Big points for returning
Sustained success is a classic case of good management
It's a bit late to have second thoughts for any of the folks who impulsively acted upon their conviction that "now I can die in peace" after the Red Sox won the World Series three years ago. Had they known that the Sox would be back in the Series again so soon, they might have contacted super agent Scott Boras to see if he could negotiate an extension.
Such a happy event, after all, had not occurred in the same decade since 1918, notable for being the year the Great War ended, Ted Williams was born, and Babe Ruth won two games over the Cubs as the Sox won their fourth Series title in a seven-year span. For generations of Boston fans, it's a welcome but disorienting notion that, by beating the precocious Colorado Rockies, the Sox could pull off in three years what it took 86 years to do the last time - win another Series, after finishing as runners-up in 1946, 1967, 1975, and 1986.
(Six degrees of separation between Babe Ruth and Daisuke Matsuzaka: The Babe played with Tony Lazzeri, who played with Phil Cavaretta, who played with Minnie Minoso, who played with Harold Baines, who played with Manny Ramírez, who played with Matsuzaka, who was born long after some Japanese soldiers shouted, "To hell with Babe Ruth," as they went into battle during World War II, or so legend has it.)
One need only hold up the respective class pictures to observe the differences between the Sox team that in 2004 staged the unprecedented feat of winning four straight games after losing the first three to the Yankees in the ALCS and the team that in 2007 was extended almost as strenuously, required to win the last three against a Cleveland Indians team that cooperated by succumbing, 30-5 (cumulative score). The missing faces - only seven players remain from the '04 team, eight if you include Kevin Youkilis, who played in the Division Series but was left off the LCS and Series rosters - underscore the degree to which general manager Theo Epstein has remade the team.
This is no easy feat, reaching the Series twice in the span of four seasons. The Sox join the Yankees (three times) and the Cardinals (twice) as the only teams to make multiple appearances since 2000, and the Sox are returning in a year in which seven of the eight postseason participants were sitting at home last October (the Yankees were the only repeaters). So, what was the blueprint that guided the Sox to repeating their success?
Well, the actual one is locked away in the same hiding place where Epstein keeps his gorilla suit (scheduling note: Game 6, if necessary, will be played on Halloween), but if you look hard enough, sufficient clues abound to load up the PowerPoint. Here are a few worth noting:
1. Don't fall in love with your players, and be glad that your predecessor left you with a few good ones.
It's the old Branch Rickey dictum - better to trade a player a year too soon than a year too late - put a different way by former manager Joe McCarthy, who said, "You have to improve your club if it means letting your own brother go."
So it's not a new idea in baseball, but one Epstein has embraced with brio. He had little choice in 2004, when he went into the offseason with 17 prospective free agents and parted ways with, among others, Pedro Martínez, Derek Lowe, Orlando Cabrera, and fan favorite Gabe Kapler. The Sox infield in '04 comprised Doug Mientkiewicz, Mark Bellhorn, Orlando Cabrera, and Bill Mueller. Only Mueller remained by the time another October rolled around. Epstein went through multiple shortstops - Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, Alex Gonzalez - before signing Julio Lugo to a four-year deal last winter. Renteria had a four-year deal, too, and the Sox paid $11 million to get out from under it a year later. Two-thirds of the outfield, Johnny Damon and Trot Nixon, have departed. Ramírez came close to being jettisoned more than once, but remains the gift from former GM Dan Duquette that keeps on giving.
Duquette, who spent the past summer running a new baseball league in Israel, can also take a bow for Youkilis, Jon Lester, Jason Varitek, Tim Wakefield, and Mike Timlin, all acquired on his watch either by draft, trade, or waiver pickup.
And as much as Epstein loved the idea of Jonathan Papelbon as a starter, he adapted to the circumstances of the spring, when no one emerged as a potential closer and Papelbon pined to relieve again.
2. If you're going to lose a star free agent, make good use of the draft picks you get in return.
The hue and cry that ensued after the Sox let Cabrera, Lowe, and Martínez all depart as free agents? Seems a tad overheated now, when you look at the players the Sox drafted in 2005 using the picks they received as compensation for losing their stars - and because Epstein offered them salary arbitration to make sure he got those picks. Outfield phenom Jacoby Ellsbury was taken with the 23d pick, which the Sox got from the Angels for Cabrera. Top pitching prospect Clay Buchholz, who threw a no-hitter in his second big-league start, came on the 42d pick, payback for Pedro. Lowe netted two prospects, reliever Craig Hansen, who made it to the big leagues his first season, and righthander Michael Bowden, who finished this season in Double A and is highly regarded. Promising shortstop Jed Lowrie (45th pick) also came for Cabrera.
