Red Sox executive vice president and general manager Theo Epstein thinks he has his club ready to make another charge into October. There are obviously more moves to be made -- unless you're comfortable with a Josh Bard/George Kottaras/Dusty Brown combination behind the plate -- but Epstein has received praise for making moves that should improve the club.
He missed out on signing free agent Mark Teixeira, but the additions of Brad Penny, John Smoltz, and Rocco Baldelli fill needs and round out a roster that made it to Game 7 of the ALCS last year.
I spoke with Epstein about the finances of building a team in a recession, the key off-season additions, and keeping up with the Joneses in the AL East.
TC: How much do you have to keep the state of the economy in mind as you make deals? What could happen to the future of baseball in this economy?
Epstein: Obviously, no one has the answer to what’s going to happen to this economy on the whole, and more specifically its impact on baseball in 2009. All things being equal, we just felt the more flexibility we could maintain, the better. It gives us the ability to read and react, which is never a bad thing. If you have younger, more cost-controlled and affordable talent, when is that ever a bad thing? In these economic times it could prove to be a very valuable thing.
TC: How do your off-season moves thus far compare with the plan you had going into November?
Epstein: Actually, you don’t go in with one plan. You go in with several different versions of a plan because you’re never sure if you’re going to be able to land certain players and you’re never sure if certain trades are going to come to fruition. The theme, I guess, is that we felt we had a really good team coming back. We didn’t have any desperate needs at any one position per se. We were returning a team that was really, really injured and still came within one big hit of getting to the World Series with a lot of young players that should get better. We felt if we were going to make moves we wanted to find potential impact players, whether it be a big free agent or a number of shorter-term deals with potential impact players who are coming off an injury or coming off a down year. So we’ve ended up really following that second path, and we like the players we’ve signed.
TC: It appears you’ve been able to improve this club without getting tied up in too many long-term contracts. You have a lot of one-year deals in place. Is that something you had hoped to do?
Epstein: I hope we’ve improved the club. I think that we have, but time will tell. Things look a certain way in the off-season and they have to play out during the season. In our situation, there are two factors that led us down the path of preferring shorter-term deals. Obviously, with the right player in his prime, we’re always willing to extend a longer-term deal. We have a really good core of young players and we have a good farm system, so you don’t necessarily want to block those players with long-term commitments to players who might be on the wrong side of the age curve. Also, the economy. There seems to be a downturn in the market for player salaries. It may get worse in 2009 when the economy really hits baseball, and so if it’s a down-turning market you don’t necessarily want to get caught up in long-term commitments as the market tends to decrease. With that kind of uncertainty, it’s better to keep our flexibility, and compared to other big-market teams, we have only a fraction of their commitments going forward, yet we still have a lot of talent under control, so I hope we find that a nice position to be in.
TC: You seem to have gotten a couple of guys at the right time. A year or two ago, Brad Penny and Rocco Baldelli would’ve cost you a lot more money for a lot more years.
Epstein: The contracts are low-risk and high-reward. I think that’s an important part of it. Players’ careers are really volatile, so if you’re going to invest in a player in free agency — unless it’s absolutely the right player — sometimes you want to look for the little valleys in their careers so you can get them on the right turn rather than buying high. It’s not an easy thing to do, and we’re not going to hit on all these guys, but if we hit on one or two of them it’ll be worthwhile.
TC: What does the addition of John Smoltz do for you? What can he give you at this stage of his career?
Epstein: He’s coming off major surgery, but we saw him throw a bullpen [session] and it was fantastic. He threw all his pitches, he threw hard, his arm was working really well. He’s just a bit of a physical freak who defies a lot of the rules. He’s never been bad; he’s never even been average. He’s always been a dominant guy, so you feel like a combination of his quick recovery to date and [the advice of] our medical staff, if we can get him back on the mound we have a chance to have a dominant guy that’s valuable.
TC: I know you pay a guy to perform on the field, but Smoltz has got to bring intangibles to the clubhouse that very few people could bring.
Epstein: Yeah, he does. He’s obviously a winner. He’s incredibly experienced. He’s got a certain swagger about him. He’s as uber-competitive a guy as you could find. Talking to a lot of players who have been through the Braves’ clubhouse over the years, he’s a guy who stands out as really having a positive impact both directly and indirectly on other people’s careers. What’s not to like with a guy like that? As long as we can get him back to good health.
TC: You’ve often said you won’t react to what they’re doing in New York and Tampa. That said, you’ve got a lot of games to play in the division. Is it as tough as any division in baseball?
Epstein: It is. I think the teams in this division have to hold themselves to an awfully high standard. Eighty-five, 95 wins, whatever it may be, I think that’s harder to attain in this division than just about anywhere else. You don’t build your team to face any one individual team, but I think you have to build a talented, deep team with plenty of redundancy and reinforcements just to hope to contend in this division.
OT contributor Tom Caron is the studio host of Boston Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network.