Talk about random. This week's punch of the old randomizer brought up a page with almost nothing on it, the 2006 Franchise Pitching Stats and Depth Charts page for the 2006 Boston Red Sox. Looking back, especially in light of their World Championship a year later, it's easy to forget 2006. As this page shows (indeed, it shows little else), the Sox were decidedly mediocre in 2006. Their Pythagorean record a measly 81-81 (go ahead, salivate Pirates fans), and their overall record was 86-76. In fact, 2006 is the only year in GM Theo Epstein's impressive run at Boston's helm (since 2003), that the Sox finished with fewer than 95 wins.
So what happened in 2006? As many of you undoubtedly remember, following the 2005 season there was trouble over Epstein's contract. As an October 31 deadline crept closer, internal bickering became public fodder (thanks to Dan Shaughnessy), and the team was thrown into chaos. Apparently unsure he wanted to put up with the drama, Epstein snuck out that night (reportedly in a gorilla suit, using the Halloween holiday to his advantage) without a new contract. Indeed, Halloween couldn't have gotten any scarier for Sox fans.
In Epstein's absence, Jed Hoyer and Ben Charington were promoted to co-General Managers, and tried to keep the ship afloat. They traded Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez (and change) to the Marlins for Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, and Guillermo Mota. The used Edgar Renteria to pry Andy Marte away from the Braves (then considered a coup). They sent Doug Mirabelli to the Padres for Mark Loretta. And they signed Rudy Seanez, JT Snow, and Julian Tavarez. So it's hard to say that the Sox cooled their heels while their front office situation shook itself out, but it's clear that the timing of the decision proved troublesome for the Red Sox, a team in transition.
Indeed, just before Epstein walked away, the team's starting 1B (Millar), 3B (Mueller), and CF (Damon) all filed for free agency. They filled 3B by default in acquiring Lowell (whose presence almost killed the trade from Boston's end). But they opened up SS by dealing away Renteria. And the team's pitching staff (even with Beckett) seemed to lack the front-end talent that would allow it to keep up with the Yankees. And by the time Epstein came back on January 19th, the Sox had already missed out on Damon, Mueller, Millar, Billy Wagner, BJ Ryan, Paul Konerko, Brian Giles, Tom Gordon, Paul Byrd, Bob Wickman, Trevor Hoffman, AJ Burnett, Roberto Hernandez, Rafael Furcal, Kenny Lofton, and Todd Jones, all of whom would have to be considered the top of that year's free agent class. In fact, the only significant free agents to sign after Epstein return were Frank Thomas, Mike Piazza, Bengie Molina, and Jeff Weaver (three of whom played positions at which the Sox were already set and one of whom wouldn't have been good enough to crack an already flawed rotation).
With the available talent dwindling, Epstein moved to plug holes, signing Alex Gonzalez to play SS, and trading Marte, Mota, and C Kelly Shoppach to the Indians for Coco Crisp, David Riske, and Josh Bard. Then they dealt starter Bronson Arroyo to the Reds for Wily Mo Pena (in a deal that still doesn't make much sense). The fact that Epstein quickly moved players like Mota and Marte out suggests that his moves were somewhat panicked, focused on short-term fixes to undo some of the damage caused by an inactive and inattentive winter. Like getting your cabin in livable condition after leaving it fallow all winter (or three winters, as The Common Man found out last year).
And the results were predictable. Gonzalez flopped at short. Crisp underwhelmed in center. Wily Mo turned out to be an ill-conceived get. Riske was quickly dealt for a lefty arm in the pen. Bard was unloaded when Epstein decided he wanted his old backup back. In all, it was a lost year for the Sox, who would of course bounce back to win it all the next year (following some off-season brilliance by Epstein). Meanwhile, 2006 serves a a warning of the perils of a leadership vacuum, and of the importance of having a strong plan in place going into the offseason. As the new season looms, it will be interesting to see just whose off-season leadership has served them best.