Go ahead and call Theo Epstein a coward, but don't call him stupid.
There's plenty of blame to go around for the current predicament the Boston Red Sox find themselves in nowadays. You can blame the owners, controversial manager Bobby Valentine or the players themselves.
Or, you could blame the man who is largely responsible for the team's problems, even if he did leave town nearly a year ago: Theo Epstein.
Not surprisingly, Dan Shaughnessy of The Boston Globe thinks Epstein deserves more blame for the state of the Red Sox than he's getting. He's basically gotten off scot-free compared to the owners, the manager and the players.
Shaughnessy thinks the team's owners are annoyed by the fact that Epstein has largely escaped blame for Boston's troubles, and he may not be wrong in assuming as much. Many of the fans who are wagging their fingers at the owners would probably be wagging their fingers at Epstein instead if he was still around.
But, he's not. Epstein is with the Chicago Cubs now, totally safe from the nightmare that is the Boston Red Sox.
For leaving when he did, he should give himself a pat on the back. Leaving when he did may have been cowardly, but it wasn't stupid.
In fact, it was very smart.
Note: All stats come from Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
On the first of September last season, the Red Sox had the best record in the American League at 83-52. They seemed well on their way to an AL East title, and perhaps, even a 100-win season.
They certainly looked the part of a 100-win team. The Red Sox could swing the bats as well as any team in in the league, and there wasn't a team in the AL that they couldn't go toe-to-toe with.
But, you know that old saying about how looks can be deceiving? Yeah, that's definitely relevant to the 2011 Red Sox.
Boston's Achilles heel in 2011 was its starting pitching. Jon Lester and Josh Beckett pitched well for much of the season, but beyond them, things were pretty shaky. John Lackey was a disappointment once again. Clay Buchholz got hurt early in the season and never made it back. Tim Wakefield was a liability.
Outside of those five, five more pitchers started games for the Red Sox in 2011, including Erik Bedard and Andrew Miller. None of the five impressed.
Naturally, bad starting pitching was at the heart of Boston's collapse in September. Sox starters lost 13 games last September with a 7.08 ERA, by far, the worst in baseball.
It was shocking to watch it all unfold at the time, but it's not so shocking in retrospect. The Red Sox finished the month with a run differential of -26. That's the kind of run differential that leads to an abundance of losses, and that abundance of losses was largely the starting rotation's fault.
Don't call Boston's collapse a fluke. It really wasn't. The fact that the team basically picked up where it left off this season goes to show just how legit the Red Sox's collapse last season really was.
The fact that Epstein isn't in Boston to clean up the mess this season goes to show that he knew the team's collapse was legit. He was too smart to be fooled into thinking that it was a fluke. Thus, he wasn't stupid enough to stick around thinking that everything would be all hunky dory again in the spring.
No, it was time to get out while the getting was good. And he had to leave quickly, of course, because the mob was closing in.
The Red Sox's 2011 season ended on September 28. Terry Francona was out as the team's manager mere days later, and Theo Epstein's own departure came less than two weeks into the month of October when he agreed to sign on with the Cubs on October 12.
That's a significant date, as it was that very day that Bob Hohler of The Boston Globe published his infamous report that cast a light on Francona's incompetence and the chicken and beer scandal involving Josh Beckett and some of the team's other pitchers.
When the fallout from this report started to spread, Epstein was long gone. His absence left the team's owners and players to take their share of the heat, and goodness knows Francona took his share as well.
Again, you're more than welcome to say that this was a cowardly maneuver on Epstein's part. And indeed, he certainly demonstrated a lack of accountability by leaving in such a hurry.
But, an accountable man would have stayed and fought a losing battle that in the end would have been counterproductive. Epstein would have been as capable of calming the Boston press corps as a clown fish trying to calm sharks in a feeding frenzy.
This is yet another reason why you can't call Epstein stupid. A stupid man would have been just as determined to stay as an accountable man, and his efforts to deal with the rabble would have been just as fruitless as the accountable man's.
In choosing to retreat instead, Epstein chose to pursue a personal victory rather than march headlong into fiery situation that could have ultimately led to the death of his career.
After all, it's not like there was any fixing the Red Sox.
Terry Francona was the perfect man for the job when the Red Sox hired him before the 2004 season. He was the right kind of fit for the personality the Red Sox had at the time.
He became less and less of a good fit for the club's personality as the team's payroll began to escalate after the 2009 season (see Cot's Baseball Contracts), leading to more super-rich players and the kinds of egos that tend to be attached to super-rich players.
The Red Sox basically became the Yankees after the 2009 season, choosing to throw money at problems rather than staying patient for better, cheaper solutions to present themselves. In an interview The Sports Hub, Epstein admitted (h/t ESPN) as much back in June, saying that the club started "giving in to the need to be good next year."
As I've written in the past, only one team can be the Yankees, and that would be the Yankees. They're very, very good at being themselves, in large part because they've long since mastered the formula required to translate so much money and so many different personalities into wins.
In the last two decades, they've demonstrated that having the right manager counts for a lot. Joe Torre was the perfect manager for the Yankees when he was running the show, and Joe Girardi was a damn good choice to succeed him.
