Ever since the Grinch, looking suspiciously like Yankees general manager Brian Cashman but with a slightly less greenish tint, swooped down from Mount Steinbrenner (rumored to be nothing more than an enormous stack of cash) and swiped Mark Teixeira from beneath the Red Sox’ Christmas tree, all of the sad citizens of Red Sox Nation have had one collective comment for young Theo Lou Who:
Well, that went well. What now, genius?
What, you expected more of that Dr. Seuss jibber-jabber? Hey, you know how it goes: Here in icy New England, cynicism is a traditional part of the holiday mood. And in the hours after the Yankees surprised just about everyone other than — ahem — me by signing Teixeira when conventional wisdom suggested he was already gift-wrapped for the Red Sox, the frustration was palpable and justified. He was supposed to be ours. But in the time it took for agent Scott Boras to whisper, “The Yankees have made an offer” into a media lackey’s ear, he was gone, to The Enemy, no less, and although the plot twist didn’t necessarily ruin a Red Sox fan’s holiday season, the eggnog didn’t taste quite as good this year, either.
Though it was convenient and cathartic to vent about Epstein and the Red Sox front office in the immediate aftermath of the Teixeira signing, the more consideration that was given to the way the situation unfolded, the more apparent the truth became: The Yankees, hindered a year ago by a lineup featuring a lot of famous names producing a lot of underwhelming numbers, coveted Teixeira, a 28-year-old Goody Two Cleats with 203 homers in six full seasons, at least as much as the Red Sox did, and their intent was to trump each and every high bid until they got their man. We didn’t know it as it was happening, but it turns out the Red Sox never had a chance. Someday, Teixeira might even admit as much.
Yet in a vaguely ironic sort of way, losing out on Teixeira has made it easier to appreciate Epstein and the bloodlessness with which he approaches his job. Many general managers, if not most, would react to losing out on a coveted free agent to a rival by throwing a blank check at the next-best thing, particularly if the fan base is clamoring for a countermove. Yet there has been no indication whatsoever that the club plans on pursuing anyone from that second tier of free-agent bats — Adam Dunn, Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu — and that’s as it should be. Each is a flawed player who doesn’t fit the club’s needs at the moment. Teixeira was a special case, a patient, prime-of-career slugger whom they have coveted for years and who fits their philosophy perfectly, and no one else available is nearly as appealing. Kudos to Epstein for not convincing himself otherwise.
So for the time being, yes, the status quo is the way to go for the Red Sox. Oh, there are exceptions — Epstein is relentlessly creative and proactive in terms of player procurement, perhaps even more so now that the Yankees reside in their own stratosphere economically, and the report that the Red Sox inquired about reacquiring one-time phenom Hanley Ramirez from the Marlins certainly falls into the category of “due diligence.” But the Red Sox as currently constituted are a deep, richly talented team, one that needs just a savvy tweak or two to its roster to be ready for the new season in the fiercely competitive American League East.
One item already crossed off Epstein’s short to-do list: Acquiring a capable fourth or fifth starter. With any luck, he may have found Terry Francona and John Farrell a pitcher who is going to make all of them look very smart: former Dodgers workhorse Brad Penny. If the right shoulder injury that quickly turned Penny’s ’08 season from promising to abysmal has healed — and by most accounts, it has — this is a brilliant low-risk, high-reward signing. Penny’s career adjusted ERA+ is 106, all of five points lower than A.J. Burnett’s (average is 100), and he owns more career postseason victories than Burnett and CC Sabathia combined. (Penny 3, Filthy Rich New Yankees 2.) But do you know what the main difference is between Penny and Burnett? Well, yes, roughly $77 million. But mostly this: Penny had the bad luck to get injured during his contract year; Burnett, for once, remained healthy. Penny’s misfortune could be the Red Sox’ bargain; Burnett’s fortune may be the Yankees’ albatross.
A Red Sox fan can only hope the pitchers’ fates play out in such a delightful manner. Yankees fans, uncharacteristically quiet in recent years for some odd reason, are thumping their furry chests again — yes, women included — apparently still blissfully ignorant that the standings aren’t determined in order of payroll. Their gleeful bleating in the days after the Teixeira signing was enough to make a Sox fan long for the New York silence of last October.
For now, though, we find our peace in this: The Red Sox of Theo Epstein remain uncommonly shrewd and prepared, and in the end, it will serve them well yet again. The Red Sox may not have received the holiday gift they wanted — damned Mark Teixeira, damned Scott Boras, damned Grinch — but as we optimistically ponder the season ahead, we can’t help but find ourselves stumbling back around to the words of that Seuss fella one more time:
Oh, the places they’ll go.
The Red Sox may not win the bidding wars, but the on-field battles to come will be a different matter. Bring it on, Bronx. The old drama is back.
OT columnist Chad Finn is a sports reporter for Boston.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org