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Theo takes time to smell the roses

09.30.09 at 6:13 pm ET
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Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein has been through long enough and often enough in the last seven years to know that while the intensity of October baseball is quickly approaching, it’s still a good idea to take a moment or two to look back on another season that resulted in the playoffs.

And so he did just that prior to Wednesday’s game with the Blue Jays at Fenway Park, less than 24 hours after his club clinched their sixth postseason berth in seven years when Texas lost at Anaheim on Tuesday night.

“It’s something the organization is very proud of and our ultimate goal is still ahead of us and hasn’t been accomplished yet but I think you have to take time, even a small amount of time, when you qualify for the playoffs to look back at the path and how difficult it was and recognize it was an accomplishment,” he said.

“I’m in a unique position where I can see the hundreds of different people who played a part in making it happen, from the players, management, coaching staff to ownership to our player development people and scouts and I’m proud of all of them. You take a small, brief amount of time to appreciate that and you move on and work hard to advance scout for the postseason, where we hope we can do something that is truly noteworthy.”

So, there’s the $121 million question. Can this Red Sox roster produce a third World Series title of the decade in the next four-to-five weeks?

“I think we’re a really good club,” Epstein said of his team, which entered Wednesday with 91 wins, though on a five-game skid. “I think if you look at what we accomplished this year, we’re really good. I think there are a lot of really good teams out there. How are we going to play in October?

“No one can answer that. The track record of a lot of these players is they answer the bell when it matters most and we’ll see if we do or we don’t. I hope we do but that’s not based on a feeling any one person has at the end of the year. It’s based on how good we are and how well we play when it matters most.”

If the Red Sox play up to what Epstein believes is there potential, then they’ll be making space for a third World Series trophy at Fenway, cementing their place as the team of the decade, a title already bestowed upon them by The Sporting News.

And there’s one trade that people will point to that kick-started the team in August. When the Red Sox traded Justin Masterson and two minor league pitchers to the Indians for Victor Martinez, the Red Sox acquired a ready-made hit machine in the middle of their order – something that, even with David Ortiz warming a bit, was still missing.

“At the time, the offense needed a bit of help and the ability to bring in someone I consider to be an elite hitter, a guy who could fit right into the three-hole, a switch-hitter who hits good pitching was a unique opportunity,” Epstein said.

“I’m gratified it worked out but we’re not going to puff our chest out because Victor Martinez came here and raked for a couple of months. It could have gone the other way. We’re glad he’s here and we’re glad those things worked out.”

Martinez went on a 25-game hitting streak and has hit safely in 27 of his last 28 games, making Epstein and the brass look very wise. Add to that the acquisition of rock-steady shortstop Alex Gonzalez from Cincinnati, and you have two key pieces of a team Epstein believes is ready for October baseball.

“I like our processes,” Epstein continued. “I think they’re sound. We can always do better but the fact that those deals worked out is great but I believe in the process. With the [Eric] Gagne deal for example, that one, same exact process. A really good pitcher that came here and became a really bad pitcher the day he got here. It didn’t work out but the process was basically the same.”

Ironically, what Epstein didn’t mention is that three months after acquiring Gagne at the trading deadline in 2007, the Red Sox won the World Series, though Gagne was mostly a spectator in the key moments of the postseason.

Here is the complete transcript of Epstein’s session:

How do you describe the accomplishment of making it to the postseason out of the A.L. East, and getting to the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years?

It’s something the organization is very proud of. Our ultimate goal is still ahead of us and hasn’t been accomplished yet. But you have to take time, even a small amount of time, when you qualify for the playoffs to look back at the path that got you there and how difficult it was. We recognize that is an accomplishment. To do it six times out of [seven] years is something the organization is proud of.

It’s part of our business plan, in essence, to build a club every year that’s more of less a 95 win team and gives us a good chance to get into the postseason where we have a chance at our ultimate goal of winning a World Series. It’s challenging to build good teams in a vacuum. It’s challenging to have these types of seasons in the A.L. East in particular.

