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Is Theo Epstein to Blame for the Red Sox Collapse?

Theo Epstein (Photo courtesy of BostInnovation.com)

On September 1, the Boston Red Sox held first place in the division and led the Tampa Bay Rays by 9 (NINE!) games in the standings. Today, September 21, the Red Sox trail the New York Yankees by 6.5 games in the division and, most importantly (and frighteningly), have only a 2.5 game cushion over the Rays in the wild card race. They bled 7 games in the standings in just 20 days. Yikes.

But no one needs me to rub salt in the already jagged wounds of Red Sox fans by recounting every detail of the panicked frustration of this Red Sox September.

On Monday, Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports cited Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein as the primary reason the Red Sox are fighting for their playoff lives rather than battling the Yankees for the division title and home field advantage. Is he right? Should Theo Epstein take the blame for the team’s sudden September collapse?

Far be it from me – a 22-year-old unemployed, unrepentant homer – to disagree with an award-winning sportswriter. But actually (sorry, Mr. Passan), that’s exactly what I’m about to do.

Basically, Passan argues that Epstein is responsible “for leaving his franchise shorthanded in the throes of a playoff race.” The overuse of Kyle Weiland (Passan seems to take issue with his mere existence) and a decimated farm system in particular inspire Passan to lay the blame at Epstein’s feet. I disagree. The blame falls squarely on Red Sox players who haven’t performed the way they should.

Let’s start with Mr. Weiland and the struggling starting rotation. In just 90.1 innings this month (fifth worst in all of Major League Baseball for September, 7 fewer innings than the starters for the lowly Houston Astros), Red Sox starters have an underwhelming 6.87 ERA (an understatement). That ERA (along with an astronomical walk rate of 4.48 BB/9) is good enough for dead last in the MLB. Mr. Weiland has “contributed” 12 runs over 11.2 innings in three starts (none longer than 4.2 innings). Remove him from the equation, and starters not named Weiland have relinquished 57 runs in 78.2 innings. Even if you round up to 79 innings pitched, that still computes to a 6.49 ERA between the other starters.

Let’s take Jon Lester, for instance. Lester has lasted only 23 innings in his four September starts. Remove his 7 inning gem against the Toronto Blue Jays, and Lester is averaging 5.1 innings per start. That forces Terry Francona to tax the bullpen and rely on Matt Albers and Michael Bowden (never a good thing). Is Epstein supposed to have a contingency plan for his Opening Day starter? No, that’s absurd! Lester has to step up and pitch like the ace he’s supposed to be.

Passan maintains Kevin Millwood, who the Red Sox released rather than calling him up earlier this year, would have been a good alternative to Weiland. With a 4.91 ERA in 22 September innings for the Colorado Rockies, Millwood does appear to be a better option at first glance. But then again, those numbers are against the (at best) mediocre NL West, including two September starts against the anemic San Diego Padres offense (he still gave up 6 ER in 10.1 innings).

Besides, Weiland is highly regarded in the Red Sox organization. If the Sox aren’t willing to give him a chance to contribute down the stretch, what’s the point in developing him? He’s already 25 years old, about the time when a top prospect has to put up or shut up. Otherwise, Weiland shouldn’t be ranked as the second best starting pitcher in the Red Sox farm system.

This raises the question – has Theo depleted the farm system of viable internal options that can contribute down the stretch? Well, yes and no. Are the Red Sox a little thin in the farm system? Sure. But how can Epstein be guilty of not sufficiently stockpiling starting pitching, yet simultaneously be supposed to hold onto our best prospects? You have to give something to get something. Who wouldn’t redo the Adrian Gonzalez trade in a heartbeat? (It certainly helps that Anthony Rizzo and Casey Kelly haven’t shown anything special this year.) Besides, the farm system has produced Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Josh Reddick, Jed Lowrie, Lester, Daniel Bard, and Jonathan Papelbon – eight players on the 25 man roster (including four All-Stars). My point is, Epstein has a pretty good track record for player development and evaluation. I trust in Theo.

While the Yahooligan Passan rails against Epstein, I have to blame the players for their own dismal performance. I understand Theo is in charge of putting together the roster, but the players have to be accountable for their performance on the field. Read any of the quotes after last night’s game, and players are pointing the fingers at themselves. They’re not crying for another starter, looking for outside help. Pedroia is hitting .256 in September. Youkilis, when he’s been in the lineup, has mustered six hits. Bard has lost his velocity and his ability to find the strikezone (and if he does, he gets crushed). Papelbon, lights out all season, blew a much needed win last night. Theo doesn’t have control over that.

What it really boils down to is this: Theo Epstein put together a team that was a near unanimous pick to make it to the World Series. Where were the critics back then, claiming Epstein really botched this one with a lack of depth? Even after a 2-10 start set alarm bells ringing, the team that Epstein put together went on an absolute tear for the next four months, charging to the best record in the American League. The Red Sox had the same patchwork pitching rotation in July and August; Andrew Miller just happened to pitch well then. This is the same team that held first place in the AL East on September 1. Now, all of a sudden, Red Sox Nation should dethrone Theo because hindsight is 20-20? Please.

With seven games left to play (nine left for the Rays), the magic number for the Red Sox to secure a playoff spot is now seven. Any combination of Red Sox wins and Rays losses that adds up to seven means the Red Sox get dragged into the playoffs by probability. Lord knows the Red Sox are terrible right now, and are doing everything they can to prove they don’t deserve a playoff appearance. But even with such a miserable September performance, the Red Sox still should (okay, maybe “could” is the proper word) clinch a playoff berth and a chance at a World Series title.

And that, Mr. Passan, is to Epstein’s credit. There should be no need for that gorilla suit this year, Theo.

About Nick Bohlen - @ndbohlen

Nick is an editor and regular contributor for the Patriots, Celtics, and Red Sox sections of SoB. (Despite growing up in Vermont, just a short drive from Canada, hockey never really caught on with him.) Follow him on twitter: @ndbohlen

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