Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Blaming Theo

By The Common Man

It’s become favorable in the last 48 hours to lay the blame for the Red Sox’ ongoing collapse at the feet of Sox General Manager and general wunderkind Theo Epstein. Jeff Passan started it, and his thoughts were echoed by Jim Donaldson and Buck Showalter in the Providence Journal, as well as Jon Morosi.  After all, Epstein has fallen dangerously short on pitchers here in September, forcing the Sox to reach down and use the ineffective Andrew Miller and Kyle Weiland, and the gassed Tim Wakefield. They also continue to inflict John Lackey on an unsuspecting populace every fifth game. If Epstein had done a better job of assembling a staff in the offseason, the narrative goes, the Sox would not be trying to fight off the surging Rays with a BB Gun and a Swiss Army knife. That narrative, however, is a conveniently shaped specifically to fit over the Sox season.

In reality, the Sox went into Spring Training with the following pitchers penciled into their rotation:

Josh Beckett (6-6, 5.78, 127.2 IP)

Jon Lester (19-9, 3.25, 208 IP)

Clay Buchholz (17-7, 2.33, 173.2 IP)

John Lackey (14-11, 4.40, 215 IP)

Daisuke Matsuzaka (9-6, 4.69, 153.2 IP)

Last year, those five combined to start 129 of 162 games. Not that there wasn’t room to worry. Beckett was coming back from a back problem that limited him to 127 innings and a 5.78 ERA in 2010. Daisuke had had bouts of forearm stiffness and had earned the ire of his club with slow and wild pitching. Lackey had taken every turn, but had not been the ace the Sox had hoped for when they signed him to a 5 year, $82 million deal.

So the Sox planned ahead. They had Wakefield stashed in the bullpen, and Weiland, Miller, and Felix Doubront stashed at AAA. If things truly got desperate, long man Alfredo Aceves could be pressed into service.

Things did get desperate. So desperate that every single starter except Beckett went on the DL with injury problems. Lester and Buchholz developed back problems. Lackey and Matsuzaka came down with elbow issues. Matsuzaka is slated for surgery this offseason and is unavailable. Buchholz has been out since June and is hoping to be ready for the playoffs. Even the otherwise healthy Beckett has gutted through a sprained ankle.

Their reinforcements have even evaporated. Erik Bedard, acquired in a midseason trade, was out for 15 days this September with more knee problems. Doubront has struggled through leg and groin problems all season.

The Sox were prepared if one of their starters proved injured or ineffective. They were prepared if two of their starters couldn’t go. But the Red Sox this September have seen three members of their rotation on the sidelines, and John Lackey’s baffling inability to get anyone out. What reasonable GM would feel like they needed to have 9 viable starters on hand at the start of a season?

And who was he supposed to go after? The rotation already had five excellent or expensive pitchers, so chasing after Cliff Lee wasn’t an option. Guys like Jon Garland, Aaron Harang, Bartolo Colon, Brandon McCarthy, Bruce Chen, and Freddie Garcia had offers from teams that were promising them rotation spots, or at least a legitimate shot at a regular turn. Perhaps you can criticize the club for not going after waiver bait like Philip Humber, or fallen prospects like Ryan Vogelsong, but why would the Sox even need to pursue those guys with three legitimate options on the farm, and one in the bullpen. And it took injuries and ineffectiveness to even get Humber and Vogelsong their chance. The rest of the free agent pitchers who were available include guys that got hurt (De La Rosa, Harden, Wang, Webb, Duchscherer) or ineffective (Capuano, Penny, Francis). How would the Sox be any better off with one of these pitchers?

But wait, says the Blame Theo crowd, why didn’t the Sox upgrade at the trade deadline? Well, for one thing, they did, getting the third or fourth best pitcher available in Erik Bedard. And John Lackey was looking strong, putting together a four game winnings steak in which his ERA was just 2.52. The Sox had Beckett, Lester, Lackey, and Bedard on July 31, with Wakefield in the #5 spot, a 2 game lead over the Yankees in the AL East, and a 10.5 game lead over the Rays. Would you deal elite prospects for an Ubaldo Jimenez in that case? The Common Man sure wouldn’t.