I’m in a unique position where I can see the hundreds of different people who played a part in making it happen, from the players, manager and coaching staff to ownership to our player development people and scouts. I’m proud of all of them. You take a small, brief amount of time to appreciate that. You move on and work hard to advance scout for the postseason where we can, we hope, do something that’s truly notable.

What were the most difficult one or two challenges of the year?

I think baseball is designed to present challenges during the course of the season. It seems like ever year we get to this point and I say something stupid about how much adversity we faced but the reality is almost every year and almost every team faces some adversity. It’s not even real adversity. Real adversity comes in the real world outside of baseball but this year we faced our challenges.

We had some starting pitchers go down and some starting pitchers not perform very well and that turned, I think, what was objectively a strength of this club into a weakness and we had to battle through that. Our defense was not as good as we had projected it to be and we had to make some adjustments there. And we went through a stretch of time at a crucial period where we didn’t hit at all.

That happened at the same time as the starting pitching issue came to a head and that put us at, I think at the time I called it a period of instability and we came out of it. That was a challenge so the guys deserve a lot of credit for getting through those things.

What led to acquiring Victor Martinez?

Well, a couple of things. I think we talked about a lot of this before but I think we felt that the offense, at the time the offense needed a bit of help and the ability to bring in someone who I consider to be an elite hitter, a guy who could fit right in the three hole, a switch hitter and hits good pitching was a unique opportunity and the fact that he could catch and play first base and fit into our roster construction really well provided contingencies for a couple of different scenarios that could have evolved. … He was the right fit at the right time for this club in that respect.

And his leadership as well. I mean obviously an off the charts human being, and accomplish something which is hard to accomplish which is he came in seamlessly into a pennant race and provided legitimate leadership at the same time.

You can never know for sure how the deal will work out.

He (Victor) deserves a ton of credit. I mean he couldn’t have handled himself better than he has on and off the field since coming here but with respect to any deadline deals or deals in August I think as an organization you’re gratified when they work out but you don’t sort of focus exclusively on the results from a long-term planning standpoint because it’s very arbitrary. In baseball, the result of any transaction is usually 50-50. If you work really hard and have good processes and have good people and stick to your values you can maybe shift that balance from like 50-50 to maybe 55-45. Then add to that fact that you’re talking about a two-month sample with performance and it could go either way.

The guy can come here. He could be the right player at the right time and not perform or he can come here and perform. Obviously, we’re thrilled that it worked out and some of those additions were part of the puzzle in getting us to the postseason but really we look back at the process. Was the process sound? Did we have the right people? Did we see the right players? Did we emphasize the right factors and did we balance all the factors properly in making this decision? And you look back. Is there something we could have done differently?

You learn from the process. I like our processes. I think they’re sound. We can always do better but the fact that those deals worked out is great but I believe in the process. With the Gagne deal, for example, same exact process. A really good pitcher came here and became a really bad pitcher the day he got here. It didn’t work out but the process was basically the same so I’m gratified it worked out. But were not going to puff our chest out because Victor Martinez came here and raked for a couple of months. It could have gone the other way. But we’re glad he’s here and we’re glad the way those things worked out.

How much is left to decide in the Monday planning meeting?

The way this month has evolved, playing the percentages, it’s looked for a while like we were going to play the Angels, so we’ve had some time to get a head start on planning and thoughts about roster construction and pitching and most importantly, advanced scouting. So that process now just continues. We’ve gotten a head start on it and we’ll continue the process of sharing information and doing some analysis and ultimately getting the information to the players and Tito.

How important is it to finish the season strong?

It’s important that they finish the season in good health and we’ve had good news lately in that regard. Beckett threw a really good side, he felt great. It’s significant news for us. We were really optimistic, but this confirms that he’s in really good health. Lester caught a huge break and the ball just missed his knee. That’s important.

It would be nice if every player on the roster got a hit in his last at-bat or put up a zero in his last inning, but anecdotally, and based on the large body of evidence, it really doesn’t matter. If you’re talking about what does it mean for the postseason? It doesn’t matter. Even from a team standpoint, anecdotally and if you look at all the data that’s out there, even finishing strong over the last week, two weeks, month, it actually has no bearing whatsoever on how the team performs in October. It feels better when you finish strong. I want to finish strong. We all want to finish strong. It feels better.

