Theo Epstein has been lauded as a boy genius, as the architect of the most successful period in the history of the Boston Red Sox. While factually correct, after nine years on the job cracks are starting to emerge. Like anybody, Theo has demonstrated strengths and weaknesses.
Theo’s main strength has been drafting and player development. Throughout the Dan Duquette era the Red Sox system failed to produce players who could make a major contribution to the major league club. The Red Sox inability to develop even average starting pitching was particularly damaging and the club was left to go after whatever sore armed pitching they could find to fill out the rotation. Looking at the current rotation it is fronted by two home-grown starters in Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, while Josh Beckett was acquired via trade which was only possible because they had the prospects to make the deal.
The club has also had a solid track record in drafting and developing everyday players. Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkillis, Jacoby Ellsbury have all been all-stars. Other than Youkillis all of these players have been taken in the 2nd round or earlier. The Red Sox have failed to produce Major League talent in the later rounds in the draft. At times they have spent over slot to go after players who were deemed difficult to sign in the later rounds and by and large most of these players have not worked out. The team also hasn’t found any diamonds in the rough later in the draft. It is important to nail your early picks. There are organizations like the Reds and Padres who have blown their early picks for years. The Red Sox failure to do better later in the draft is accentuated now as the system is increasingly thin.
The other area of failure for the Red Sox system has been in signing international free agents. According to SoxProspects.com, out of the Red Sox top 20 prospects only four are international free agents. One of them, #5 Jose Iglesias was signed as a defector out of Cuba and given a Major League contract. That leaves three players who were signed as teenagers and developed by the team’s academies: #14 Felix Dubront, #19 Stolmy Pimentel, and #20 Oscar Tejada. Dubront was expected to contribute to the 2011 Red Sox as either a power lefty out of the pen or as cover in the rotation. He showed up to camp out of shape and struggled with various injuries. If Pimentel who started the year at AA had a solid year he probably would have been in Boston in September as the pitching staff imploded. Instead he was such a disaster he was demoted to High A. Tejada is a decent prospect who is still very raw. The last international graduate of the Red Sox system to have any impact in the Major Leagues was Hanley Ramirez. If you wanted to find the last international amateur signing to have any impact with the Red Sox at the big league level you have to go back to Carlos Quintana who was signed in 1984.
The system has been productive, but not enough to fill all the gaps at the big league level. This has led to Theo’s forays into free agency which have ranged from disappointing (JD Drew, Keith Foulke, David Wells) to disastrous (John Lackey, Mike Cameron, Matt Clement, Bobby Jenks, Edgar Renteria, Julio Lugo, and so far Carl Crawford). In the book Mind Game, the authors compared Theo Epstein to Dan Duquette. Theo’s record in the free agent market has actually given me a new-found appreciation for the maligned former GM. His big moves of acquiring Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez pale in comparison to anything Epstein has done. While Duquette had numerous flops of his own and had a fetish for sore armed pitchers and minor league free agents, none of his flops have hamstrung the organization to the extent that Lackey and Crawford appear to have.
The question that leaves is do these failures mean it should be time for the Red Sox to move on from Theo Epstein. While not as clear-cut as it was on Terry Francona after he completely lost control of the clubhouse, I’m inclined to say yes. He made several shrewd moves to compliment the core that Dan Duquette had assembled that lead to the 2004 championship. The 2007 team was more of his team as several homegrown players developed on his watch. Since then as core players have aged and needed to be replaced the system has not been able to provide replacements and he has wasted huge sums of money in free agency.
Ownership could treat this situation like a parent whose child has a dirty room and order him to clean up his mess. The fact that Theo has not shot down rampant speculation linking him to the Cubs GM position could lead to a graceful exit for the GM. Getting this club back to the postseason will not be easy unless somehow Crawford and Lackey play the way they were expected to. Toronto is resurgent and Tampa Bay’s assembly line of young talent keeps humming along. Many of the younger players on the Red Sox are starting to actually make some money which combined with the overpaid flops on the roster has maxed out the payroll. The team will not be able to spend their way out of this mess and they don’t have the bullets in the system to make any big trades. Creativity will be needed to make this club a contender again. The architect of this mess should not be the man trusted to find the creative solutions that are required.