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Theo Epstein on D&C: ‘We stumbled into’ Carl Crawford signing

02.18.11 at 11:12 am ET

General manager Theo Epstein stopped by to join Dennis & Callahan for a conversation Friday from Red Sox spring training in Fort Myers, Fla. Following a 2010 season in which the Sox were decimated by injuries, Epstein said depth in the pitching rotation and at catcher are the biggest concerns heading into the start of spring training.

“We don’€™t have as much depth in certain areas as we’€™d like,” he said. “You always try to plan for not just the 25-man roster, but you ask yourself, ‘€˜What happens if this guy gets hurt? What if this combination of injuries occurs?’€™ Obviously, last year, we couldn’€™t withstand what we went through.”

Following is a transcript of the conversation. To hear the interview, go to the Dennis & Callahan audio on demand page.

Can overconfidence hurt a team?

I think true overconfidence can be if it actually shows up every day over the course of a season. But I think baseball is designed to humble you. I think those who get overconfident, even for a minute, are humbled by the nature of the game, the failure that’€™s inherent in the game, the grind of the season, the fact that even the best teams can start out 5-10 and then no one’€™s confident in a slump.

So I don’€™t think overconfidence is something that frequently plagues teams. But at this time of year, it’€™s not a bad thing to feel good about yourself, as long as you realize that we haven’€™t done anything and we have an awful lot of work ahead of us before we have a chance to accomplish anything.

Would you rather be the general manager of a team like this where everybody’€™s saying you’€™re loaded, or a team that’€™s quietly pretty good but no one’€™s really talking about it?

In our market, I don’€™t think we’€™re ever going to really sneak up on people, just because of the nature of the teams we put together and because our goal is to have sustained success year-in, year-out. I think what pleases us the most is when we can transition from one type of team to another, one core to another, integrate young players and have a rebirth without anyone noticing.

If we can have success and have good teams year-in, year-out and all of a sudden you look up and say, “Wow, there are 12 homegrown guys on the roster and all of a sudden [Clay] Buchholz and [Jon] Lester are on the top of this rotation and they came up through the system.” That’€™s the type of stuff we like. Obviously this year, because some of the moves we made were high profile, there’€™s a lot of attention on the team. We’€™ll just have to be good enough to withstand that.

What could go wrong this year?

I think there are a lot of things that can go wrong. We don’€™t have as much depth in certain areas as we’€™d like. You always try to plan for not just the 25-man roster, but you ask yourself, “What happens if this guy gets hurt? What if this combination of injuries occurs?” Obviously last year, we couldn’€™t withstand what we went through. Starting pitching depth after our top five guys, we have [Tim] Wakefield, who can start for us. We have [Felix] Doubront, who may be in a position to start some games for us. And we have [Alfredo] Aceves, who may be able to start some for us.

But we don’€™t have a lot of young starting pitching in the upper minors ready to step in. I listed eight guys. The average big league team goes through 10 or 11 starters over the course of the season, so I don’€™t know where those starts are going to come from. We’€™re going to have to figure that part out as we go.

Same thing with catching depth. We do feel really good about [Jarrod Saltalamacchia] and [Jason Varitek], especially the way they’€™ve started off in camp and how things have gone so far. But if one of those guys goes down, we have prospects who might be ready by the second half of the season, but they’€™re not immediately ready. That’€™s an area we’€™d have to address. I can go on and on and on. There are areas of vulnerability that can get exposed.

No one we talked to expected Carl Crawford to end up in Boston. Did it surprise you? Did you expect him to take your best offer and go back to the Yankees like Mark Teixeira did?

I’€™ll say this, very early in the process, I had some skepticism. I thought it was more likely than not that even if we were very competitive, that we wouldn’€™t land him. We heard some things just anecdotally that perhaps he didn’€™t want to go to Boston. Perhaps he’€™s already dead set an Anaheim Angel. The more we dug on him, and we covered him as if we were privately investigating him ‘€¦ We had a scout on him literally the last three, four months of the season at the ballpark, away from the ballpark.

We got to know him really well and really came to respect what he stands for, his hard work and the decisions that he makes. We came to realize how competitive he was and one thing he wanted was to stay in the American League East. He calls it “The Beast” because he considers it the best division in baseball and if you can perform there, that shows you’€™re the best in the game.

And then we realized that he was attractive to us because he gave us the chance to win and compete for fans who really, really care day-in, day-out. So as we went through the process, I got less skeptical. We’€™ve messed up some free agent negotiations in the past. I thought, tactically and strategically, this one we happened to get lucky on and handled really well.

Did you just say, “Here’€™s our offer, this is it?”

