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In Defense of Theo Epstein After Buck Showalter’s Criticism

Orioles manager Buck Showalter says Epstein isn't smart, he just has enough money to overpay for whomever he wants. (Derick E. Hingle/US Presswire)

Also Read: SoB’s Mike Carlucci thinks Buck Showalter brought up some good points about Theo Epstein and the Red Sox fat wallet.

Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter is no fan of Theo Epstein. In the April edition of Men’s Journal, Showalter said that overpaying for players because you have the highest payroll in Major League Baseball does not make you a smart manager.

“That’s why I like whipping their asses: It’s great, knowing those guys with the $205 million payroll are saying, ‘How the hell are they beating us?’ ” Showalter said in the article. He also said that Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter frequently jumps back from down-the-middle pitches during his at-bats, but the refs call balls anyway because of his reputation.

Terry Francona responded with his usual self-effacing sense of humor, citing Epstein’s choice for manager as a sure sign of his intelligence.

Since that time Showalter has backed off the intensity of those comments, praising both Jeter and the Red Sox. Given that Showalter manages one of the worst franchises in recent memory (.437 winning percentage since winning the AL East in 1997, only once finishing better than fourth place), this is probably a smart move. No need to give the Red Sox more reasons to beat you (Epstein’s Red Sox are 24-18 against Showalter’s Rangers and Orioles).

Money Isn’t Everything

Showalter was right about one thing: to get Carl Crawford, the Red Sox paid too much. Crawford was the highest profile free-agent available and the Red Sox wanted to improve their outfield. They wanted him, they threw a bunch of money at him, they got him.

Having a $163 million payroll certainly gives you advantages over teams with low payrolls. Managers for such teams, as chronicled in Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, have to find more creative ways to win games. Some do, some don’t. But having a lot of money and using it properly are two entirely different things. For example (stats taken from USAToday):

  • The Chicago Cubs have had an average payroll of $106.4 million every year since 2003 (Epstein’s first year), placing them in the top-10 all but once. They’ve gone to the playoffs three times via NL Central titles, but have only won one postseason series.
  • The New York Mets payroll averages $119.1 million since 2003. They’ve been in the top-5 every year, but have only one NL East title and postseason series victory to show for it.
  • The New York Yankees have had the highest payroll in baseball every year since 2003, averaging $193.3 million. They’ve been to the playoffs seven times – on five AL East titles and two wild card births – but have only one World Series title.

All three of these teams (even the Yankees, to a far lesser extent than the Cubs or Mets) show that payroll isn’t everything. And Epstein’s record – six postseason births on one AL East title and five wild card births, two World Series titles – is the best of the bunch. Clearly, Epstein must be doing something other than just throwing money around. Some degree of intelligence and ability is evidenced by his success.

Free Agents, Trades, and the Farm System

Do the Red Sox overpay for players? Absolutely (although “overpay” is a relative term when the average player makes over $3 million playing a kid’s game). And because they overpay, if a player under-performs, the general manager comes under fire. Bad players become spectacular busts. J.D. Drew and Daisuke Matsuzaka are examples of this.

Such busts can come to define a general manager, but let’s not forget that a number of Epstein’s high-impact free-agents actually came pretty cheap:

  • Bill Mueller never cost the team more than $2.5 million a year, and he won a batting title in 2003.
  • Keith Foulke fixed Boston’s bullpen issues in 2004, and he only cost the team $6.75 million a year.
  • Mark Bellhorn hit key home runs during three-straight 2004 postseason games, then led the Red Sox during the World Series in on-base percentage and slugging. Epstein spent $500,000 on him.
  • David Ortiz earned $1.25 million in 2003 and has since reached the pinnacle of Boston sports superstardom.

No general manager’s record of free-agent signings is pristine. But Epstein’s shows that he is just as capable of careful scouting and bargain hunting as he is of overpaying.

Epstein has also acquired some pretty important Red Sox players via trades. Curt Schilling came via trade. Victor Martinez came via trade. 2007 ALCS and World Series MVPs Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell came together in a trade.

Given Epstein’s solid trade record (ignoring Eric Gagne, of course), you’d think the Red Sox would be giving away all their homegrown talent. Not so. How many major contributors to the Red Sox in the last few years were once minor leaguers? Kevin Youkilis. Jonathan Papelbon. Jon Lester. Dustin Pedroia. Jacoby Ellsbury. Clay Buchholz. Daniel Bard. Those seven are probably the core of the team, and they’re all homemade.

Epstein continues to balance the acquisition of veteran major-league talent with the maintenance of the Boston farm system. Even this year, as he traded for Adrian Gonzalez, he held onto Jose Iglesias.

Buck’s Bravado

Showalter probably said what he said to continue demystifying the Red Sox and Yankees in the eyes of his players. He pretty much admits as such in the Men’s Journal article. He has a pension for bluster, and this was just another case of it. It’s unlikely Showalter regards Epstein with anything other than professional respect. And that’s a respect born of action, not speech.

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One comment for “In Defense of Theo Epstein After Buck Showalter’s Criticism”

  1. I was searching for Buck’s comments and ended up on this site. Interesting.

    Here’s the thing, though: Theo may be a good or even a great GM. Yes, he’s done better than the Mets and Cubs, for example. But citing the counter examples like those poorly run teams doesn’t change the reality that teams like them start with a HUGELY significant competitive advantage. Yeah, yeah–old news, I know.

