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Sox have been here, said that

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  December 9, 2009 08:53 AM

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When Theo Epstein starts talking like this, he is trying to tell you something. He is trying to tell you that the Red Sox are in a developmental gap and that they are likely to suffer from it in 2010.

Now here’s the real question: are you OK with this?

This all goes back to The Monster, of course. Or, more specifically, of the irrepressible need to feed it. Seth Mnookin wrote a book about it. The Red Sox of the John Henry Era have been as shrewd in their business dealings as they have been in their baseball operations, maximizing their talent just as surely as they have squeezed every inch out of Fenway Park.

But times like this are the real test. Times like this are when the Red Sox baseball operation and business acumen take them in different directions, the former focusing on long-term success while the latter tries to justify escalating ticket prices.

So he we are now, with the Red Sox on the heels of a first-round sweep, just as they were in the fall of 2005, when author Mnookin had office space within the walls at fabled Fenway. That is when "Feeding the Monster" was born. And that is when we learned that Theo Epstein is willing to sacrifice the short term for the long, and that he isn’t necessarily ashamed to admit it.

"We can be both a large-revenue club and have a strong farm system. But it’s probably not going to be a seamless transition," Epstein said, according to the book. "This year [in 2005] we had a great year. We will probably be worse next year [in 2006]."

And then, when it was suggested that the Red Sox merely promise improvement to their fans nonetheless, Epstein snapped.

"No," he barked, again according to the book. " 'No!' Struggling to control himself, he said, 'We can’t just tell them we’ll be better. That’s the whole point! That’s what I’m trying to say!' "

A few weeks later, under the guise of what began as a contract dispute, the young general manager of the Red Sox resigned. In the immediate aftermath, the Sox traded away their prized prospect, shortstop Hanley Ramirez, in a deal that secured them both Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell. Epstein eventually returned, but the Red Sox missed the playoffs in 2006 for the only time during Epstein’s tenure. And while the deal had a profound impact on the 2007 championship season -- 20-game winner Beckett was the MVP of the American League Championship Series, Lowell (120 RBIs) the MVP of the World Series -- the price was considerable given Ramirez’ current status as one of the very best players in baseball.

(Aside: According to very reliable sources at the time, Epstein would not have traded Ramirez had the GM still been under contract. Maybe the GM’s harshest critics should consider this the next time they complain about the revolving door that has existed at shortstop during Epstein’s tenure.)

So why are we recounting all this again now? Because the Red Sox are basically in the exact same place today as they were following that 2005 campaign. For the moment, they are moving, at best, sideways. The Sox almost certainly will sign a left fielder during or beyond this week’s winter meetings -- be it Jason Bay or Matt Holliday -- but the major acquisitions are likely to stop there. Boston’s remaining moves are likely to focus on role players (Marlon Byrd? Nick Johnson?) and low-risk, high-reward pitching acquisitions (Rich Harden?) as Epstein waits for the Boston farm system to catch up.

The Red Sox made some trades this year, folks. In deals for Victor Martinez, Adam LaRoche/Casey Kotchman, Alex Gonzalez and Billy Wagner, the Sox gave up eight minor leaguers, including former first-round pick Nick Hagadone, reliever Justin Masterson, and former supplemental first-rounder Bryan Price. Meanwhile, Michael Bowden and Lars Anderson went pfft. Any major deals the Sox would make now must include at least one of the players from the group of Clay Buchholz, Daniel Bard and Casey Kelly, and the Sox are not likely to completely strip down their minor league system given the continued emphasis of both Epstein and Henry on the long term.

Translation: Don’t hold your breath on Adrian Gonzalez, Felix Hernandez, or especially Roy Halladay. The first two of those players would make some sense because they are still young (as Beckett was), but Halladay makes almost no sense at all. Based on his track record, which is now growing, Epstein simply will not do it. Epstein has a second championship ring as a result of the Ramirez deal -- and Beckett was just 25 at the time of the trade -- but rest assured that part of Epstein clings to young Hanley as a symbol of what must be sacrificed in order for a relatively short-term gain.

Generally speaking, fans and critics (guesses anyone?) would make moves like the Ramirez deal in the blink of an eye. But would Theo?

Say this for Epstein: he adheres to his principles, which is precisely the kind of trait you should want in your leaders. The last thing the Red Sox need is a general manager who assesses the wind direction before making a decision. After all, the winds inevitably change. On the one hand, some of us (ahem) believe the Red Sox should be championship contenders on annual basis. On the other, we know that Epstein is willing to sacrifice a season or even two for a prolonged run of success, and there comes a point where you can feel like you’re wasting your breath decrying the injustice of an 87-win season when fans continue to show up at a record rate.

If the Red Sox slip in 2010 and you want to send them a message, stop going to the games. Stop watching, too. (Remember, the Sox own 80 percent of NESN.) But if you’re reluctant to giver up your season tickets because you suspect the Sox will be an elite team in 2011 and beyond, then do exactly what Theo seems positioned to do this winter.

Bite the bullet.

At the moment, assuming that the Red Sox sign Bay or Holliday and using no scientific methods, the 2010 Sox are likely to finish with somewhere in the vicinity of 87-92 wins. Unless everything goes right, they could very well miss the playoffs. The good news is that the Sox should have a truckload of money to spend next winter when the contracts of Lowell, Beckett and David Ortiz are up, and the free agent market next winter projects to be far deeper than this one.

As for the 2010 season, based on Epstein’s continued remarks, accept the reality now that your opinion isn’t going to make the slightest bit of difference to the general manager of the Red Sox. If you’re going to make a statement about the current direction of the Red Sox, make it by hitting the Red Sox in the wallet.

At the moment, after all, the best guess is that Epstein has no intention of simply feeding the monster.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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