In the days that have passed and the days to come, plenty of space has been and will be devoted to the legacy of Theo Epstein in his time as general manager of the Red Sox. And rightly so.
Epstein made plenty of moves that pushed the franchise to two championships (signing David Ortiz, Bill Mueller and Keith Foulke; trading for Curt Schilling; drafting Jonathan Papelbon in 2003; Dustin Pedroia in 2004; Jacoby Ellsbury and Clay Buchholz in 2005). He also had a healthy share of duds, chiefly the free-agent flops (Edgar Renteria, Matt Clement, Julio Lugo, John Lackey) and others.
But picking apart the individual moves, in many respects, misses the point in taking stock of Epstein’s tenure. The more telling aspect of his time as the Red Sox general manager comes from its perception by and impact on the rest of the baseball industry. Judged by those standards, during his time as the steward of his hometown team, Epstein was one of the most significant figures in the industry.
One measure of that status comes from his new deal with the Cubs. The fact that Chicago is committing to him for five years and a reported $18.5 million while conferring upon him a shiny new title (President of Baseball Operations) suggests that he is viewed as being one of the best in the game by those in it. But again, that is only part of the story.
The Red Sox front office became a game-changing force that other teams deemed worthy of emulating. Ben Cherington is the third Epstein assistant to rise to the role of general manager, following Josh Byrnes (hired to be GM of the Diamondbacks in 2005 after three years with the Sox) and Jed Hoyer (who will be GM with the Cubs under Epstein after spending the last two years in the same role with the Padres).
Yet even that doesn’t give a full measure of what Epstein accomplished. He joined one of the financial superpowers yet approached the task of building an organization with the precision of a small-market team that sought to exploit market inefficiencies.
He was most often associated with his defining quote, uttered upon his introduction as Red Sox GM in 2002, that he wanted to turn the Sox into a “scouting and player development machine,” but his ambition reached further. The infamy surrounding Carmine has obscured a reality, namely that the Sox aspired to become an information-gathering machine and creating systems to use data to make intelligent, rational decisions.
Not only did Epstein have the vision for that information-gathering machine, but he also surrounded himself with extremely bright individuals from a number of backgrounds (whether liberal arts backgrounds or people longtime baseball evaluators such as Craig Shipley, Bill Lajoie and Allard Baird). And rather than having those individuals sit silently while he made decisions, Epstein fostered a culture of group decision-making that allowed the team to tackle issues from a diverse array of perspectives.
Two of the signature deals of his tenure offered examples of the sort of environment that the Sox created.
“Both the Nomar [Garciaparra] and Manny [Ramirez] trades happened right at the deadline, but neither was hasty in any way,” Hoyer once recalled. “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.”
Data-driven teams like the A’s and Indians had carved out advantages through the kinds of information they used and the systems that had in place to manage them. Other successful small-market models, such as that formed by the Twins in Minnesota, were founded on great scouting and a clear top-to-bottom player development philosophy.
Small-market teams tried to build front offices that operated along these principles out of necessity. They needed to find advantages in front office talent and scouting expertise and market inefficiencies because they had no other way to compete on a shoestring budget.
But when the Sox made a point of appropriating the best practices of the smaller-market teams, it represented a seismic change in the landscape, at least in the minds of Epstein’s peers. This from a high-ranking executive of a small-market team:
“When Theo got the job, the game changed,” the official said. “Theo recognized the power of player development, international scouting, the draft, the value that talent could have in his farm system, the value of paying an assistant GM like a GM, a farm director like an assistant GM, a pitching coach like manager and having five extra people in a front office.
“That’s made the gap bigger and bigger. Those were gaps where we used to be able to have an advantage over the big market clubs, we can’t do that anymore. It’s fascinating and ominous.”
It is entirely possible that the arrival of Moneyball as a best seller would have catalyzed teams to follow newer, more corporate front office models anyway. But in many respects, it was Epstein’s Sox -- the first championship team this decade to embrace that sort of business structure and philosophy -- that served as the more dramatic agent for change.
Suddenly, with Epstein’s hiring, it seemed as if the demographics of the GM had changed. Twentysomethings like Jon Daniels and Andrew Friedman followed Epstein into the job. Meanwhile, the decision-making process also was subject to re-examination.
Baseball operations ceased to be a foreign language to owners. Instead, the same language that had prevailed in board rooms for decades suddenly became part of the norm in baseball circles; as such, the people hired to head baseball operations departments -- including Epstein -- were increasingly viewed as those who would be able to succeed in different lines of work as well.
“Theo is a very organized, bright leader who understands the importance of hiring great people around him. He’s a leader, and would be a leader in any industry,” Sox chairman Tom Werner once noted.
The form of decision-making did not always lead to good decisions. Indeed, the Sox made many mistakes under Epstein, decisions that would prove costly in both the short-term and, at times, for years to come. But there was always a process that was followed and explanations that reflected short- and long-term inputs that, more often than not, represented sound logic in the extreme.
Other teams paid attention to what the Red Sox were doing and adopted some of their practices. Whether coincidentally or not, the Yankees reorganized their front office in 2005, when New York GM Brian Cashman added a quantitative analysis department, among other changes.
Moreover, Epstein’s boldness with the Sox also played a role in the shape of the industry. The Sox’ commitment to investing in the draft started to create a long-term foundation. The Yankees, after Cashman’s 2005 reorganization, felt that they needed to proceed on a similar path. The aggressiveness of those two AL East rivals in the draft, in turn, reverberated throughout baseball.
Epstein, with the backing of the team’s owners, recognized that the most efficient financial muscle-flexing the Sox could do was in the acquisition of amateur talent. Starting in 2006, both the Red Sox and Yankees started to demolish the slot recommendations coming from the Commissioner’s Office.
The result? By 2009, small-market teams were in a position where, by and large, they could no longer afford to restrict themselves to slot suggestions. The system has steadily crumbled in the last few drafts, to the point where the subject is a lightning rod in the current negotiations for the next Collective Bargaining Agreement between players and owners. Epstein and the Sox have had a huge part in that.
Epstein helped to change the direction of Red Sox history, and his imprint will forever be seen on the first two titles that the franchise claimed since World War I. But the evidence of his accomplishments in Boston do not stop at the borders of New England. The Sox were a model organization for much of his time as the GM.
While that notion may not be at the foreground in the aftermath of the final two months of his tenure -- when a team that was on pace for 100 wins instead marched off a cliff -- the overall record during his watch was both impressive and significant.
The opportunity to end more than a century of futility in Chicago has now led him to close the chapter on the job of his childhood dreams. The final verdict on his time as the architect of the Red Sox will remain incomplete for years, as the players who were drafted and signed under him remain in the organization.
Nonetheless, judgment -- at least in the eyes of the industry -- has already been passed. Epstein's tenure in Boston was characterized by a mix of boldness and vision that impacted both a franchise and the larger baseball culture.