No. We stumbled into it. We took the approach that we were going to be the kind of good guy team that was always open to talk. “Let’€™s get to know each other. When you want to talk numbers, here’€™s an offer. It’€™s not a final offer. Here are some things we’€™re flexible with.” Just kind of be the good, accessible partner. The one thing we were scared of was if it dragged on and the Yankees missed out on Cliff Lee, it would create a market that was difficult for us. And we were scared of the predetermined move to the Angels. It kind of played right into our hands.

It seems like the Angels gave him a deadline before the Cliff Lee negotiations reached their conclusion, and that played right into our hands. We had spent so much time thinking about it. We had ownership on board. We had to get a hold of them in England, but they moved very nimbly and we were able to wrap it up in a matter of hours when it all came together. We thought it was kind of dormant and we were just going to stay in touch, and five hours later, it was done.

Compare and contrast the styles of Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez and what fans are going to see when they watch them.

They’€™re obviously different type players, different type hitters. With Gonzalez, the thing that stands out is his bat, his swing. He really gets the ball get deep. He’€™s got a beautiful swing. When he mis-hits balls, he hits 380-foot fly balls to left field, which should really play well at Fenway Park. With the type of person he is, he’€™s really an intellectual-type hitter. He analyzes everything, not only about his swing and the situation and the count, but about the opposing pitcher.

When he watches video, he doesn’€™t watch video of himself, he watches video of similar-type hitters that have faced the pitcher we’€™re facing that day. So he gets to know how the pitcher’€™s going to try and get him out. Kind of like Ted Williams, he tries to be two guesses ahead of the pitcher. I think that type of preparation and analysis and thought that goes into becoming a great player is something that has rubbed off on his teammates, so maybe that’€™ll rub off in our clubhouse a little bit.

With Crawford, I think it’€™s the fire with which this guy plays. He is a performer. He is a competitor. He is intense. And he works his tail off. The only time he’€™s ever been part of a conflict in a clubhouse was when he got on a teammate who wasn’€™t working hard enough for the team and got in that teammate’€™s face. He’€™s really going to fit into our culture of hard work and preparation with [Kevin Youkilis] and [Dustin Pedroia]. But I think he brings even more of an edge and more fire to the field than maybe we’€™ve seen recently.

Five years from now, which one will be the fan favorite, icon guy in Boston?

That’€™s the fun part, to see how it all plays out. I think the most important thing is that they get integrated into the team well and become good teammates as I expect they will, and have rings on their fingers.

What do Josh Beckett and John Lackey have to do to turn it around?

It’€™s a good question. Let’€™s separate them, because I think it’€™s a disservice to lump them together. In Lackey’€™s case, I think we saw a lot of things in the second half of the season that I think you’€™ll see this year. He was attacking the zone a little bit more. He was pitching to contact a little bit more. He was able to maintain his velocity a little bit deeper into the game. And he had a better attack plan against left-handed hitters.

And I think that’€™s him. He’€™s a guy who’€™s going to pound the strike zone. He’€™s going to live on the corners. He’€™s going to have a good feel for his breaking ball. He’€™s not going to be afraid of contact. Usually that leads to a bunch of quality starts. He had a bunch last year, but he also got hit hard. He gave up 83 extra-base hits. I don’€™t think there’€™s any chance he gets hit that hard this year just based on the way we saw him adapt during the course of the year.

He gave up more baserunners than any other pitcher in baseball.

Yeah, and he still somehow threw 215 innings and won 14 games. Our bullpen probably cost him four games. He could’€™ve won 18 games. I think we’€™ll see a much steadier, more reliable John Lackey who pitches deep in the game. We started seeing that in the second half.

With Josh Beckett, I look at last year the way I look at 2006. You guys watched him. He wasn’€™t himself all year. The injury affected his performance and then he’€™ll be the first to admit he didn’€™t really handle it well. He became pretty negative. He became a little caught up in his ERA. Instead of working hard and being positive to dig himself out of the hole, he just kept digging himself deeper and became a bit of a lost season.

It’€™s so hard in baseball, because we play every day and a starting pitcher pitches every fifth day, to press the pause button, re-set mentally and then come up with a new plan. In Josh’€™s case, he admitted it. He said, “I needed the offseason. I needed it about three months before it came.” He took responsibility for his performance and had a great winter. I don’€™t know if you guys have seen him, but he’€™s looking really good. And a lot of the things coming out of his mouth are same things that were coming out of his mouth before that ‘€™07 season after the bad ‘€™06.

Signing free agent pitchers is much riskier than signing free agent hitters, isn’€™t it? You don’€™t really know what you’€™re going to get, do you?

No. To me, that underscores the importance of developing your own pitching. If you try to build your club through free agent starting pitching, you’€™re almost destined to fail. We actually signed Beckett and Lackey back-to-back, and that was something given the supply-demand dynamic and the young pitching we had around them, I believe made sense. I believe that will prove to be a big stabilizer for this club over the next four years.