But the difference between how you feel and what actually matters, if you look at it, I’m sure there’s evidence of teams finishing strong and going on to win the World Series. But for every one of those examples, there’s an example of a team finishing strong and getting swept, or a team that lost 15 of its last 18 going into October and winning the World Series. So, if you break down the numbers, there’s simply no correlation. So we’re not going to pull our hair out about it. We’re going to try and get as healthy as we can, try to scout our butts off and try to have our players feel good about themselves down the stretch and try to win a World Series.

Could late-season performance affect the postseason roster?

It could impact the 25th spot, perhaps. It’s one of probably a dozen factors that will go into that decision.

How important was Victor’s ability to hit good pitching when you considered the trade?

I don’t think it’s something that you can over-emphasize. But in the end, the guy’s performance is the guy’s performance. Usually, almost every player is going to hit bad pitchers better than he hits the good pitchers. But I think with Victor, it underscores what kind of hitter that he is. He’s so calm in the box, so balanced. He sees the ball so well, has such a plan up there, that he does have the ability to hit all kinds of pitching, good pitching. Maybe that’s something that at times we needed this year. I think we’ve probably performed unusually poorly against some aces this year. So it’s an added bonus that Victor is the kind of guy that can hit good pitching. Certainly in October, that’s helpful.

Do you have the same feeling about the roster now as you did in 2004 and 2007?

No, I try not to have too many gut feelings about the roster, because then if you rely solely on your gut, your gut changes. If you followed the public perception of this team, even over the past six weeks, it was ‘We can’t score runs for six games, we’re dead in the water.’ That creeps into everyone’s analysis, but that’s more how you feel in your gut. Then all of a sudden we’re world beaters and everyone’s pick to win the World Series and now I feel like the last week or 10 days, ‘Oh no, they’re limping in, they’re backing in again.’

All that doesn’t really mean anything. All that matters is: How good are we and how are we going to play in October, and I think we’re good. I think we’re a really good club. How we’re going to play in October, nobody can answer that. The track record of a lot of these players is that they answer the bell when it matters most. We’ll see if they do or if they don’t. I hope we do, but that’s not based on a feeling any one person has at the end of the year. It’s based on how good we are and whether we play well when it matters most.

How did you feel about the bullpen construction?

I think we’ve had a good year in the pen. I still feel like the pen is the one area of the club that’s most susceptible to randomness and fluctuations in performance that are really hard to project. At least I use that as an excuse when it doesn’t work out, so I can’t sit here and pat myself on the back when we’ve had a good year. But the guys in the pen deserve a lot of credit. There’s a couple guys who haven’t been tested before. They’re coming from different markets or also the young pitchers who are pitching in this environment for the first time. They’ve done a good job of not just showing what they can do, but maintaining it, more or less, throughout the course of the year. Tito and John have done a really good job handling those guys. It’s been a really good bullpen. It’s helped us win, especially in the first half of the year.

It was a key to us winning a lot of games when we weren’t clicking necessarily with our starting pitching and offense at times. So, we feel good about it. But it’s the bullpen. Guys will be come in, in big situations, and have to [show up] and execute big pitches. I think there are a number of guys on this club who can do that.

Was there a time when you thought that Ortiz couldn’t come out of his funk or did you always see that it was something that could be corrected?

If anyone had the answer to that they would have gotten in David’s ear a long time ago and helped him out. He had a trying season and a really trying first couple of months when he looked lost at the plate, and there were times that there was reason for optimism but there was a lot of times when there was nothing that you could grab onto aside from belief in the player and belief in the person. He’s come through here. It would have been easy for him to land on the DL or tell himself deep down he’s gonna wait until next year and I’ll put up big numbers or be embarrassed by his batting average but he’s really grinding through and cobbled together a pretty good season, especially under the circumstances so he deserves…again, the adversity he’s facing is tough. We’re not talking about real adversity but for a baseball player he had some difficult time that he had to go through this year but he deserves a lot of credit for sticking with it.

