Monday, October 24, 2011

No Theo, Thank You

No snark. I mean that.

You likely have heard by now that Theo Epstein has taken a job with the Chicago Cubs. Upon his departure, he took out a full page ad in the Boston Globe, thanking "Red Sox Nation."

No need to thank us, Theo. We've been harder on you than you've deserved, particularly in the last 18 months. Last year's team wasn't that great, and this year they sort of fell apart, so I suppose that's expected. Still, the narrative that Theo was overrated and hadn't done a good job seemed a little silly. After all, he was the GM for two World Series Champions in Boston.

Rewind for a second. It's fall 2002, Theo has just been hired. You visit the oracle, and he tells you that Theo will win two World Series, but that when he leaves in 2011, people will be calling him an overrated failure. What would your response be to that oracle? Mine would be "wow, Red Sox fans are really the miserable jerks that the world thinks we are, huh?"

First, the myth that Dan Duquette really built the 2004 championship team, and Epstein just skated in on Theo's work. After all, Theo is the one who had brought in star players Manny Ramirez and Pedro Martinez. Anyone who has been following the Red Sox for any length of time knows that having stars has never been the problem. It's been filling out the roster sensibly, getting production from second tier guys. Those mid-level pickups that other teams always seem to find, but Boston never does. Right? Well, let's check out The Greatest Game in Red Sox History (Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS).

For those of you who don't remember (likely anyone who is under the age of 10, because if you're older than that and don't remember that game, you're not reading this blog right now), let's give a quick reminder. Against the greatest closer in history, controversial Theo Epstein acquisition Kevin Millar walks to lead off the 9th inning. Theo Epstein acquisition Dave Roberts pinch runs for Millar, and steals second base. Theo Epstein acquisition Bill Mueller then hits a single to right field, scoring Roberts. Theo Epstein acquisition Keith Foulke pitches 2.2 scoreless innings out of the bullpen. Finally, in the bottom of the 11th, Theo Epstein acquision David Ortiz hits a game winning home run.

That was not a Dan Duquette team. Theo Epstein had built an offense of patient, professional hitters. He rebuilt a bullpen that had significant trouble in the first half of 2003. Top put them over the top, he acquired a top starter in Curt Schilling to take some of the workload off of the bullpen, and hired a manger in Terry Francona whose temperament was just right for dealing with that group.

Was the 2011 team overpaid and underachieving? Of course. That collapse was everyone's fault, from the players to the manager to the GM to the ownership. The lack of pitching that killed them at the end of the season didn't sneak up on them - they'd been pitching badly all season, and expecting to hit so much to overcome that was probably a tad myopic. He went out and got injury-plagued Erik Bedard, who turned out to get injured. They didn't give Alfredo Aceves a chance to start (and the press buried David Ortiz for stating the obvious regarding it), and he ended up being second on the staff in September innings anyway. 

You know what though? The Red Sox scored the most runs in the major leagues in 2011. For all the mistakes that he made, Theo Epstein STILL had built the dominant lineup in baseball. He's inheriting a bigger challenge with the Cubs, of course. Theo DID have the cornerstone of a franchise in place when he came aboard in Boston, something he doesn't have the benefit of in Chicago, an organization that needs to be completely rebuilt from top to bottom. It's a bigger challenge. I wish him luck.

In the meantime though, he deserves our thanks. He set out to bring Red Sox fans a championship. He won us two. That's how he should be remembered.

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