WEEI.com's Alex Speier, who consistently does great work, spoke to Theo Epstein on the eve (or near-eve) of this weekend's Red Sox-Cubs series at Wrigley Field. In case you spent the last eight months under a rock or something, Epstein left the Red Sox under something of a cloud and moved to Chicago to rejuvenate the Cubs.
So far, that's not working out so well. But it's early, and there's always Anthony Rizzo. Speier seems to have been mostly interested in Epstein's thoughts about his last couple of seasons in Boston, when the Red Sox failed to reach the postseason, and the organization seemed to have lost its way. Speier:
But then came the most recent offseasons, when the Red Sox started conferring Scrooge McDuck-sized mountains of gold upon free agents. There was the five-year, $82.5 million deal for John Lackey, and the seven-year, $142 million deal for Carl Crawford. Those represented a change in how the Red Sox did business.
Epstein did not want to talk specifically about individual players and deals, but speaking more broadly, it is clear that he became uncomfortable with the decision-making culture that he helped to create and that, ultimately, he felt he should leave behind. He spoke of the "monster" of expectations and the perceived need to get better constantly -- a feeling, Epstein suggested, that he and his baseball operations team shared with other departments in the organization -- at the expense of a club whose successes are driven by a scouting and player development machine.
"As a leader of baseball operations, it's my responsibility to manage that [monster] and to be true to our own philosophies and to put the best team on the field and build the best organization so we can succeed year in and year out," said Epstein. "Our successes were probably well documented, so any failings have to be attributed directly to us in baseball operations."
That's at least somewhat magnanimous of Epstein, because the baseball-operations department must have been getting some pressure from business operations to keep winning 95 games every season, keep getting into the playoffs every season, maybe even win another World Series or two.
In fairness to Epstein and everyone else, it's not like they signed a bunch of free agents who were terrible. Well, actually it's been a bunch. But there have been only two high-profile busts: John Lackey and Carl Crawford. And while both contracts did seem like reaches at the time, there's no way that anyone could have predicted that both would become the disasters they have.
In the three seasons before Lackey signed with the Red Sox, he went 42-22 with a 3.48 ERA, 3.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In the three seasons since (including this one, in which he won't pitch), Lackey's gone 26-23 with a 5.26 ERA, 2.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
In the two seasons before Crawford signed with the Red Sox, he averaged 155 games per season, with a 125 OPS+. In the two seasons since -- including this one, in which he might or might not play -- Crawford's averaged 65 games per season, with an 85 OPS+.
So that's two Scrooge McDuck-sized mountains, or three if you want to include Daisuke Matsuzaka ($103 million, counting the posting fee). Or four if you want to include Adrian Gonzalez ($154 million), on whom the jury's still out. Or five if you want to include J.D. Drew.
The problem with those free agents is that none of them were (or have been, so far) unqualified successes. You've got two huge busts (Lackey and Crawford), one small bust (Dice-K), one wash (Drew) and Gonzalez, who was excellent in the last year of his old contract, but has been mediocre in the first year of ... his seven-year contract. So that one might blow up on the Red Sox, too.
The Red Sox have been lucky in World Series, winning two of them. They've been unlucky elsewhere, though. You might guess that at least one of their free agents would have hit big, but it just hasn't happened. In 2010, the Sox were destroyed by injuries. In 2011, they finished with the run differential of a 94-win team but won only 90 games, which left them just barely out of the postseason.
Before 2010, the Red Sox averaged 94 wins per season with Theo Epstein running baseball operations. In the next two seasons, playing Major League Baseball's toughest division, they won 89 and 90 games. I think maybe we should cut Boston's baseball operations a bit of slack.
Which isn't to suggest the "monster of expectations" didn't take its toll. I can't find the exact essay, but a long time ago Bill James -- regarding the Yankees, I think -- wrote about this: You win, which creates an expectation of more winning, so you throw money at free agents and you trade prospects for veterans, but some of them fail so you throw more money at free agents and trade more prospects for veterans, and your little hamster wheel just keeps spinning faster and faster and it's okay for a while but finally your little hamster heart blows up and then you die.
Well, Bill wrote it better. What's ironic, of course, is that Bill James works for the Red Sox. I hope someday he writes about it.