Any serious Red Sox fan knows that former general manager Theo Epstein has his share of responsibility for some of the problems facing the team—including a few, large player contracts now burdening the team. However, too little attention has been devoted to the key ways Epstein's absence has contributed to major, systemic problems that have crippled the 2012 team.
Let's consider just a few significant examples:
1. Epstein's Exit Left a Power Vacuum That Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino Rushed to Fill and Occupy Ever Since
Lucchino's enhanced influence on baseball operations during the first year with Ben Cherington at GM has negatively influenced the 2012 team in many ways.
First, consider the most obvious, glaring initial example. Lucchino asked Cherington to conduct a search for a new manager in the fall of 2011 following the team's historic collapse in September, 2011 and the departure of former manager Terry Francona. We all know the story: Cherington managed a methodical, thoughtful search that concluded with his recommendation that Dale Sveum be named the new manager.
Then, Lucchino and the owners intervened at the last minute, totally disregarded Cherington's recommendation and, in essence, took over the search. That process culminated with the selection of Valentine, whom Lucchino had brought to the table. This badly undermined Cherington in the first months of his tenure as GM of a fragile team that had just fallen apart in 2011.
Pause for a second: If Theo were here, he would have never, ever have allowed Lucchino to push him around like that. In fact, I think he would have threatened to resign or gone to owner John Henry to maintain control of a managerial search.
The problem is that all signs suggest that Lucchino continued to wield considerable influence on Cherington and baseball operations as the 2012 season progressed. Consider that in recent days and weeks, Lucchino has been the one to make public statements to confirm Valentine would not be fired before the end of the season.
It wasn't Cherington who made those statements. Maybe the Sox felt that because Lucchino had been Valentine's main "sponsor," he should make the statement. But, if Lucchino had handed the reins to Cherington, Cherington should be the one in the public role of "Valentine's boss."
However, all season long, media and fans have not not viewed Cherington in the typical "oversight" role with Valentine—as is the case with many GMs and managers. Why? Because everyone knows Lucchino—not Cherington—hired Valentine.
This blurring of Cherington's role has been exacerbated by Lucchino's continuing influence on baseball operations. There have been many moments this season when unfolding circumstances could or should have prompted a statement by the GM to explain a development or to send a signal to media and fans. Epstein used to step forward and make these kind of remarks, when warranted. Cherington has done so occasionally, but I sense his voice and role are muted somewhat by Lucchino's role.
I'm not sure, but I think the Red Sox and Lucchino should have given Cherington that chance from Day 1. The GM should handle all baseball decisions and Lucchino should stay out of them—except, of course, being in the most major decisions when he and the owners weigh in.
This problem with Lucchino overstepping his old role has impacted the 2012 Red Sox in many ways, I believe.
2. Theo Epstein Used to At Least Try to Prevent the Ownership and Lucchino from Getting Too Obsessed with "Feeding the Monster"
Much discussion on sports talk radio has focused on the Red Sox showing far too much concern about pleasing the "pink hat" fans, the phony sell-out streak, the 100-year Fenway Park celebration and other non-baseball matters.
I think some of that criticism has been justified; the Red Sox seem to have taken their eye off the ball from their most important goal: putting a high-quality baseball team on the field and taking steps to put that team in position to win.
When Theo was here, one got a sense that he was always advocating for improvements of the team in terms of players and performance. With Cherington, one gets the sense that he goes to Lucchino with an idea, but that Lucchino does not let Cherington have the influence he and the team deserve.
I recall Epstein, before several trade deadlines, for instance, always making public statements that conveyed he was weighing every possible move before deciding on any trade. Epstein reassured the fans by doing so. He seemed, at times, the "conscience" of the fans.
3. Epstein's Absence Is One Large Factor That Has Led to a Drop in the Red Sox's Standards for Performance
In the years Epstein headed baseball operations, one sensed the team was always trying to improve. Epstein publicly discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the team periodically, and many genuine baseball fans were pleased to learn the extent that baseball operations were monitoring players' performances while keeping an eye on other teams' players whom the Red Sox might want to try to acquire in trades.
Prior to the 2012 season, we hoped from the outset that the Red Sox would limit their budget, and indeed, the team kept its offseason acquisitions to relatively inexpensive, small moves. The team made a poor, ill-advised decision that its pitching rotation was good enough with Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buccholz at the top.
As this disastrous season has unfolded and the pitching and, more recently, the offense have proven sub-standard, there have been far too few statements or signals from Red Sox management that convey their dissatisfaction.
Cherington and Lucchino have kept defending the team's existing players, and I understand they want to be loyal; however, at times, it would be nice to hear the Sox officials simply say: "We have to do much better. We're not good enough right now. Either we get better or we might have to find additional players to plug in to make us better."
Theo Epstein made remarks like that—at least once in a while. He was not afraid to voice his displeasure and that made fans feel that someone running the Red Sox cared and would not tolerate under-performance indefinitely.
4. A Last Point Related to No. 3—but About the Players
I don't see enough signs—AT ALL—that the players on the Red Sox care about winning. Yes, I know one cannot tell how much individuals care simply by observing obvious, visible signs shown by a player like Dustin Pedroia.
However, I ask you: do you ever hear Red Sox players talking about how they have to win games against certain teams to stay in the wild card or division races? Do you hear players say, after losses, "We needed that game. We have to start winning or we're going to fall out of contention."
My point is simple: this particular group of players on the 2012 team (and this applied to the 2011 team too) shows less urgency and competitiveness than many of the teams we've seen in the past ten years.
Do these players seem to WANT to win? I rarely see it. When players walk off the field or get interviewed after games, there is often a resignation or casualness on display. Consider the pitchers, who, so many times in 2012, spout about how they "just made a few bad pitches" in a game the team lost. This is disturbing. If a pitcher makes "a few bad pitches" and gives up three home runs and the team loses, then that pitcher had a BAD game.
The Boston Red Sox need to raise their standards and expectations if they want to return to the days of competing for championships as they did with Theo Epstein. It's time for CEO Larry Lucchino to let Ben Cherington go get some more talent and take the steps necessary to ensure that the team performs on a higher level than this pitiful 2012 edition.