Girardi would have been the perfect guy to take over for Francona after the Sox cut him loose. Obviously, that wasn't happening, and frankly there aren't many managers out there who can match both Girardi's style and his experience.
Again, one assumes Epstein knew full well that this was the case back in October. He didn't stay very long in Boston to weigh his options for the club's vacant managerial position precisely because there weren't any good options.
Staying and settling for the lesser of maybe a dozen evils, which is basically what the Red Sox did when they hired Bobby Valentine, wouldn't have accomplished anything. Just like with the media frenzy, Epstein chose not to fight a battle he couldn't win.
Finding a new manager for the team would have been only one of the problems he would have faced had he stayed. The Red Sox's roster was an entirely different headache.
Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Carl Crawford were the three highest-paid players the Red Sox had on their roster in 2011, and none of them were worth it.
Beckett came close to earning his salary, but he was a huge liability during the club's collapse in September. Lackey was a liability all year. Crawford had the worst season of his career.
In 2012, Adrian Gonzalez's monster contract was set to kick in, meaning his salary would jump from around $6 million to over $20 million. In addition to him, the Red Sox would owe Daisuke Matsuzaka another $10 million.
The only bad contract that was going to go away was J.D. Drew's. The rest were all going to stay, and at the time, there was no way to get rid of them (the Dodgers weren't rich yet).
Epstein must have put two and two together. The collapse of the 2011 Red Sox was no fluke, and the team was going to stay largely intact from 2011 to 2012. Worse, the size of the team's payroll made it all but impossible for significant changes to be made. Too much money had already been thrown at too many problems.
Had Epstein stayed, he wouldn't have been able to do any better than the work Ben Cherington did during the offseason in his stead. All Cherington could do was make minor moves, and it's clear now that no amount of minor moves could have saved the Red Sox from a disastrous 2012 season.
In keeping with the theme we have going here, Epstein would have been rushing into a battle he couldn't win had he stayed and tried to fix the Red Sox's roster.
Fans are angry at him now for leaving. But at the time, he knew the anger wasn't as bad as it was going to get if he stayed.
When Ben Cherington jettisoned Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, he effectively purged the Red Sox of three of Epstein's biggest mistakes.
But, we only know this because we're in the present. When Epstein left the Red Sox last October, nobody knew that Beckett was going to be just as bad in 2012 as he was in September of 2011, nor did anyone know that Crawford would be on the shelf for much of the season or that Gonzalez would suffer a power outage.
Several months ago, Beckett was a guy coming off a season in which he went 13-7 with a 2.89 ERA, despite an awful September. Gonzalez was fresh off a season that saw him hit .338 with 27 homers and 117 RBI. Crawford had a brutal season, but it was too soon to call him a total bust.
As such, nobody was as angry with Epstein for being responsible for Beckett, Crawford and Gonzalez as people are now. Plus, he deserved the benefit of the doubt for the events of 2011. It's not like he ordered the rotation to post a 7.08 ERA. He built a damn good team.
In addition, he was the guy who had built World Series winners in 2004 and 2007. Because of those championship seasons and because of the wheeling and dealing that brought the Red Sox Gonzalez and Crawford before the 2011 season, Epstein had yet to transmogrify from a "brilliant" general manager into an "overrated" general manager.
This reputation helped protect him from scorn at the time he left, and he had to know that it would. A lot of fans hated him for leaving, but not nearly as many that hate him now.
He probably knew the hate was coming, but choosing to let the hate come to him in Chicago rather than letting it come to him in Boston was the right thing to do. 'Tis better to have people screaming at you from a distance rather than have them screaming in your face.
And in Chicago, he has the ultimate chance to prove he's neither an idiot nor overrated.
Shaughnessy's article about Epstein referenced an article by Tom Van Riper of Forbes that had some rather damning things to say about the former Red Sox GM.
Like, for example, saying that the core of the 2004 World Series champion Red Sox was built not by Epstein, but by Epstein's predecessor, Dan Duquette.
Seeing as how Duquette was—and still is in some circles—viewed as nothing short of a buffoon, that's the ultimate insult.
Van Riper didn't stop there, justifiably chiding Epstein for displaying a lack of discipline that ultimately led to the team's current state.
His final slap to Epstein's face:
Forget beer and chicken in the clubhouse. The Red Sox are victims of a GM who responded to the pressure to keep a winning program going by throwing good money after bad on a continuing basis. Eventually, it blows up on you.
This pretty well sums up how Epstein's legacy in Boston is now perceived. He was once seen as a genius. Now, he's seen as a hack.
There's only one way he can clear his name, and that's by building a World Series winner in the North Side of Chicago. With the Curse of the Bambino dead and buried, taking on the Curse of the Billy Goat is baseball's new ultimate challenge.
Epstein bested the first challenge, and people are now calling it luck.
If Epstein bests the Billy Goat challenge, the word "luck" will not be uttered. No, making the Cubs into a championship team would be the work of a genius.
Such is Epstein's plan. Getting out of Boston when he did was merely the first step.
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