The Boston Red Sox and former general manager Theo Epstein, now president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs, are in good places now that they have had more than a year apart. But the former might not be as heartsick over losing Epstein as it seemed when it first happened.
Going all the way back to the 2011 season, long before there was talk of chicken and beer in the locker room, Epstein had put the Red Sox in a position where it appeared they would struggle to contend consistently for a long time.
Of course, hindsight now being 20/20, no one thought that at the time.
In the winter of 2010, in the early part of December as a matter of fact, the baseball world was envious of the Red Sox. It was at that time Epstein signed Carl Crawford, just 29 and coming off a season in Tampa Bay where he finished seventh in the American League MVP voting, to a seven-year, $142 million contract.
Not only did the Red Sox sign the No. 2 position player away from one of their biggest rivals, but they also filled a huge need in left field with one of the best defensive outfielders in all of baseball.
That move came days after the team pulled off a trade that brought Adrian Gonzalez, who was just 28 years old and himself coming off a season with San Diego when he finished fourth in the National League MVP voting.
The price to get Gonzalez wasn't cheap, as Boston sent highly touted prospects Casey Kelly, Anthony Rizzo, Reymond Fuentes and a player to be named later that turned out to be Eric Patterson.
You can say the Red Sox won the deal because Rizzo was traded (somewhat ironically) to the Cubs last year, Fuentes has had diminishing results in Double-A with the Padres despite being just 22 years old and Patterson is currently in Detroit's system.
Kelly, the major piece in the deal, did make it to the big leagues late last season but underwent Tommy John surgery before this season started.
Then there was the matter of signing Gonzalez to an extension, which the Red Sox did to the tune of seven years and $154 million. After all the wheeling and dealing of that offseason was done, the team's payroll was $163 million in 2011 and figured to keep going up for a long time to come.
But the moves also paid off for the first five months, as the Red Sox entered the month of September with the best record in the American League at 83-52. Crawford was having an abysmal season, hitting .255/.289/.405 in 130 games, though it didn't hurt the team's performance.
Then September happened, or as we know it: the month when the chicken and beer started to kick in. Boston went 7-20 to end the season and missed the playoffs by one game.
After the year was over, horror stories were written about Epstein, manager Terry Francona and the things that were going on in the locker room. It's just easier to attach a narrative like that to a team playing poorly rather than attributing things to the fickle nature of baseball.
Once all the stories came out, Francona was no longer manager of the team and Epstein had taken his talents to Chicago. Ben Cherington, who has worked with the team since 1999, was promoted to general manager.
The team made the controversial hire of Bobby Valentine as manager prior to the 2012 season. He was a powder keg of emotions and one-liners that caused problems with fans and management, leading to a disastrous performance on the field and endless swarms of articles written about players revolting behind his back.
Valentine was fired after just one season, the worst season the Red Sox (69-93) have had since 1965. To be fair, not a lot of people would have won with that team last season because of all the injuries to every key player, but the circus around them was just too much to bear.
But as bad as things got on the field, Cherington did everything in his power to get the Red Sox back to what made them champions in 2007: building a team through the farm system and adding free agents when necessary.
The biggest move came in August of 2012, when the new owners for the Los Angeles Dodgers were willing to do anything and everything to get the team into the postseason. They traded for Gonzalez, Crawford, Josh Beckett, who had worn out his welcome in Boston long ago, and Nick Punto.
Shedding the huge salaries of Gonzalez, Crawford and Beckett saved the team roughly $306 million in salary through 2017 and gave them flexibility to make moves during the offseason.
In return, the Dodgers sent Boston James Loney, just as a fill-in, with the real prizes being minor league pitchers Allen Webster, Rubby de la Rosa, outfielder Jerry Sands and shortstop Ivan De Jesus.
But more than that, this was a sign of what Cherington wanted to do with the franchise. He took over a team in shambles, which Epstein played a large part in creating.
The Red Sox were one of the premier franchises in baseball from 2004 to 2009, winning two championships during that span and churning out a lot of talent from their farm system. They had players like Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Jonathan Papelbon debut during that span.
The Red Sox were always active in free agency, but they didn't have to play there like the New York Yankees did because they had such a good farm system.
All that changed at the end of the Epstein era. The team felt something, be it pressure from the rest of the division, a drying up of some talent in the system or whatever, that pushed it out to the market where bad things tend to happen.
John Lackey was signed to a five-year deal prior to the 2010 season that hasn't worked out well so far. We have already talked about the disastrous Crawford contract. Even Gonzalez was showing signs of slipping before he was traded, though he was still a productive player.
The Red Sox farm system was lacking in impact talent, especially at the upper levels in 2011, thanks to the Gonzalez trade, starting the season ranked 17th by Baseball America. Their best prospect that year was Jose Iglesias, who continues to earn praise for his defense at shortstop but can't do much with the bat, despite his gaudy batting average this year.
Now, looking at how Cherington has been able to remake things the way that he wants in such a short period of time, the Red Sox appear to be set to contend on a consistent basis for the foreseeable future.
The hiring of John Farrell, who was Boston's pitching coach under Francona, has worked wonders for the pitching staff.
Lester, while he has struggled lately and seen his ERA balloon to 4.57, appears to be more confident on the mound. Buchholz, battling an injury right now, has the lowest ERA in the American League at 1.71 in 12 starts. Even Lackey worked to get back in shape following Tommy John surgery late in 2011 and has a 3.03 ERA this season.
Cherington did dip into free agency in the offseason, but he veered away from the top talent and opted to sign quality players coming off down years relatively cheap.
He overpaid for Shane Victorino, who signed for $39 million over three years, but he has posted a .342 on-base percentage in 48 games this season. Mike Napoli was a bargain at just $5 million after problems with his physical negated his original three-year, $39 million deal. Ryan Dempster has been inconsistent, though he is striking out more than a batter per inning.
But it is the work Cherington and the rest of the talent evaluation group have done adding talent into the system over the last 12 months that proves he was the right man for the job.
The Red Sox are in much better position to make a deal to improve the big league roster this July if they want to and not risk emptying out the system. Xander Bogaerts, the top prospect in the organization, was recently promoted to Triple-A. (He was also signed under Epstein's watch in 2009, to give proper credit.)
You can see the work Cherington and his staff have done up and down that system, even with Epstein's fingerprints sprinkled all around.
Shortstop Deven Marrero was the team's first-round pick in 2012. Webster is a top-five prospect in the system. And they were very aggressive in this most recent draft, going after a lot of high-ceiling talent in the early rounds.
Oh yeah, as of this moment the Red Sox lead the American League East with a 45-33 record. Thanks to the work of a new general manager, it has been a very impressive turnaround for a team that completely fell apart just 21 months ago.
No one in Boston would ever trade the nine years that Epstein was general manager because they brought two championships to the city, including one in 2004 that Red Sox fans all over the country still talk about ad nauseum. But considering how things ended, it is hard not to think that the Red Sox are better off with Cherington at the controls.
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