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Red Sox GM Theo Epstein's lost season
What a literary summer it’s been for Theo Epstein, the Yale-educated son of a novelist-writing professor.
He’s been paralyzed Hamlet, unable to take action.
He’s been Bartleby, Herman Melville’s recalcitrant scrivener who would simply “prefer not to.”
He’s been H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man.
Red Sox Nation would no doubt like to read Epstein’s “How I Spent My Summer” essay to learn just how he’d characterize his lost season.
Maybe he’d go for something more historical than literary, like Nero fiddling while Rome burned.
Of course when a college professor, like, say, Leslie Epstein, takes a sabbatical, presumably someone else teaches his courses. Not so with Theo’s hiatus.
While the competition made moves to bolster their playoff bids, the Red Sox front office was a sleepy dead letter office.
The Rangers acquired Cliff Lee and Jorge Cantu. The Yankees, who will probably add Lee in the winter, acquired Lance Berkman, Kerry Wood and Austin Kearns. The Twins added Matt Capps and Brian Fuentes. Even the White Sox, fading in the AL Central, shook things up by adding Manny Ramirez. Heck, even the woebegone Angels added Dan Haren.
Sure, not all those moves have worked out, but at least they represent proof that the front office phones of the other AL contenders have not been disconnected.
The Red Sox?
Despite being forced by injury to use nine — count ‘em, nine — left fielders this season, Epstein never saw fit to acquire a legit corner outfielder who could add some pop.
Instead, he just kept plumbing the depths of his organizational depth chart. When Jacoby Ellsbury got hit by a car named Adrian Beltre it began a domino effect that led to Jeremy Hermida, Darnell McDonald, Josh Reddick, Bill Hall, Daniel Nava, Eric Patterson, Jonathan Van Every and Ryan Kalish seeing time in left. (Only Patterson, out of options in Oakland, was an in-season acquisition.)
One more injury and Ted Williams’ frozen head would have been starting in left. Not that the Splinter’s noggin could be any less productive than the left-field roundelay the Sox have employed. Boston’s left fielders have a combined .696 OPS, a wretched stat line that only looks good when compared with the comical .668 OPS posted by the team’s center fielders.
This exposes Epstein’s offseason acquisition of Mike Cameron as the predictable disaster most fans feared. Not only was it no surprise that a 37-year-old center fielder was sidelined or playing hurt all season, but couldn’t the brain trust envision Cameron’s already diminished skills further eroding?
This ill-conceived acquisition pushed Ellsbury, perhaps the fastest player in Red Sox history, onto the tiny patch of grass that is left field in Fenway. Having Ellsbury in left is like having a Ferrari just for going down to the mailbox in the morning.
But this isn’t a column about what Epstein did in the offseason — John Lackey ranks 42nd in WHIP out of 47 AL pitchers with enough innings to qualify — it’s about what he didn’t do once the season was under way.
Every time the Red Sox lost another key player, the team’s search for a replacement was confined to the local scrap heap. It was like watching a Secret Santa gift exchange with a $5 maximum value.
How do we replace leadoff hitter and stolen base champ Jacoby Ellsbury? I know, let’s just take journeyman No. 9 hitter Marco Scutaro and put him at the top of the order. So what if Scutaro has a .333 OBP with three stolen bases and four caught stealings?
Epstein refused to deviate from the mission statement of the season: How to Watch $160M Swirl Down the Drain While Sitting on Your Hands.
Boston replaced its MVP second baseman and All-Star catcher with some duct tape and Popsicle sticks Theo found lying around the office. (On second thought, that scenario assumes that Theo was actually in the office this summer so it doesn’t really work.)
Bill Hall rocked a .698 OPS in 124 at bats as Pedroia’s primary replacement at second, which is a heck of a lot more impressive than the .387 OPS Kevin Cash threw up in 56 at bats at catcher after Jason Varitek broke his foot.
So when All-Star first baseman and MVP candidate Kevin Youkilis suffered the team’s umpteenth freak injury — tearing a thumb muscle on a swing — Red Sox Nation knew the drill. Youk’s replacement was somewhere on the premises.
In penciling in Mike Lowell at first base, the Red Sox waded deep into the local landfill. The team had already publicly given up on him, refusing to activate him even when the 2007 World Series MVP announced he could play.
So it was kind of amusing when Epstein responded to the Youkilis injury by saying, “At least we have someone with the caliber of Mike Lowell to step in.”
What caliber is that? Lowell has a putrid .234/.309/.373 hitting line — for a woeful .682 OPS — and he makes David Ortiz look fast on the bases. Lowell’s inability to reach second base on balls hit off the Green Monster pretty much eradicates the one thing he might still be expected to do reasonably well. (He hit 84 doubles in his first two seasons in Boston.)
While the lineup was being decimated by injuries and reinforcements were being cobbled together from the local militia, Theo’s negligence when it came to the club’s bullpen may have been even more unforgivable.
Since May 10 the Red Sox are 34-9 when Daniel Bard pitches and 23-33 when he does not. So Terry Francona’s desire to use Bard every day is as understandable as it is risky to the magical arm of the team’s future closer.
The team’s other setup men have a combined 5.06 ERA. Hideki Okajima has a staggering 2.00 WHIP and a 5.73 ERA. Manny Delcarmen had an 11.25 ERA. in June and July. As much as teams fear Bard they must sprint to the bat rack when they see Okajima or Delcarmen coming in.
Epstein’s response to this crisis? He dealt Ramon Ramirez to San Francisco for Double-A pitcher Daniel Turpen. (Late update: the Sox traded Delcarmen to the Rockies for Single-A pitcher Chris Balcom-Miller on Tuesday.)
Ramirez has had a 1.13 ERA as a setup man for the Giants while Turpen has posted a 6.14 E.R.A. for the Portland Sea Dogs. Well done.
The good news for Epstein, such as it is, is that the inactivity that defined his 2010 season actually had consequences. The worst kind of co-worker you can be is the guy who takes time off and no one notices. Well, Theo took his sabbatical this year and the result will be a distant third-place finish in the AL East.
And how exactly are things supposed to improve next year with Beltre (.323/.362/.551) and Martinez presumably elsewhere and Big Papi another year deeper into his decline-phase-defying resurrection?
Red Sox Nation wants to know. If Theo has answers, he should feel free to provide them.
No rush. This season is lost. Whenever he gets back from vacation will be fine.
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