That’€™s not our preferred M.O. I think it’€™s hard to overstate the importance of Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester to this team. They might be the best homegrown one-two in all of baseball right now. If we do some nice things over the next four to five years, that’€™s going to be a big reason why.

Last year, there were five no hitters, including two perfect games. Is the pendulum swinging back toward the pitcher or is that a one-year aberration?

So many variables go into that year to year, the way different ballparks play. Last year, for example, Target Field opened up [in Minnesota] and it played like a huge pitchers park,, so that changes the dynamic a little bit. Little subtle rule adjustments or an emphasis on the strike zone here and there. Maybe the ball plays differently or the weather.

No doubt last year, offense was down. These things can be cyclical. They tend to adjust, especially when the game gets too offense-suppressed. There tends to be adjustments made to bring the offense back because fans love to see offense.

Are you concerned about the interest of young people in baseball diminishing?

Yeah, absolutely. Not as a professional, per se, but just as someone who loves the game. I think of all the things that concern me about the game, the one you mentioned about the young generation is’€¦ Not seeing young kids playing baseball not seeing them at the park as much as they were in the past, that’€™s something we all have to make a concerted effort to change.

And actually, I think Major League Baseball just changed their ad agency and is going to specifically reach out to the young people more. We need to because, to me, this game defines the fabric of our country. It’€™s our game. We need to make sure there’€™s a bright future.

Wouldn’€™t it help if games were shorter?

It would. And baseball’€™s really cracked down on things like stepping out of the batter’€™s box and hustling in from the bullpen and the amount of time for a pitch. And there are more dramatic rule changes that may help. Maybe 10 years from now, you decide to limit the number of pitching changes per inning. Of if a pitcher comes in, he has to face two hitters instead of just one, and you won’€™t see the four pitching changes in the course of one inning. I think our game’€™s got to evolve. We’€™ve never been real quick to change in this industry, but I think it is time to consider making us more appealing.

It’€™s your fault. You’€™re the one who brought Daisuke Matsuzaka to the U.S.

I thought you were going to say because we have such good plate discipline.

I don’€™t see a crackdown in getting on and off the field. In college, you see it. Is there one we’€™re not seeing?

Yeah, it’€™s behind the scenes. They send letters to us. The first one’€™s a warning. Then the players get fined. Then we get fined.

So if Jonathan Papelbon is too slow, you can get fined?

It can get to that point, yeah.

That’€™s good. I like that.

Who’€™s going to get fined for the length of this interview?

Was there a day that Papelbon told you, “I’m not interested in a longterm deal. I want to be a free agent so just drop it,” and you accepted it and never bothered with it again?

No, it wasn’t that definitive. We’ve had different points in the negotiations over the years where it became clear that there wasn’t going to be a real discount involved. And that’s fine. I think players have the right to choose their approach. Our philosophy, which is actually a policy in writing, is if we’re going to sign arbitration-eligible players long term, we have to get one free agent year and we have to get an option for the club. Because we’re giving the player certainty. We need to be able get some of those prime years back in exchange. That makes it a fair bargain. We got that with Youkilis. We got that with Pedroia. We got that with Lester. Those players decided to give us that flexibility in exchange for security. If players don’t want to do that, that’s fine with us. We’ll just treat them accordingly, year to year.

Your thoughts on how much these guys at this level are born to this vs. how much they work toward it.

I’m a big believer that the work creates the greatness. As in “Outliers,” the hard work reveals the genius. Just being around some all-time greats in my career ‘€” when I was young, as an intern, being around Cal Ripken, and then Tony Gwynn, and then all the great players here in Boston ‘€” the common thread is just the obsession with hard work, I think because of a fear of failure. They want to work so hard so they don’t have to expose themselves to that uncomfortable feeling of failing.

Can you think of anybody who was born to it and didn’t work their ass off? The only person I can think of, I guess, would be Babe Ruth, and that wasn’t that recently.

You don’t see that very often. Those are usually the guys with the short career. Makeup itself ‘€” a player’s mental capabilities ‘€” is such a separator at this level that if you don’t have the discipline to work off the field, you probably don’t have the mental acumen to excel on the field, either. So, it’s a self-selecting group. The players who can perform on the field are the ones that are going to have the good habits off the field.

Does Albert Pujols get to free agency?

I wouldn’t want anyone speculating in another camp about Adrian Gonzalez, so I won’t touch that one. But I’ll say that there seems to be a lot of mutual good will there. Despite the failed negotiations this time around, I think he wants to be a lifetime Cardinal, and they obviously want to keep him.

What’s the Gonzalez timetable? Are you working on that now?

No real timetable. Once he gets healthy, that will be a good time to sit down and reconsider things.

Read More: Andrian Gonzalez, carl crawford, john lackey, Josh Beckett
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