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For Red Sox, problems come down to 'philosophy'

Posted by Jason Tuohey  October 7, 2011 01:01 PM

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Amid the comings and goings, amid all the rhetoric that clouds the air and muddies the waters, the Red Sox toss around words like "contemporaneously" while speaking of "nutritional issues," and "statistical studies," and "the science of fitness." The Sox lump it all under the umbrella of an "organizational philosophy," then leave you there to define it.

When all is said and done, when emotion is drained from the equation and logic assumes control, here are really the only questions that matter:

How do the Red Sox pick their players?

And do they employ the same methods for professional players and amateur ones?

Theo Epstein is on the way out, folks, or so it seems after this morning's WEEI interview with Red Sox owner John Henry and president Larry Lucchino, the latter of whom was there to control any damage the former might have wrought. Asked whether Epstein was still the right man to serve as architect of the Red Sox, Henry responded with a classic yeah, but that seemed to confirm Epstein's impending departure from the organization.

"He is, but I think everyone has to understand certain things," Henry told John Dennis and Gerry Callahan of WEEI's "Dennis and Callahan" morning show. "I think there's a certain shelf life to these jobs."

We understand that, John. Terry Francona lost the team and you have an overpriced, out-of-shape roster. So Theo can hit the road, too. But when you get right down to it, this is really about the losing because nobody gets burned out when you win.

In baseball as much as any other sport but basketball, talent usually wins, at least over the long haul. That is what was most disturbing about this Red Sox season. Even with all of the injuries the Red Sox continue to use as a crutch - whether they're blaming God or the conditioning program - the Sox had enough talent to win more than two of their final seven games against the dreadful Baltimore Orioles.

If Francona and Epstein are casualties from this epic collapse, so be it. People come and people go. But in the long-term, the greater concerns about the Red Sox should focus on their ineptitude in the free agent market and the sudden shortages in their player development system, the alleged "organizational philosophy" that Henry spoke of.

Just wondering, but what exactly is that philosophy? Carl Crawford's on-base percentage and plate discipline (or lack thereof) hardly seem to fit the "keep-the-line-moving" approach that Francona so often spoke of, so was he signed to boost declining television ratings? Was that the real goal? What about John Lackey? That signing, too, seemed terribly out of place for an organization that needed offense at the time, and we now cannot help but wonder if "run prevention" was some cockamamie experiment like the "closer by committee was."

In theory, both should work. In reality, both failed miserably.

Let's be candid here. When Henry and his partners bought the Red Sox, they inherited a roster that included Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, Pedro Martinez and others. Sox officials made some brilliant tweaks and additions to that team, from Keith Foulke to Curt Schilling to Bill Mueller and Dave Roberts - but they never "brought" the World Series championship here. They helped. And for what it's worth, Schilling, among others, was brought to Boston via the trading of prospects who existed in the Boston organization before the new regime assumed control, despite allegations from Henry administrators that the system was barren.

Well, if the system was barren, then how did you make those trades? Because everyone else is dumber than you?

While we're on the topic, let's not give the Henry group all the credit for 2007, either. Remember that the trade for Mike Lowell and Josh Beckett was orchestrated by longtime evaluator Bill Lajoie, the prototypical crusty baseball lifer who was originally hired to be Epstein's advisor. Henry himself admitted that he instead wanted to acquire A.J. Burnett that winter, but the owner acquiesced to a man who had more real-life baseball knowledge than all of us put together.

Without Lowell and Beckett - however much of a problem the latter is now - there is no world title in 2007. So the Henry ownership group now has two championship rings with significant contributions from people no longer with the organization, Lajoie having departed shortly after Epstein rejoined the club in 2006. (Lajoie subsequently went to work for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates. He died this year).

Here's the point: when the Red Sox were at their very best, they were a wonderful blend of new and old. Lajoie counterbalanced much of the sabermetric, new-age philosophy with old-world basics. The Red Sox got players who fit their system to complement the big building blocks that were already in place. Mueller, Kevin Millar, Todd Walker, Alfredo Aceves, Mark Bellhorn, Dave Roberts, Bobby Kielty, Adrian Beltre and Hideki Okajima all have been good, cost-effective pickups over the years, but we still don't know if this group, this philosophy, can put a complete championship foundation in place.

To their credit, the Sox went out last winter and acquired Gonzalez, who is a true lineup centerpiece. We have other complaints about Gonzalez now in the wake of his season-ending comments, but salary is not one of them. Crawford, however, looks both overwhelmed and overpaid, which brings us back to the question of why he was brought here.

And so, even if Epstein goes and, presumably, Ben Cherington is elevated to replace him, don't the Sox have the same problems that need addressing? It's about the philosophy. Why haven't they been able to draft and develop a true middle-of-the-order power hitter in their system? Why do they whiff so badly on major free agent signings? Why are the Sox so good at the smaller and mid-range moves but so poor at the big ones?

And if that's a Theo problem, then why is Cherington even being discussed as a candidate?

Here's the truth: everyone went overboard with "Moneyball" several years ago because the Oakland A's got hot, which hardly detracts from anything Billy Beane has accomplished. He is a good general manager. Beane's trusted assistant at that time, Paul DePodesta, went to the Los Angeles Dodgers and failed miserably. And lest anyone forget, Epstein's former right-hand man, Josh Byrnes, failed in Arizona.

Meanwhile, the A's now have gone five years without a winning season in the absence of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito, not to mention the steroids that turned Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada into Most Valuable Player Award winners. Absent performance-enhancers, the A's have not produced a power hitter, either. Bobby Crosby, Mark Teahen, Cliff Pennington, and Jeremy Brown all have been relative busts. In this millennium, Oakland's best first-round selection is probably Nick Swisher, a solid contributor for the New York Yankees who would never hit third, fourth or fifth on a championship-caliber team.

Today, following the latest rhetoric from Yawkey Way, the finger-pointing will continue and the discussions will go on. Is Theo really out? Who will replace Francona? Henry and Lucchino did quite well the last time they were in this position, assembling a tandem that helped bring the Red Sox to unprecedented heights. Since that time, it certainly feels as if the Sox slowly drifted from some of their core principles, crossing business wants with baseball needs.

In the end, whom the Sox hire this winter will not be nearly as important as how they think.

Amid the decision-making process at Fenway Park, this is another thing the Sox must consider.

Contemporaneously, of course.

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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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