And let’s take a moment to give Theo Epstein his due in putting this team together. Epstein is responsible for acquiring 44 of the 49 players the Red Sox used this season. He and his staff drafted Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Josh Reddick, Jed Lowrie, Clay Buchholz, Jonathan Papelbon, and Josh Bard. They brought in David Ortiz, Adrian Gonzalez, Jason Saltalamacchia, Marco Scutaro, Alfredo Alceves, and Mike Aviles,a nd have given up remarkably little to do so. Of the players he did not bring in, Epstein negotiated the extensions for Jason Varitek, Tim Wakefield, and Josh Beckett, and deserves at least some of the credit for the development of Kevin Youkilis and Jon Lester. And while the signings of John Lackey and Carl Crawford have been disasters so far, they were both uniformly cheered at the time they were signed.

These Sox were not poorly constructed. Quite the opposite. The architect of this team assembled it well. But even the strongest buildings can crack and fall in the strongest earthquake. The Red Sox have seen pitcher after pitcher after pitcher get hurt this year, and sometimes you can’t plan for everything.  Blaming Theo Epstein may make writers feel better.  It may make this season, and the Sox' struggles to close the deal easier to explain.  And it certainly gives writers a handy topic and an easy scapegoat (everyone loves a good "falling from grace" story) to write about.  But it's not accurate.  And it's not right.


Jason Wojciechowski said...

"What reasonable GM would feel like they needed to have 9 viable starters on hand at the start of a season?"

Billy Beane! (Depending your definitions of "on hand" (Harden) and "viable" (Outman, Godfrey).)

The Common Man said...

But Beane's guys were competing for the last couple spots in the rotation, weren't they? Plus, two of the guys (Harden and McCarthy) were two of the most oft-injured pitchers in the game. The Sox, meanwhile, had all five spots pretty much set at the outset.

Adam said...

Totally agree with your premise, especially that they're creating some sort of post hoc narrative here. I guess the one thing he could have done was add an expiring contract mid-back rotation guy a week or two ago, just to get them thru September. That probably wouldn't make an exciting article though, and its really nit-picky. Not to mention I can only think of a couple guys who fit that bill, Buehrle and Capuano, and not clear either was available to rent anyway.

I think the basic criticism is about his *inability* to develop star pitchers, which requires conveniently setting the bar below whatever Buchholtz has accomplished ("he never threw for more than 180 IP!").

The Common Man said...

And also conveniently forgets about Lester, who was drafted under interim GM Mike Port but only pitched 0.2 innings with him at the helm. Epstein should get credit for having or leaving the right guys in place to help his development.

BigLeagues said...

As near as I can tell, the main difference between bloggers and columnists is that some bloggers are actually sane (and sober).

Thanks for being sane Common Man.

The Common Man said...

Yeah, The Common Man makes absolutely no promises on the latter at any given time.

Jason Wojciechowski said...

TCM -- just the fifth spot, really. Anderson, Cahill, Gonzalez, and Braden were locks, leaving McCarthy, Harden, Outman, and Ross competing for the fifth spot, with Moscoso hanging around the fringes and Graham Godfrey an emergency tenth starter.

Still, you're right that the situations aren't actually all that comparable. I just like shouting out Billy Beane at every opportunity. Maybe he'll give me a job.

Adam said...

hey, turns out Theo actually did try to trade for Capuano

Doesn't matter though, he clearly should have known Beckett couldn't hold a 3 run lead vs the orioles and made a trade mid game for Danny Haren.

Anonymous said...

When you say he was responsible for 44 of the 49 men used.... that sounds impressive, but is it really?

He took over after the 2002 season... so what you are effectively saying is there are only 5 guys remaining on the Red Sox from 10 years ago?

Is that a testament to his ability or pretty much a normal turnover situation. How many teams have more than 5 players with 10+ years of tenure on the team?