In three short seasons on the job, Theo Epstein became a legend in New England, but for all the wrong reasons.
When given credit for building a world Champion, people like at some of Theo's notable additions: David Ortiz, Curt Schilling, Keith Foulke. However, his ability to bring in these players is not what made Epstein one of the game's better General Managers.
Yes, Epstein signed Bill Mueller the season before he won a batting title. Yes, he inked Ortiz before he was Big Papi, hovering annually around a .600 slugging percentage. He traded for Curt Schilling (even spent Thanksgiving with him, people are quick to point out) before the bloody sock and a second place finish in the Cy Young voting. Yes, he won a bidding war for a closer before Foulke registered the last of Boston's championship outs.
These acquisitions will be seen as Theo's best, the foundations for the legacy he will leave behind. This is unfortunate, because it sells the former youngest GM short.
Most qualified executives would have considered Mueller as a cheap corner option. And let's not pretend Theo saw the .200 point OPS upswing when he made the signing. Most qualified execs would have seen David Ortiz as an answer to their left-handed sock need. Most wanted Curt Schilling, Theo just put together what Joe Garagiola Jr. thought was the best package. Most wanted Foulke, the Red Sox just offered the most.
Let's not hoist Theo on our shoulders for simply beating others to the punch, or having more to offer. Creativity is what turns an average GM into a great one, as fans in Atlanta or Oakland could tell you. Add Boston to the list, as in his short tenure, Epstein was very creative, in addition to being well-rounded.
In late January, 2003, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed Jeff Suppan to a one-year deal, with an option for a second. In need of a 40-man roster spot, they were forced into taking someone off. They opted to designate a former third-round pick for assignment, as they had given the 25-year-old eight years since being drafted. This player, Bronson Arroyo, had shown much promise in the minors, but could not turn the corner at the Major League level.
Arroyo waited ten days, and found himself on the waiver wire. To reach the Red Sox, he was passed on quite a bit, before Boston decided to replace Juan Pena with Arroyo. Bronson had a good 2003 season in Pawtucket, and left the Red Sox with a good impression towards the end of the season. Fittingly enough, he ended the season the same roster as Jeff Suppan, who Theo went on to acquire. A year later, he found himself in the Boston rotation, and in the end, with a World Series ring.
After the 2004 championship, the face of the Red Sox was David Ortiz, the sock was Curt Schilling. Before Theo had come to town, the Red Sox image was personified by Nomar Garciaparra. However, not only did Epstein see in Nomar a declining skill set with numerous health concerns, but he had the guts to do something about it.
On the 2004 trade deadline, the Red Sox were part of a four-team trade that shockingly included Garciaparra's name. Out went one of the AL's more powerful shortstops, and in came defense: Orlando Cabrera at short, Doug Mientkiewicz at first. The team also had enough money to acquire Dave Roberts, who went on to have a profound effect on the Red Sox during the postseason.
There are many examples of this, in which Epstein saw under or overvalued commodities. Players like Mark Bellhorn, Tony Graffanino, or Ryan Rupe. Theo also went where the Red Sox had previously never gone before -- the Rule 5 draft, even if there were never Johan-like success stories. There were also signings that some GMs would not have made, such as Wade Miller despite injury, and Roberto Petagine despite a long stint in Japan.
These are just a few of the reasons that make Epstein a good GM. Another, of course, is what he did for the Boston farm system. Generally considered one of the worst during the Dan Duquette era, Epstein will now leave the Red Sox with one of the ten best systems in baseball.
It is unclear how much success Epstein deserves for those that came ahead of him. Hanley Ramirez, despite being a holdover from Duquette, has required extremely tender care and delicate promoting for the last three seasons. Surely, Epstein and staff deserve some credit for Hanley's maturation and steady improvement. They should also be recognized when considering the breakouts we have seen from Jon Lester, Brandon Moss and Anibal Sanchez. Finally, moving Manny Delcarmen to a different role may have salvaged his status as a prospect.
However, these are just five members of the suddenly-deep farm system. Here's a look at the three drafts in which Epstein anchored:
2003 Draft: Theo's first pick was spent on, unsurprisingly, a college hitter, specifically Baylor's David Murphy. He has been just OK since being drafted, but had a solid year, and may end up as a good fourth outfielder given his left-handed bat. The team kept in the safe, college ranks in the second round by selecting Long Beach State ace Abe Alvarez. The southpaw has reached the Major League level, and may have a career starting at the back end of rotations. Finally, in the fourth round, the team took Mississippi State closer Jon Papelbon, and then converted him back to the starting ranks. After great seasons in 2004 and 2005, the team put Papelbon back in relief to help the Major League club in the second half, in which he thrived. Papelbon has a chance at becoming the Boston closer as early as 2006 if things bounce the right way.
2004 Draft: This draft lacked a first round pick, so the expectations go down immediately. However, the team jumped right into the thick of things in the second round, taking All-American Dustin Pedroia. Deemed the "Moneyball" selection of the draft, the undersized Pedroia has performed very well since being drafted. He should be the Boston second baseman by 2007, and will be a fan favorite shortly thereafter. In the sixth round the team paid six figures for Cla Meredith out of Virginia Commonwealth University. Meredith had a great 2005 season, and will join Papelbon in the Boston bullpen soon. Finally, the team set a record when they gave their 12th round choice, Mike Rozier, over $1.5 million to not attend college. Rozier is still raw, so the verdict is still out on this move.
2005 Draft: This time around, the Red Sox had quite a few choices, with six selections among the top 57 overall picks. The team balanced college and high school like they hadn't before. The first pick was Johnny Damon-like Jacoby Ellsbury, and went back to the college closing ranks with Craig Hansen. Epstein leaves the Red Sox with a upcoming decision regarding Hansen, whether to keep him in the bullpen (near Major League ready) or have him begin starting again (destined for A-ball). Three of the next four picks were "risky" choices by sabermetric standards -- Junior College selection Clay Buchholz, high school flamethrower Mike Bowden, and high school catcher Jon Egan. Sandwiched by those selections was Jed Lowrie, another All-American in the mold of Dustin Pedroia.
In conclusion, Epstein has done very good things with each of his drafts. It looks as if the selections of Papelbon, Pedroia and Hansen could make each of those drafts successful, with the other players mentioned just providing icing on the cake.
How much of this rebuilding is Theo responsible for? How much will the farm system suffer as a result of his exit? These are questions that we simply can't know the answer for, but we have to give Epstein the benefit of the doubt that this is more than coincidence.
Theo Epstein leaves the Red Sox a New England hero, quite possibly more respected at 30 than Barry Bonds was. His placement within the inner circle of GMs is well deserved, but not because of the players that dominate the Win Shares column. Bronson Arroyo speaks far more about Epstein's genius than Curt Schilling ever will.