this season in last place, such signings have come to define the team as bloated underachievers.
Crawford, a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winner with Tampa Bay in 2010, had a very disappointing year at the plate and in the field in 2011 after signing a seven-year, $142 million contract with Boston. Lackey, who signed a five-year, $82.5 million contract with Red Sox in December 2009, was just 26-23 during his first two seasons in Boston. Last year, he had a mind-boggling-bad 6.41 ERA—one of the worst in MLB history for a pitcher with 150 or more innings.
Making these signings look even worse is that both players have not even appeared in a single game this season, as Lackey will miss all of 2012 after Tommy John surgery and Crawford is continuing to rehab from an elbow injury. His return date remains uncertain.
Epstein took full responsibility for these signings, but said that they went against what he believed to be sound baseball strategy—especially with Lackey, who was a 31-year-old hurler coming off an 11-8 season. The Red Sox had been swept by the Angels in the ALDS, with Lackey throwing seven shutout innings in the first game.
After Boston declined to re-sign popular outfielder Jason Bay, who was coming off a 36-homer, 119-RBI season, Epstein said there was pressure to make another “sizzling” signing, and the guy who helped beat them was raised to a higher level than he deserved.
"When you’re in a big market, and you win, and you’re up against the Yankees, and ratings are what they are, and attendance is what it is; no one wants to go backwards as a business," Epstein explained.
"I think if I learned a lesson from that offseason, it was to never feel the need to do something," he admitted. "If you’re trying to avoid one move that you don’t think is going to work out, don’t then settle for a different move that maybe doesn’t check all the boxes. You don’t have to get everything done in one offseason just because of what’s going on in the environment around you.”
Asked whether he believes the Red Sox can emerge from their current malaise, which extends to the last months that he ran the club last year, Epstein was graciously optimistic in assessing slumping starting pitchers Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz. He pointed to Buchholz’s rebound from a dismal start this year and says Beckett and Lester can do the same.
As for last September’s fall—which, in the end, led to the departure of both Epstein and popular manager Terry Francona—Epstein said it was primarily based on these three pitchers all slumping at the same time. When it was suggested by Felger, however, that Francona was too much of a “player’s manager” who did not call out these and other players in public when necessary, Epstein jumped to “Tito’s” defense.
“You guys don’t know what happened all the time behind the scenes,” Epstein stated. “Tito’s approach was incredibly successful. He had to be true to who he was, and that meant a lot of loyalty but a lot of expectations behind the scenes and a lot of accountability behind the scenes that never necessarily saw the light of day.”
Epstein also defended his own tenure, which included World Series titles in 2004 and 2007 and the development of All-Star performers like Buccholz, Dustin Pedroia and Jacob Ellsbury. And he had an answer for those who blame him for the team’s current problems.
"I think the narrative can be shaped any way that people want," he said. "I think it’s easier to say that than to look at Pedroia, Bucholz, Ellsbury, a lot of the players on the roster that they probably have good feelings about and say, 'Wow, Theo was the GM when we drafted and developed that guy and brought him up.' It kind of cuts both ways. I think there is a tendency to seize on the negative data points. That’s fine. Look, if I couldn’t handle that I wouldn’t have made it one year, let alone 10 years, in Boston.”
Asked if he wishes the Red Sox well, despite his difficult parting from the franchise, the man who grew up a short walk from Fenway Park said he'll always cheer for his home town team.
"I have great personal connections to a lot of the people who are still there. I unconditionally root for them hard," he said. "I guess conditionally, because I’m not rooting for them this weekend (against the Cubs). Besides that, I unconditionally root for them hard and wish nothing but the best for them. Look, I’ve been following them my whole life. I spent 10 years there and left a big part of my life there—I sacrificed a lot and also benefited a lot from the things that went on there. It meant a lot to me and it always will.
"I’m always going to pull for them and root hard for them."
Saul Wisnia lives less than seven miles from Fenway Park and works 300 yards from Yawkey Way. His latest book, Fenway Park: The Centennial, is available at amazon.com and his Red Sox reflections can be found at http://saulwisnia.blogspot.com/. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @saulwizz.