"We're at a point right now where we're not desperate to improve in any one area."-- Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, Oct. 20
That was roughly six weeks ago, just before the start of the World Series, just after the Red Sox lost to the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. Not much has changed since. Neither the Red Sox nor their competition has improved dramatically so far this offseason, and the winter meetings are now just days away.
We all know where the Red Sox stand. They have traded Coco Crisp. They have secured Junichi Tazawa. General manager Theo Epstein has lots of money to spend and no major holes to fill, per se, though the Sox certainly could benefit in the short term and the long by tweaking a roster that produced 95 regular-season victories last season and came within five wins of a third World Series title in five years.
Indeed, as Major League Baseball convenes in Las Vegas next week for what effectively serves as its annual winter convention, the Red Sox have greater flexibility than at any other time in recent memory. Epstein has money to burn, prospects to trade, a championship-caliber team intact. The Red Sox have questions like anyone else — the health of Mike Lowell chief among them — but the team finds itself in the extraordinary position of being able to do virtually anything or nothing.
Roughly six years ago at this time, when Epstein took over a Red Sox operation that was heavier in talent at the major league level than the minor, he vowed to turn the Sox into “a scouting and player development machine.” The idea was to turn the franchise into a self-sustaining operation that could produce players with the best small-market teams and spend money with the most aggressive big-market clubs. The former would help facilitate the latter, Epstein noted, and accomplishing both would allow the Red Sox to compete for world titles annually.
Today, as Epstein enters his seventh offseason as GM, the Red Sox remain a religion to those who make their homes in and well beyond New England. Now, they just happen to be a Theocracy, too. During Epstein’s six-year tenure, the Red Sox have scored more runs than any other team in baseball and have won more games than all but one, the filthy-rich New York Yankees. The Sox have won one-third of all world titles decided during that span, have been to the ALCS four times, and lead the rest of their division in World Series banners, 2-0.
This offseason, Epstein has the ability and flexibility to keep the rest of the baseball world guessing, which is precisely how he likes it.
What is Theo going to do next?
"We're not just going into this winter trying to address the 2009 team and that's it. I think the better way to look at it is that we're continuing to evolve as an organization."-- Epstein, Oct. 20
Let’s say the Red Sox do what amounts to virtually nothing. Let’s say they re-sign Jason Varitek, continue to invest in their minor leaguers, lose out on Mark Teixeira. Assuming they are healthy, the 2009 Red Sox would remain a playoff-caliber team and championship threat out of spring training, leaving Epstein with the chance to add as necessary approaching the July 31 trading deadline.
Last season, with virtually the same roster and an assortment of injuries, the Sox went 95-67.
All of that reflects especially well on the player development system built by Epstein and his baseball operations staff, who have infused the Red Sox with youth in the last few seasons. Jonathan Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, and Jacoby Ellsbury all are products of drafts conducted under Epstein. Daisuke Matsuzaka was a celebrated free-agent signing, but he was just 26 at the time. All of those players had significant roles in the Sox’ victory over the Rockies in the 2007 World Series, after which Epstein made the decision to improve the club from within.
Rather than spending on the free-agent market, the idea was to let the youngest members of the Red Sox grow into their potential.
The absence of a young catcher is an obvious concern, but the 2009 Sox again stand to improve from within. Lester (16-6, 3.21 ERA) and AL MVP Pedroia may be hard pressed to get better, but Ellsbury has significant room for improvement. So do Justin Masterson, Jed Lowrie, and Clay Buchholz. Pitching prospects Michael Bowden and Daniel Bard could be among the newest wave of talent integrated at the major league level, and slugging first baseman Lars Anderson appears bound for the major leagues.
Or Epstein could trade any combination of them.
For now, know this: Epstein values his young players greatly and has yet to deal away a truly prized prospect whom he has drafted. (Hanley Ramirez was acquired during the Dan Duquette administration, and David Murphy was dealt only after the rise of Ellsbury.) Epstein generally has erred on the side of shrewd long-term planning, which is a primary reason the Red Sox are where they are.
Said Epstein in October: “These days, if you’re not getting younger and more dynamic, you’re probably falling behind.”
After all, the Red Sox are not competing solely with the Yankees anymore. They are also competing with the heavily stocked and talented young Tampa Bay team that won the ALCS.
"That's a way the offseason could go. I'd probably be surprised if that's the case. ... We have the ability to be selective in free agency. ...We might do something big."-- Epstein, asked on Oct. 20 if the 2008-09 Red Sox offseason could be as uneventful as the previous one
The Tampa Bay Rays have little choice. They do not have the financial flexibility to chase CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Teixeira, or Manny Ramirez. The Red Sox do. The beauty of being a big-market team like the Red Sox right now is that the Sox can continue to promote young talent while simultaneously signing free agents, eschewing trades that would require the forfeiture of players.
Now let’s say the Red Sox choose to be aggressive. This week, Epstein could knock over first baseman Teixeira with the biggest contract in club history — exceeding the eight-year, $160 million deal awarded to Manny Ramirez in December 2000 — and the Sox would be armed for the short term as well as the long. The Sox then would have the luxury of either re-signing Varitek or trading for a replacement, most likely with the Texas Rangers, to address their catching needs.
Is Teixeira necessary? Yes and no. In the short term, the Sox would be fine without him. In the long, the Sox need a replacement for Manny Ramirez — Jason Bay is currently eligible for free agency at the end of the 2009 season — and, to a lesser extent, 33-year-old David Ortiz. Anderson is just one young, developing player who would need help in Boston even if he reaches his potential.
Beyond that, there have been whispers that the Red Sox are inquiring about shortstops, including free agent Rafael Furcal. Earlier this offseason, they were said to have offered Crisp for San Diego Padres shortstop Khalil Greene. Epstein has expressed interest in Derek Lowe and Burnett, though Epstein’s history suggests he will refrain from paying top dollar for any free agent pitcher in his 30s.
Next week, amid the bright lights of Las Vegas, Epstein will sit down at the negotiating table with agents and fellow executives somewhere beyond the ringing and buzzing of the slot machines and blackjack tables. Most everyone in Vegas will be angling for a score, including the Red Sox, whose general manager seems to have one advantage over all others.
Theo Epstein has the chips.
Tony Massarotti can be reached at email@example.com and can be read at www.boston.com/massarotti