There appear to be two well-defined positions staked out in Red Sox Nation concerning recently departed General Manager Theo Epstein: either you think he’s the genius responsible for two World Series championships, or the lucky S.O.B. who free-rode to success on the strength of former GM Dan Duquette’s shrewd moves and a seemingly bottomless budget.
For the beginning of Epstein’s tenure, this is a legitimate debate. Many of the core players involved in the playoff runs of 2003 and 2004, Epstein’s first two years on the job, were in place before his arrival, most prominently Manny Ramirez, Jason Varitek, Pedro Martinez, and Johnny Damon. Yet Epstein alone was responsible for the additions of David Ortiz and Curt Schilling, perhaps the two most heroic members of the ’04 team.
Using FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement (WAR) to measure hitters and pitchers on the same scale, let’s examine which GM’s signings provided greater production to the World Champion ’04 team. To isolate the primary contributors, I limited the study to hitters who played in over 50 games and pitchers who appeared in over 20 games.
Epstein had quite a bit of help in designing the ’04 team; Duquette’s stamp can be found all throughout the roster. In fact, according to the numbers, the curse-breaking title actually belongs more to Duquette than to Theo, though they do not factor in the postseason exploits of Ortiz and Schilling.
Three years later, the Sox brought home another World Series with a team that looked substantially different. Here’s how the credit for the assembly of the 2007 team should be assigned.
Though a few players from the Duquette era were still making significant contributions in ’07 – Ramirez, Youkilis, Varitek, and Wakefield – the team was essentially Epstein’s creation. Gone were Damon and Pedro, replaced by the likes of Daisuke Matsuzaka – who was quite effective in his first couple of seasons, lest you forget – and Dustin Pedroia. The calculation doesn’t even account for the influence of Mike Lowell and Josh Beckett, whose acquisition was negotiated during Epstein’s brief absence in 2005. It seems likely that he played some role in identifying them as desirable pickups while he was still in place.
But was it Theo or the money that brought these pieces of the puzzle to Boston? Epstein’s critics cite the middling to poor return on investment delivered by some of his high-profile signings – Dice-K, John Lackey, and J.D. Drew, for instance – as evidence that the Red Sox will be better off without him. Matt Millen could build a successful baseball team, they argue, with the type of cash Epstein has to throw around. To illustrate this point, here’s how the Red Sox payroll compares with the mean MLB payroll in each year of the Duquette and Epstein eras.
There’s no doubt John Henry’s deep pockets aided Epstein in his tenure in Boston, allowing him to pursue players who were beyond the financial scope of most teams. Any other owner not named Steinbrenner would have laughed him out of the room if asked for $50 million just to talk to a player. But as the Mets, or Epstein’s new team, the Cubs, have shown in the past, a bloated payroll doesn’t automatically translate into a playoff contender. The money has to be spent on the right people, and more often than not, Epstein’s shown an ability to pick them out. This season, the Sox had Pedroia, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Jed Lowrie under contract for a combined $14.9 million, an incredibly favorable figure. Ellsbury alone was worth that sum and more.
In case you’re still not convinced about Epstein’s knack for player evaluation, take a look at the players drafted under his watch: Jonathan Papelbon, Pedroia, David Murphy, Ellsbury, Buchholz, Lowrie, Daniel Bard, Justin Masterson, Ryan Kalish, and Josh Reddick. All these players have either made contributions to the big league squad already or served as trade pieces to acquire more immediate needs.
Of course, every GM makes mistakes. When given the type of money that Epstein had with which to work, those mistakes tend to get magnified. A miss on a $4 million/year contract doesn’t look quite as bad as Lackey’s $16 million/year.
Yet if the ultimate measure of job performance in baseball is delivering a World Series title, Epstein is without a doubt the best GM the Sox have ever had. Even if you take the ’04 title off his résumé, he’s still got one more world championship than anyone pulling the strings since Harry Frazee. He assembled as many playoff teams as his two predecessors, Duquette and Lou Gorman, combined.
This wasn’t the way he deserved to leave town, rushing out the back door of a burning building. It’s a shame that someone who’s brought so much to this franchise is leaving without so much as a “Wait a minute…” from management. For the Red Sox sake, let’s hope the structure and methods he put in place – yes, even “Carmine” – are strong enough to keep producing teams of the quality he put on the diamond.
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He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrateds 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.
Now living in Marblehead, hes focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.