Setting Up Success
Epstein is our Major League Exec of the Year
BOSTON—In six years under general manager Theo Epstein, the Red Sox have enjoyed more on-field success than any team in baseball. Boston has been to the playoffs five times, winning two championships and coming just one win short of reaching two additional World Series.
During that time, the primary goal of the Red Sox has been, in Epstein's words, "to build a healthy foundation that could put us in position to have sustained success." By all indications, the Sox have done precisely that.
The 2004 World Series was won on the strength of veteran talent and shrewd free agent signings. The 2007 championship reflected the successful overhaul of Boston's scouting and player development systems. So, too, did a 2008 run to the American League Championship Series in which prospect depth allowed the club to withstand a rash of injuries to veterans.
An organization that felt compelled to produce a manual defining a "Red Sox Way" when Epstein assumed control of baseball operations now has tangible evidence of that labor's success. That, in turn, has reinforced the long-term focus that has been a staple of Red Sox thinking under Baseball America's 2008 Executive of the Year.
"It can be a challenge to maintain a healthy, long-term outlook when the market is so intense and so focused on short-term rewards, like winning that night's game," Epstein said. "For the most part—a few of my personal mistakes aside—I think we've done a decent job of disciplining ourselves to see the big picture, always asking ourselves, 'How does this move affect us for the next five years . . . does this reinforce what we are trying to do long-term?'"
That thinking has been evident in Boston's boldest moves of recent years. The four-team trade of Nomar Garciaparra not only helped deliver the 2004 championship, but also brought a player (Orlando Cabrera) whose departure as a Type A free agent following that season yielded draft picks Jacoby Ellsbury and Jed Lowrie.
The willingness to break up that championship team by allowing Cabrera, Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe to leave as free agents represented a calculated decision to stock the team's farm system with draft choices.
"That showed a kind of steely confidence to do what was best for the organization, not to be overly emotional," Sox chairman Tom Werner said. "It was a quality which really showed to me that he was a leader."
So, too, did the three-way deal this summer that sent Manny Ramirez to the Dodgers while bringing back Jason Bay. Not only did the Sox address a clubhouse issue that threatened to undermine the team, but they also acquired in Bay a middle-of-the-order hitter who is signed at a low cost for 2009.
Those moves illustrate the insistence of Sox officials on considering all the implications of any single deal. That approach, suggest team officials, is a direct reflection of Epstein's management style.
"He never stops trying to gather information," assistant GM Jed Hoyer said. "Both the Nomar and Manny trades happened right at the deadline, but neither was hasty in any way.
"For several weeks before each trade, as the situations began to deteriorate, Theo sought dozens of opinions. He made each trade only when he felt he had considered every alternative and only after he concluded it gave the team the best chance to make the postseason."
The Boston front office subjects nearly all of its decisions to that sort of critical analysis. Respectful but vigorous debate is a constant among the team's decision makers, a byproduct of both the guiding principles of Boston's baseball operations staff and its familiar dynamic.
A Group-Thinking Mentality
At the start of his tenure, Epstein surrounded himself with trusted colleagues Hoyer, Ben Cherington, Craig Shipley and Brian O'Halloran. The front office since has been strengthened by the arrivals of Jason McLeod, Mike Hazen and Allard Baird from other organizations. The group operates as a flattened hierarchy, with a free exchange of ideas.
"If we've accomplished anything, it's in the environment and culture that we've created, and what that's allowed us to do," said Cherington, the vice president of player personnel. "(Epstein) has brought a steadfast and incredibly persistent pursuit of finding the right way to do things, demanding that all of us challenge each others' assumptions in almost everything we do."
The prevailing mantra of the front office underscores that approach. At one of the first staff meetings under Epstein, Shipley pronounced simply, "We don't know sh*&."
The phrase stuck, and is still repeated in the baseball operations offices. The motto serves as a reminder of the need to avoid complacency while searching for new and better ways to build the team.
That approach has created a track record of solid decisions that have, more often than not, strengthened the organization for the long haul. An example was seen in Lowrie's player development path.
The 2005 first-rounder was a second baseman in college, but the Sox shifted him to short after selecting him. The experiment did not meet with obvious initial success.
Lowrie's natural actions in the field didn't make an obvious case for a long-term future at short. Talent evaluators were divided about whether Lowrie could, or should, stay at short.
Rather than viewing the decision narrowly, the front office examined the matter with a series of questions: Can a player who doesn't look smooth in the field play shortstop in the majors? What does it take to be a big league shortstop? What is an above-average shortstop?
"Because of the culture (Epstein) created," Cherington said, "others felt not only the freedom to do that but felt compelled to challenge the assumption that Jed Lowrie was going to have to move."
The team kept Lowrie at short, and the payoff occurred in 2008, when the rookie took over at the position for an injured Julio Lugo. He did not commit an error, and was one of the best shortstops in the AL by most defensive metrics.
It has now been three years since Epstein briefly stepped away from his post in a dispute about the long-term priorities of the franchise. The scenario won't repeat itself anytime soon, as the general manager signed a contract extension this offseason.
"We don't want to go through that again," Werner said while reflecting on the 2005 offseason. "I think the organization is as strong now as it's ever been . . . (Epstein) is a very organized, bright leader who understands the importance of hiring great people around him."
For his part, Epstein remains both enthusiastic about the prospect of trying to continue his success, yet humble about what the Sox have accomplished during his tenure. An executive who has guided his club to two championships does not take the achievement for granted.
"We're having the time of our lives," Epstein said. "On one hand, the success is a deserved reward for a lot of talented, hard-working people. On the other hand, we've been incredibly fortunate. Had we had the exact same run 15 years previous, we would have made the playoffs only once in six seasons."