By Rich Levine
For all hes accomplished in Boston, Theo Epsteins always had his detractors.
Initially, they said he was too young. At 28, he wasnt ready to rumble with The Boss, or handle the pressures of Boston, and certainly wasnt the savior after 80-plus years of baseball hell.
After the Sox won in 2004, they said Epstein was lucky. Hed been ready to give the world to Jose Contreras, before thankfully losing out. Hed rolled the dice on random guys like Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar and David Ortiz, and theyd just happened to morph into the A.L. batting champ, the heart of the clubhouse and the most clutch hitter in franchise history. When the playoffs ended, the title felt more like a perfect storm than the product of Epsteins grand plan. That team was so close to not being good enough, and the fact they survived was more about the moment, not the GM.
When they won again in 2007, theyd done so despite Theo whiffing on his two biggest offseason acquisitions, J.D. Drew (outside of that one swing in the ALCS) and Julio Lugo, and his major trade-deadline pickup, Eric Gagne. Not to mention, two stars of that team (should-have-been Cy Young Josh Beckett and World Series MVP Mike Lowell) were guys acquired while Theo was off running around in his gorilla suit. And it was a deal that Epstein presumably wouldnt have even done, given his love for Hanley Ramirez.
Through it all, a tenure that now spans eight seasons during which his team has averaged 94 wins, made six playoff appearances, won one division title, two World Series, and currently has a roster capable of bringing home another Epstein's always had doubters.
Guys in the media, impatient fans or, say, Orioles manager Buck Showalter.
Id like to see how smart Theo Epstein is with the Tampa Bay payroll, Showalter said in an interview for the April issue of Mens Journal. You got Carl Crawford cause you paid more than anyone else, and thats what makes you smarter? Thats why I like whipping their asses: Its great, knowing those guys with the 205 million payroll are saying, How the hell are they beating us?
First of all, I love renegade Buck Showalter. Hes great for the A.L. East. Not that I want to see the Orioles turn into a juggernaut, but wouldnt it be nice to have them relevant again? They havent had a winning season since 1997!
And if Showalter wants to go the Rex Ryan route and starts trying to break down the New YorkBoston barriers and save baseball in Baltimore, then thats cool. He seems genuine enough. Plus, he really went to bat for George Costanza on those all-cotton uniforms. Lets cut him some slack.
The first part of his quote is actually pretty interesting.
Id like to see how smart Theo Epstein is with the Tampa Bay payroll.
Take out the sarcasm, and who hasnt wondered something along those same lines? Assuming it somehow wouldnt affect the Sox, who wouldnt want to see Theo take a crack at building a small-market winner? Most GMs have to do that before getting a job like Boston but Theo never did. For all thats been said about him, in the face of so much success, seeing him try to wheel and deal and scout and draft a low-budget team into contention would be a lot of fun.
Would he be a success? I dont know. How well does any small-market general manager do? I mean, theres such thing as getting hot for a season or two, or building a scary foundation, but with the way this league works its almost impossible to sustain a high level of success. Billy Beanes Oakland A's havent had a winning season since 2006. Eventually, if you cant retain your young players or acquire legitimate replacements, that stuff catches up to you.
Would it catch up to Theo? Probably. Would that somehow prove that hes not as smart as we thought? We can't say that. It's two completely different worlds.
We could discuss this forever, so for that, lets thank old Buck for his honesty and inspiration. But let me also say this:
Even though I respect his intentions, Showalters missing the point here:
You got Carl Crawford cause you paid more than anyone else, and thats what makes you smarter?
No one thinks like that. No one thinks that makes him smarter.
No one bases opinions of Epstein's intelligence on his ability to sign expensive free agents. The owners get more credit for that. No one got the news about Crawford and thought: Oh my God . . . Theo is a genius!
Theos graded on his ability to build around those superstars, keep up with the farm system, and make the in-season adjustments that take them to the Promise Land. It helps that he has a nice cushion, and the luxury of bringing in guys like Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, but to quote the poet Biggie: Mo Money. Mo Problems.
And how many teams -- the Mets, the Cubs, Showalter's own Orioles in years past -- have spent plenty of money and gotten zero in return? Money doesn't guarantee success, any more than having money guarantees giving you brains.
No, this is what money does: Inflated bank accounts mean inflated pressure, a brighter spotlight. In the end, Theos intelligence isnt measured by how many superstars he signs that winter, but the fact that if those superstars dont win the World Series, hes a failure.
Theo Epstein gets no points for exciting seasons, inspiring stories and sold-out stadiums. All he's judged on is winning titles.
So far, he has two.
And all things considered, they speak for themselves.