DANA POINT, Calif.—Rewind three years.
Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein had abruptly resigned on Halloween. One week later, in the absence of a new head of baseball operations, Boston arrived at the 2005 G.M. meetings in California with a four-man team of Craig Shipley, Ben Cherington, Jed Hoyer and Peter Woodfork in charge of the team’s decision making.
No matter how competent the work of the interim decision-makers—it is worth remembering, after all, that the G.M. meetings that year laid the groundwork for the bold acquisition of pitcher Josh Beckett—it was difficult to deny the whiff of tumult. The Sox seemed like an organization that had gone in the span of 12 months from paragon to parody.
Epstein made his infamous costumed exit from Fenway Park on Halloween. Word of an organizational schism between the organization’s baseball operations and business models came to light.
The team was amidst a radical on-field remake as well. The entire infield of third baseman Bill Mueller, shortstop Edgar Renteria, second baseman Tony Graffanino and first baseman Kevin Millar was replaced that winter, and centerfielder Johnny Damon would soon leave for the Yankees.
This year, such turmoil seems a distant memory. Though the Sox lost in the seventh game of the American League Championship Series, the strength of their organization was apparent, from bottom to top.
The team had the depth to come within a single win of the World Series, despite a wrecking ball of injuries and the mid-year hurricane created by Manny Ramirez. A combination of skilled veterans, a raft of young talent and shrewd mid-year trades (all supported by exceptional resources) permitted the Sox to compete in a season when they easily could have been steamrolled.
The team features a young nucleus that should permit its success for the long haul. Likewise, the team’s decision-making structure has never looked so stable as it does at this moment.
Epstein confirmed yesterday that he signed a contract extension to continue his tenure as Red Sox general manager. He did not address the terms of the deal (reported by SI.com as three years and $7 million), instead saying simply, “Hopefully, long enough but not too long.”
That dodge aside, however, the straightforward negotiations between the general manager and club are indicative of a golden period for the Red Sox. The team has won two of the past five World Series, and made postseason appearances in five of the past six seasons.
At a time when teams are starting to contemplate the changes that they will have to pursue prior to the 2008 season, Epstein could reflect instead on what the Red Sox already are.
“When you sit back and think about one day being a general manager, this is exactly the sort of organization you’d want to work for,” said Epstein. “We have great fans, great ownership resources and, just as important, a tremendous foundation carved by our scouting and player development departments which, if we don’t screw it up, should lead to some long-term success. That’s why we’re all in this game: to work with good people and to try to win the World Series as many times as you can.”
The Red Sox owners are on board with that mission statement. They continue to pour resources into building a perennial contender.
After coming within a single win of a World Series title this year, the organizational commitment to fielding a winner has only increased. At a time when several teams are wondering how the looming financial crisis will impact their operating budgets, the Sox do not feel trepidation as they approach the free-agent and trade markets.
“We want to be smart about it,” said team chairman Tom Werner, who dropped by the G.M. meetings. “You don’t want to make a long-term deal that’s not going to work in four or five years. We’re always interested in length and price. But there’s nobody who we’re going to say, ‘He’s not fair game to talk about.’
“We’re definitely not going to stand pat this offseason,” Werner continued. “Nobody likes to win more than we do. You could say, ‘You were only a hit away from getting to the World Series.’ But my feeling is that we need to improve our team this year in the toughest division in baseball.”
In fact, the Sox have as many resources at their disposal as they have at any point since Werner, principal owner John Henry and CEO Larry Lucchino took control of the team at the start of the 2002 season.
The team’s opening day payroll was down roughly $10 million at the start of this season, and significant additional money could come off the books with the expected departures and/or salary reductions of free agents Curt Schilling, Jason Varitek, Mark Kotsay, Paul Byrd and Mark Kotsay.
Because they are no longer as reliant on pricey veterans as they were just a few years ago, the Sox now feature a host of players making little more than the major-league minimum. Homegrown talent, then, is creating a chance for the club to add big-ticket items.
“Because we have a lot of contributing young players, we have some flexibility now. We have some room to add if we so choose,” said Epstein. “But we also have to keep in mind that those same young players are gaining service time and gaining (salary arbitration) rights and they’re going to start making a lot more money soon, and in some cases now.”
The benefits of youth are not merely limited to an impact on the payroll. Because a once-fallow farm system is now flourishing, giving the Sox a host of chips that could be used in potential deals. The team has depth in centerfield (Coco Crisp and Jacoby Ellsbury) and a wealth of promising young arms (Clay Buchholz, Michael Bowden, Justin Masterson) that it might be able to leverage in a potential blockbuster.
Likewise, the team is positioned to choose which areas it wants to address. Aside from catcher—a position where the team doesn’t have an official starter thanks to the free-agent status of longtime stalwart Jason Varitek—the Sox do not feel as if they need to make moves out of necessity.
Other G.M.s at the winter meetings busily rattle off their areas of deficiency, whether a desire to bolster their bullpen or their starting pitching or a need to become more athletic. Epstein, in contrast, believes that the Sox are in a position to treat this offseason as an opportunity to seek improvements, rather than to address shortcomings.
“I think we’re positioned to engage teams on a number of different fronts,” said Epstein. “It’s a nice position to be in relative to, say, four or five years ago.
“With the exception of the catching issue, which we have to deal with, we don’t have any glaring holes…Our team happens to be pretty well rounded. We can pick our spots where we want to get better.”
Those sentiments underscore the strength and stability of the organization. The days of turmoil are all but forgotten, replaced by a striking sense that the success of the Sox will remain sustainable for years to come.
Alex Speier is a Senior Writer for WEEI.com.