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Epstein has Red Sox positioned for extended journey

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  April 1, 2010 08:03 AM

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250theo.jpgIf and when the Josh Beckett deal is completed, the Red Sox once again will be positioned for the long haul. Theo Epstein will have effectively turned over the pitching staff he inherited from the Pedro Martinez era, all while keeping the Red Sox among the elite teams in major league baseball.

Keep your season tickets, folks.

The Red Sox as we know them are going to be here at least a while longer.

So, while the Patriots and Celtics work to revamp their rosters in the coming weeks, months and years, let’s give Theo his due. The young man had it all pretty well figured out from the start. The Red Sox may very well need to trade for a hitter this summer, but, barring unforeseen and unexpected injury, the Sox are now ensured of being contenders for many years to come.

Presuming completion of the Beckett deal, here is the most encouraging fact among all of Boston’s four major sports teams: Beckett, John Lester, John Lackey and Clay Buchholz currently are under Red Sox control through 2014. Daisuke Matsuzaka is signed through 2012. Add in Daniel Bard and Casey Kelly, among others, and the Sox will have a steady flow of pitching around which to build their roster for well into the middle of the 2010s, which speaks to the vision and long-term planning that Epstein has preached from Day 1.

He has layered the contracts. He has mitigated the risk. From a business standpoint, Epstein has managed his roster the way a financial planner diversifies his portfolio, which is the best way to ensure a consistent, high return.

Has it been perfect? Hell no. Despite the recent assertions of one longtime major league evaluator and executive that the Red Sox really have not signed any bad contracts during the Epstein Era, there have been mistakes. The Sox are still paying Julio Lugo. Until last year, they were still paying Edgar Renteria. J.D. Drew wouldn’t be nearly the lightning rod he is if his salary were $10 million instead of $14 million, and the Sox still have not drafted and developed a power hitter under Epstein’s watch.

What Epstein has managed almost flawlessly, however, has been the pitching staff. When Epstein became general manager in the fall of 2002, the Red Sox were at a critical stage. Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe were entering the final years of their respective contracts – both expired in 2004 - and the Sox had no pitching prospects on the cusp of the majors. After the 2003 campaign, Epstein traded for Curt Schilling and signed Keith Foulke, commencing construction of the bridge (there’s that word again) that would take the Sox into the next phase of their history.

Now here we are again, years later, and Schilling is gone. Foulke is gone. The experiments involving Matt Clement, John Smoltz and Brad Penny, among others, all have failed to varying degrees. And yet the Red Sox barely have skipped a beat with the exception of the 2006 campaign, during which they finished in third place, the one year of the Epstein Era in which the Sox failed to make the playoffs.

For a man who has long stressed that he does not regard pitching to be 90 percent of success, Epstein certainly has handled his staff with great care, from Martinez, Lowe and Schilling to Beckett, Lester and Lackey. And even if Epstein would not have made the initial deal that sent Hanley Ramirez to Florida for Beckett and Mike Lowell – and he would not have – a contract for Beckett now would mean that Epstein has since re-signed the right-hander to two contracts covering eight seasons.

Translation: If Theo doesn’t get credit for acquiring Beckett in the first place, he certainly gets credit for keeping him.

With regard to Beckett’s contract, in particular, the Sox presumably will work their books so that the hits begin next season, if only because, with benefits, their luxury tax (or CBT) payroll this season is approaching a whopping, club record $175-$180 million. (Did the math again this morning.) And yet, even if the Sox come back to a more familiar neighborhood of $160 million next season, Epstein still will have somewhere in the vicinity of $40-$45 million to spend on next year’s team thanks to the expiring contracts of, among others, David Ortiz, Mike Lowell, Lugo, Victor Martinez, and Jason Varitek, only one of whom (Martinez) is a candidate to re-sign for significant dollars.

Adrian Gonzalez anyone?

Of course, the fact that the Red Sox have ample dollars to spend makes Epstein’s task far easier than that, say, of either Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane or Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington, but that’s not the point. The New York Mets have money, too, and management has nonetheless run the team into the ground. The Cubs have money. The Astros spend more than people think. The Mariners spent in excess of $100 million two years ago and won 61 games, and the Blue Jays came up empty in recent years despite spending more aggressively.

Ask former Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi: Money certainly helps, but it doesn’t guarantee anything.

In Epstein’s case, what the Red Sox have done – and what the Yankees are now doing – is to balance their farm system against their financial resources, which is no easy task. Along with all the pitching the Sox have locked up, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Jacoby Ellsbury are all under team control through at least 2013. The Red Sox may or may not win a championship this year depending on the performance of their Nos. 5 to 9 hitters, but they are virtually guaranteed to be in the thick of contention – for this season and the four or five to come.

Settle in, people.

Barring some entirely unexpected turbulence, it seems as if this ride is going to continue for a while.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

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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