Reporting Dan Roche
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BOSTON (CBS) – Theo Epstein has been the subject of conversation lately, as his former team meets his current team in a weekend series at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
The former Red Sox general manager had a tremendous run in Boston, one that will never, ever be forgotten. Two World Series titles will do that for you. He’s now trying to bring starving Cubs fans the same thing.
As we look back at his Boston tenure, the question of the week has been what made him leave? Or better yet, what went wrong? And much of that talk has focused on the 2009/10 offseason, when things started to go downhill. Theo feels that he and the baseball operations department collided with the business/marketing departments to maybe alter the present and future of the organization.
And with that said, as we look back on history, the John Lackey signing may turn out to be the “jump the shark” moment for the “Henry/Werner/Lucchino” Boston Red Sox.
Somewhere around Dec. 8 at the annual winter meetings, Theo began using the term “bridge year” when looking ahead to 2010 and perhaps 2011. He started talking about maybe having to sacrifice some wins short term in order to develop and infuse some younger players for the long term.
Needless to say those comments, at the time, were not embraced by many Red Sox fans. This team had won titles in 2004 and 2007 and even in 2008 just missed going to another World Series. Why, with ticket prices rising each year, would this team take a step backward and maybe not compete for another title? No way. It reminded me of the chaos in the movie Jaws, when Chief Brody felt the beaches should be shut down while a great white shark was feeding on humans just off shore. The mayor quickly shut down the chief as fear arose from business owners who would see their precious summer dollars disappear.
So, less than a week later the Red Sox swooped in and overbid for John Lackey. Out of nowhere. Matt Holliday? Maybe that would have made some sense, as the Sox had lost Jason Bay. But Lackey?
And, the most telling thing about the signing wasn’t even the five-year, $82.5 million dollar contract itself. It was a clause that stated if Lackey ever had to have elbow/Tomny John surgery then the Sox would get him for an additional one year at the major league minimum salary. Huh?
Yep. That clause basically admitted that Lackey was hurting, and eventually going to break down. And, it set off an alarm for “don’t expect ace-like results” from this pitcher, who didn’t like or pitch all that well at Fenway.
Theo Epstein also didn’t like to sign free-agent pitchers to long-term deals. One of the most difficult things he ever did was grit his teeth and give Pedro Martinez a third and then fourth year on their contract offer after the 2004 season. Even then, Theo and his baseball ops guys knew Pedro was headed down the same road as Lackey. The only reason they did make the offer? Ownership.
Which brings me to mid-December of 2009.
I will never forget sitting down with Larry Lucchino a day or so after the winter meetings right after Theo had uttered the term “bridge year”. Larry made sure to go out of his way in that interview to assure fans that the Red Sox had plenty of money to spend and would do so in order to improve the team. He said this w ithout any prompting or probing from me. It was definitely a shot back at Theo’s phrase.
And, you know what? That’s ok. That was — and has been — Larry’s job here in Boston. Protect John Henry and grow the business. Larry has done exactly that, with Fenway Park, TV ratings, ads, and the like all under his watch.
But, it was then and there that this group “jumped the shark” — that moment when they went too far. And it has cost them, on the field and off. Their team is flawed. John Lackey and then Carl Crawford: two signings that didn’t need to be done. Roughly $225 million invested in a pitcher that has been and never was right here and a great player that didn’t fit into the lineup.
The Lackey signing was a panic signing — urged, and maybe forced by the business folks while the Crawford signing was done by the baseball folks because they had plenty of money to spend, so why not?
If those two signings don’t occur, we may be looking at an entirely different Red Sox team that was younger and hungrier. Or, maybe not.
That’s not my main point. In fact, who knows what would have happened if Theo did have his “bridge year or years”?
However, it did change the dynamics of how John Henry, Tom Werner, Larry Lucchino, Theo Epstein and the baseball ops folks worked together. It laid the groundwork for Theo’s (and Terry Francona’s) departure.
Now, that doesn’t mean this Red Sox ship can’t be righted. I think Ben Cherington, if given the chance, can re-shape this team for the short and long term. In fact, this current Sox team shouldn’t be written off, either. There’s a long way to go.
But, one thing is for sure: The Sox “jumped that shark” in 2009. Now, they have to simply find the way to jump back over, in the other direction, again.
Follow WBZ-TV’s Dan Roche on twitter @RochieWBZ