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Theo Epstein’s parting thoughts on the Red Sox ‘scouting and player development machine’

10.26.11 at 1:20 pm ET
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CHICAGO — At its core, the message that Theo Epstein offered in his introduction as the president of baseball operations for the Cubs was very similar to the one he articulated almost nine years earlier, when he was introduced as the general manager of the Red Sox. In November 2002, Epstein declared that the Red Sox would build a “scouting and player development machine” that would serve as the engine propelling championship ambitions for years to come.

Epstein was careful not to invoke the idea of building a “machine” in referring to the Cubs in his Chicago introduction on Tuesday — “Maybe we’ll build a factory,” he later joked — but he made clear that he would dedicate his new team to a blueprint in which long-term success was built upon scouting and player development. Indeed, Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said that Epstein’s record with Boston in developing young talent was a central part of the decision to hire him as the Cubs architect.

That said, it was, in at least some respects, an odd moment in which to herald the Sox’ player development track record. There were some significant accomplishments by homegrown Sox prospects this year, most notably, the emergence of Jacoby Ellsbury as perhaps the most dynamic player in the game, but also including steps forward by players such as catcher Ryan Lavarnway, third baseman Will Middlebrooks and outfielder Bryce Brentz, who delivered performances that suggested potential futures as middle-of-the-order big league regulars.

However, in 2011, the farm system did little to provide the Red Sox major league roster with the depth to withstand injuries. While Kyle Weiland had a brilliant first half in Pawtucket, he could not offer stability to the Sox rotation during his five starts. Felix Doubront suffered through a year that was derailed by injuries. While Josh Reddick impressed initially, he batted just .222 with a .608 OPS over his final 54 games, and did not play at all in the final four games of the season.

From that standpoint, Epstein’s last year in Boston was uncharacteristic from a player development perspective. Even though the Sox were able to use prospects to make trades (turning Casey Kelly, Anthony Rizzo and Reymond Fuentes into Adrian Gonzalez; using Tim Federowicz, Chih-Hsien Chiang, Stephen Fife and Juan Rodriguez to land Erik Bedard at the July 31 deadline), they did not have a Jonathan Papelbon (2005) or an Ellsbury (’07) or a Justin Masterson (’08) or a Jed Lowrie (’08) or a Daniel Bard (’09) come up to help transform the roster, and turn potential weaknesses into compelling strengths.

That said, Epstein still felt that his final year in Boston represented a continuation of the success of the player development system that he helped to create. While the fruits of that system were not felt immediately on the big league roster, he sees a wave of players in the lower minors — individuals like Brentz, who clubbed 30 homers between Single-A Greenville and High-A Salem in just 115 games, and Brandon Jacobs, a multi-tooled left-fielder who hit .303 with a .376 OBP, .505 slugging mark, .881 OPS, 17 homers and 30 steals in Greenville, and Xander Bogaerts, an 18-year-old shortstop who crushed 16 homers in 72 games for Greenville, and Sean Coyle, a 19-year-old second baseman who had 14 homers and 48 extra-base hits in Greenville, and Garin Cecchini, a 20-year-old third baseman who was tearing up the New York-Penn League for the Lowell Spinners when he suffered a season-ending injury — who show immense promise.

And so, Epstein suggested, there was plenty of pride to be taken in the farm system he was leaving behind.

We were named the best drafting organization of the decade by Baseball America. I know other teams ran the analysis and agreed. So I feel pretty good about how we drafted in 10 years,” said Epstein. “At some point we made a shift from primarily college players to looking at higher impact high school players. We recognized that making that shift right around 2006 or so, 2007, that there would be potentially a little bit of a gap in our farm system, that the upper levels would be thin for a while, but that it would have tremendous impact down below and that would serve us well eventually. And we were worried that it would possibly impact the big league team in a year or two. We tried to manage around that. Sure enough, that happened, so we had to scramble in the last couple years to accumulate the kind of depth we needed to get through a season. In some ways, we did a good job of that. In other ways, we fell short.

“But there’€™s a ton of impact talent, I’€™d say, from what will be, next year, Double-A and down, potential superstars in that organization that are going to be a result of that slight philosophical shift. I’€™m really proud of the farm system there. Five years from now, if you look back and say, ‘€˜What was in the Red Sox farm system in the 2011 season,’€™ you’€™re going to be very, very impressed by what was there.”

In Boston, new Red Sox GM Ben Cherington echoed that sentiment.

“I think our farm system is actually stronger and deeper than ever. That strength and depth is probably more at the Double-A level and below than in some years,” he said. “Farm systems go through cycles. We’€™ve put tremendous effort and resources into acquiring players every year under this ownership, and you’€™re not going to always have the ready-line of major-league replacements every year. That’€™s just not the way scouting and player development works. There’s going to be some cyclical nature.

“I believe the farm system in aggregate is stronger than ever. There are players that need to migrate up the system and get closer before they’re ready to graduate to the big leagues. There’€™s a lot of players in our system right now that are going to be really really good major-leagie players, and a lot of them are going to do that here [in Boston].”

Read More: ben cherington, bryce brentz, felix doubront, garin cecchini
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