3. The old office furniture can stay, but the old office employees don't have to.
Epstein still has a basement office where the old candlepin bowling alley used to be, at the corner of Brookline Avenue and Yawkey Way, but he has a whole slew of different faces to keep him company. Mike Port, the vice president of baseball operations in '04 and a holdover from the Duquette regime, now supervises major league umpires. Josh Byrnes, who was assistant GM under Epstein, became GM of the Diamondbacks and took Peter Woodfork, director of baseball ops in '04, with him. Special assistant Bill Lajoie, whose lasting contribution to the '07 club was the role he played in brokering the Josh Beckett deal, is now Ned Colletti's assistant with the Dodgers. David Chadd, the director of amateur scouting, went to the Tigers, as did Tom Moore, the assistant director of professional and international scouting.
The Sox have a new director of professional scouting, former Royals GM and New Hampshire native Allard Baird, who has a staff expanded to 10 scouts. Jason McLeod, whose draft in '05 was his first, is the amateur scouting director. Ben Cherington and Jed Hoyer were with Epstein in '04 but both have received big promotions, to VP/player personnel and assistant GM, respectively. Craig Shipley, who joined with Pacific Rim scout Jon Deeble to track Matsuzaka, is the VP/international scouting. Brian O'Halloran has moved up to director of baseball operations.
4. Money doesn't necessarily have to be well-spent; you just need a lot of it to spend.
The Sox' Opening Day payroll in '04 was $125 million, second to the Yankees ($182 million). In '07, the Opening Day payroll was $143 million, still second to the Yanks ($195 million) and more than 2 1/2 times that of the Rockies ($54.4 million).
The Sox blew away everyone with a $51.1 million posting bid for Matsuzaka; spent $40 million on catcher Varitek because his value to the club exceeded any age restrictions; spent lavishly on J.D. Drew and Lugo to fill needs, and could afford to be wrong because they had developed inexpensive starters like second baseman Dustin Pedroia and Youkilis. They could pick up Eric Gagné's incentives to make him go along with his trade in July.
Still, Epstein has scored some major financial coups. Signing Beckett for three years and $30 million last summer is an absolute steal. Matsuzaka is a bargain - the posting bid doesn't factor into luxury tax calculations - and is under the Sox' control for five more years. Payroll flexibility? Epstein could take nearly $50 million off the books after this season with 11 free agents, and another $32.5 million after 2008, when the Ramírez and Varitek contracts are due to expire.
5. Pay homage to Hygieia, goddess of health, but hedge your bets and have some depth, too.
Injuries helped crush the Sox in 2005 and especially 2006. But this season they not only enjoyed a relatively injury-free summer, they were able to ride out stretches when they didn't have Curt Schilling, for example, or Beckett earlier in the season.
6. Give the star treatment to Bill James, then go find the smartest Canadian stat analyst you can.
That would be Tom Tippett, creator of a popular computer simulated baseball game, Diamond Mind, but also someone who has become an invaluable resource for the Sox in organizing their databases and grinding out projections. The Sox work hard in crunching the numbers and being inventive in how they use them. Pedroia is, in part, a triumph of that process. Their formulas showed his college stats projected him as a future big-leaguer; the half-dozen scouts who watched him play agreed.
7. Watch enough video, and you, too, may discover a Hideki Okajima.
Shipley and Deeble did the gumshoe work, but it was only after hours and hours of watching video of Okajima with Shipley that Epstein decided the Japanese lefthander was a better value than he'd find by trade or free agency. Okajima, of course, has been immense as Papelbon's setup man.
8. Realize that run prevention can be just as rewarding as run production.
In 2004, the Sox scored 949 runs, the only team over 900, and had a run differential of plus-181. This season, the Sox scored a still-respectable 867 runs, but allowed just 657, the fewest in the league, with a revamped pitching staff directed by John Farrell and a defense that was better than its predecessor in 2006, even if the numbers don't agree.
9. Lose the gorilla suit.
The turmoil that ensued when Epstein briefly resigned as GM was of no help to anybody, though the issues that prompted him to resign - among other things, too much emphasis on instant gratification, not enough on future-building - appear to have been resolved to Epstein's satisfaction.
10. Accept that only one lucky SOB can win it all, with the accent on lucky.
There's a reason Terry Francona has been as outwardly relaxed in October as any time this season. The pressure is in qualifying for the tournament, not winning it. There are too many factors out of anybody's control in a short series, when the next midge infestation may be just around the corner.
"As much success as we've had in the postseason and as proud of that as we are, you demonstrate your prowess as a club in the regular season over 162 games," Epstein said. "It becomes a meritocracy in the end. More often than not, the playoffs become a matter of playing well at the right time, randomness, luck breaks, and character. Our guys have the character part down."
Team-building for the long haul? You do that right, and you can sleep - peacefully.
Gordon Edes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.