How is it working with Terry Francona?

It’s great. Six years now with Tito and no one I’d rather be doing it with. It’s nice to have the transparent relationship with your manager, so there are a few things like we did in late July and August where there were certain players who their health could have gone downhill or it could have maintained, but once you get past the trade deadline or past August you can’t acquire players anymore. We felt like we had to act proactively and get solutions for problems that hadn’t started to arise yet, maybe would only manifest in the future.

You can’t do that if you have a manager who’s unwilling to be a little uncomfortable for a while, and so form when we got LaRoche, that was a little comfortable, but we got through it together for the players. When we got Victor that could have been a little uncomfortable but we got through it. Adding players without subtracting sometimes can lead to problems but I think it was something we had to do because of health and performance and Tito probably endured a lot this year as far as that goes but he deserves a ton of credit for ultimately making it work.

How do you assess John Farrell’s work?

It’s been a year with challenges, almost like any other year. But with the pitching staff, some things we thought would go well didn’t. We had to fight our way through that. None better than John at confronting a problem head-on. He doesn’t try to sugarcoat things. He’s willing to work very directly one-on-one with players to confront what’s not right and get to the bottom of it no matter what the degree of introspection and the adjustment necessary. He’s great at tackling those problems and working hard to get the best out of every guy.

Has Daisuke exceeded your expectations?

It’s still early yet. He’s still got some games to pitch, but the early returns are good. He was issued a unique challenge because he wasn’t where we needed him to be and it’s not usual for a pitcher, let alone one of his caliber, to have to go down to the spring training facility and do sprints at 6 o’clock in the morning and recondition himself and long toss with a bunch of 17-year-olds and get himself back in the position where he can be back with the major league team and I think when we sent him down to do that we thought, ‘Well, there’s a chance he can come back and help us in September, but there’s also significant consideration for next year and the future and this was the right thing to do to get back on track.’

The fact that he worked so hard and dedicated himself so fully to the endeavor put him in a position to actually impact the club this year and it turns out we really needed him so he deserves a lot of credit there.

Any idea whether Wakefield can be on the postseason roster?

We’ll see. I think it’s a function of how healthy he is and how he pitches. He’s another guy who’s grounded through some difficult health issues to contribute. He deserves a lot of credit.

Have you been contacted by the Indians about John Farrell?

They haven’t contacted me.

Can you confirm the existence of the clause preventing him from managing elsewhere?

The details of coaches’ contract are confidential.

Would you want a long reliever on the postseason roster?

It’s a consideration. If we don’t have a long guy we’ll have more pitching. If we have a little less pitching then we’ll have a long guy.

How significant was the need to upgrade at shortstop, and what has Gonzalez brought?

Defense this year hasn’t been what we wanted it to be and what we expected it to be. It’s an area of focus for us trying to improve it and work around it. The shortstop because of the performances we had in the first half we had a need to improve. It was also fairly easy for us to improve. It’s not like we had (???) performance and we wanted to get better so we had to go get a Gold-Glover to get better. We were really well below the average, well below the average, well below where we wanted to be at shortstop defense for a significant part of the season and so bringing in Alex, who’s been really steady since he’s been here was a significant upgrade, in part because of how reliable he’s been, how good his hands are, how good his arm is, his instincts, but also in part because of the performance we had early, and so that’s been a steadying influence on our overall defense and our pitching staff since he’s been here.

Were you awake when you clinched?

Barely. I know I’m getting old because I had toddler duty this morning so I was barely hanging on to the remote control. It was not a usual clinching experience but nice in its own right. We would have loved to win that game to let more people have more fun but it was still gratifying to get in.

It feels good. It doesn’t really change who we are as a club. It’s still an accomplishment. I know the players in that clubhouse don’t feel we backed into anything given how hard they’ve worked to get here and we’re excited about the next [phase of the season].

What last night means is that we get validation that we were a good club and had a good season and most importantly we get a chance to accomplish out ultimate goal. We look forward to it.

Read More: Daisuke Matsuzaka, David Ortiz, John Farrell, Terry Francona
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