    But let me ask you this: What if instead of baseball, we were talking about the World Series of Poker. Say there’s 1000 entries. Everyone started with a million bucks, except for 50 of those entries started with 3 million. Would anyone be saying that any of those 50 entries are thus GUARENTEED a win? No. But neither would be people be standing around saying, “Well, look, the guys with only a million to start off with still have a chance. And you’ve still got to have skills–‘know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,’ that kind of thing. And some of the guys who start with 3 million haven’t won a bracelet for 7 years.” All of those things would be true, of course. But nobody would be saying that because starting off like that would be absolutely ridiculous! Like, bat nuts crazy.

    That’s an extreme example in some senses, but it’s a fairer comparison than the way a lot of people seem to see the payroll disparity around MLB, which is more like, “Yeah, it’s significant–but you still gotta play the games.”
    And the comparison is actually pretty solid in another way, in that in baseball and in Texas Hold ’em, having deep pockets changes the way you can play the game. Having more cash doesn’t just let you buy more chips, it lets you be more aggressive and make moves that–if they pay off–make you look like a genius. These would be moves you never would have tried if you didn’t have the extra chips to back you up.

    Some of what you sited above falls into that category, like the trades. Were any of the players you listed to illustrate Theo’s trade prowess NOT made available due to salary constraints by the other team? Gonzales would have become San Diego’s David Ortiz if they had the budget. And Beckett and Lowell coming over TOGETHER? That was at the Marlin’s insistence: ‘You can’t have Beckett unless you take Lowell and his salary that he is no longer even close to playing up to’. And shouldn’t it at least be mentioned that Hanley Ramirez was sent to the Marlins in that deal (not to mention Anabel Sanchez)? And that the Red Sox not only gave up the guy who is now the best offensive shortstop in baseball, but from 2006 to 2010, paid over $20 to shortstops PLAYING FOR OTHER TEAMS! My point is that while these deals SEEM to highlight Theo’s talent as a GM apart from his deep pockets, many (if not all) would not have happened had Theo’s pockets been even close to the same depths as those of other GMs.

    A few other comments:
    1. Mueller: Great signing, all around.

    2. Foulke: Yes, he was a key piece of the bullpen in 2004. But you said he only made 6.75 million a year. A couple of things: That wasn’t exactly chump change back in 2004. Setting aside that, though: Foulke stunk the next 2 years, actually posting a dreaded NEGATIVE VORP in 2005 and a positive but pedestrian VORP in 2006. His numbers those 2 years probably could have been duplicated by any number of random street free agents (which is basically what VORP suggests). So, yeah, Theo paid no more than 6.75 a year, but that came out to about $21 million for 1 PRODUCTIVE YEAR. That example of frugalness is actually a better example of how little impact having $7 million of (essentially) dead salary on the books for 2 years has on a team like the Red Sox. Of course Theo hoped for the best (i.e., 3-4 good years) when signing Foulke (and he appeared to have good reason to); BUT, do we know that he would have signed Foulke even to that relatively reasonable contract had he NOT, in the back of his mind, known that even if it didn’t work out, he still had a stack of chips to retool with if needed? I don’t know the answer to that. But it seems like a question that should be considered.

    3. Ortiz. The Twins non-tendered him because he was too pricey. No problem for the Sox. Also, no problem paying him once he became the pinnacle that he is.

    4. Bellhorn. Hiring him for 2004 for $500,000 was a great move. Paying him 2.75 million for the next year? Oops. A team like the Cardinals has had great success milking a good year from a journeyman, then letting some other team pay him like a potential starter (see Aaron Miles, Craig Paquette, Abraham Nunez) before the bottom falls out. The Sox got the first part right, but then themselves decided to be that sucker team that offered the big contract. So good move, then bad move. Net proof of anything: not much.

    5. Your “core of 7”. Yes, those guys are homegrown. The Sox seem to have great scouting. They genuinely do a better than average job than most teams at producing home grown talent. But how are those 7 “the core”? Could one just as easily suggest that the “core 7” are Gonzales, Crawford, Ortiz, Drew, Lackey, Beckett, and Scutaro? You seem to be citing these 7 as “the core” in part because they are homegrown, while citing their status as “the core” as evidence for Boston’s ability to produce homegrown talent. Circular.

    6. The Yankees winning ONLY one WS title in the past 7 years, despite having the highest payroll. Once every 7 years is kind of a lot. Like four times more often than statistically a team should. And 7 out of 8 playoff appearances? Also a lot. Of course money can’t GUARENTEE a championship, but it seems like it can ALMOST guarantee a playoff spot, as well as greatly increase your chances at a WS title.

    The long and the short of it is that big budget teams are truly playing a different game with different rules than the other 22-24 teams in baseball. Exceptions only prove the rule, like if a Division II football team in college were to beat a Division I team. Of course it could happen, but no one expects it to because of the disparity of resources.

    If a poker player was truly a better player than others, his advocates would probably clamor that he NOT start a tournament with 3x more chips than everyone else, because what would winning prove? Trying to distinguish the good moves he made that he made because he had more money from the good moves he made that he would have made even if he didn’t have more money is impossible.

    Maybe players are starting to realize how silly this is for half of them to be playing for teams that may as well be the Washington Generals—likely forever, with maybe a year or two window of competitiveness coming about as frequently as the Yankees or the Red Sox miss the playoffs. And MAYBE even fans of Boston and New York might be starting to think this is kind of silly, too. Any chance of that happening—even off the record? Just curious.

    Posted by The Hungry Preacher | April 4, 2011, 12:50 pm

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