September 30, 2011
The worst collapse in baseball history just happened to my favorite team. The Boston Red Sox have missed the playoffs at the end of a month they began with a nine game lead. There is plenty of blame to go around and enough soot to blacken all kettles, but this corpse is ultimately going to be placed at management’s feet. When analyzing the Red Sox collapse those most responsible have to be manager Terry Francona and GM Theo Epstein. However, despite this no one is going to hear me calling for Tito’s head, and probably wont hear me throwing Theo under the bus either. They made mistakes, big ones, but they have also had great success, and thus deserve another shot.
There are many reasons to blame Francona. Baseball is a game dominated by statistics and while the numbers are ugly there is nothing Francona can do about that. The starting pitching completely collapsed. The offense either scored 20 runs or none. That is on the players. Tito doesn’t play. If the players ownership gives him simply don’t perform there isn’t much he can do. He sent the horses he had to the race. When the horses just don’t run that corpse should be laid at Epstein’s doorstep. But at the end of the day it’s not the numbers that were most responsible for the Red Sox failure. The bottom line is they simply stopped playing good fundamental baseball and that is the manager’s responsibility. It is Tito’s job to make sure the Red Sox are fundamentally sound and the Sox of September simply were not. That has to fall on Tito’s shoulders but I still believe he should be brought back next year.
In addition the 2011 Red Sox simply did not display the character that Francona’s previous teams have. When the Red Sox came back in the 2007 ALCS versus Cleveland Theo Epstein went on record saying “Terry’s teams don’t quit.” This team did which begs the question “is Francona burned out?” Tito’s teams have always been extraordinarily resilient, coming back from down 3-0 in the 2004 ALCS and 3-1 in 2007. This team was almost the polar opposite. Whenever things started to go bad for the 2011 Red Sox they wouldn’t rebound, they would simply get worse. For evidence look no further than their 2-10 start and their 7-20 finish. Francona simply was not able to instill the same mental toughness in the this group of Red Sox that he has in previous groups. This would point to him perhaps being burned out by Boston.
However at the end of the day I believe Terry Francona did all any manager could have. I can’t see any other manager handling this situation any better. Firing Tito is not the answer. He did the best he could. His players simply did not execute and did not hold themselves accountable. At the end of the day that corpse is laid at the doorstep of the man who brought those players in: Theo Epstein. Francona made mistakes, but he is also the most successful manager the Red Sox have ever had, and thus deserves another shot.
Theo Epstein is a similar study. Epstein has composed teams that won two championships in the last decade. However lately his free agencey decisions have been absolutely awful. Two summers ago the additions were John Lackey, Mike Cameron and Marco Scutaro. At best average, at worst horrendous. This summer the names were Carl Crawford, Dan Wheeler, and Bobby Jenks. Even worse. Yes Adrian Gonzalez was added in a trade but even his play fell off in the second half after Epstein sold the farm to get him. Epstein has made a lot of errors over the last few years. However these exceptionally bad free agency decisions are offset by Epstein’s exceptionally good drafting. Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Clay Buccholtz, Dan Bard, Jonathen Papelbon, Ryan Kalish, and Josh Reddick all are the products of Epstein drafts.
So while Epstein’s free agent acquisitions have been bad I believe his good drafting should be enough to save his job. At the end of the day it wasn’t the mercenaries who failed the Red Sox. The bad september starts were turned in by Josh Beckett and Jon Lester just as often as John Lackey and Erik Bedard. Those guys were supposed to be the horses. They simply didn’t get it done at crunch time and that is something neither Francona or Epstein can be blamed for. Thus I believe Epstein should keep his job with one caveat: re-sign David Ortiz.
If Theo Epstein does not re-sign David Ortiz after the money he has given to John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Mike Cameron, Carl Crawford, J.D. Drew and Marco Scutaro I will want to see he head on a platter. David Ortiz has meant more the Boston Red Sox organization than any player ever. Period. End of story. There have been players better – Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice to name a few – but they did not win for the Red Sox. To find a player as good as Ortiz who also brought home championships you have to go back to the early twentieth century to the days of Tris Speaker, Duffy Lewis, and Harry Hooper. All those players are dead now. All the people who saw them play are too. So in living memory no man has meant more to the Red Sox than David Ortiz. I recently wrote a piece about what Drew Bledsoe meant to the Patriots. Take that, multiply by a million, and you may get an inkling of what David Ortiz has meant to Red Sox nation. Yet all Epstein will say is “we’d love to keep him if we could.” The only possible reason why he couldn’t keep him is the amount of money he has shelled out to that bunch of scrubs listed above. After giving them that amount of money lowballing a player as important as Ortiz would be enough for me to never want to see Epstein in New England ever again.
The man put the 2004 Red Sox on his back and carried them to their first title in 86 years. Epstein built the team, but without Ortiz the Red Sox would still be cursed and Epstein and Francona would have been fired a long time ago. Without him they would never have had the success they have had. And yet Epstein can afford to break the bank for John Lackey – statistically the worst starting pitcher in all of baseball – and not David Ortiz the man with two World Series rings. I absolutely will not accept that. David Ortiz is the only reason Theo Epstein still has a job at all. The sheer ingratitude of low balling him after the money he has given to players who have done absolutely nothing for Boston is simply mind blowing. If Epstein does not resign Ortiz I never want to see him again.
Ortiz is still the best designated hitter in baseball. No player fits the description of DH better than Ortiz. He is the prototypical DH. The position was made for him. Epstein can scour free agency until the end of time and he will not find anyone who will be a better DH than Ortiz next season. He hit over .300 with about 30 HRs and 100 RBIs again this season. Sure he probably isn’t going to hit 50 homeruns again. But other than that there aren’t really any signs of his play dropping off. He is still productive and still the best DH in baseball. So not resigning him doesn’t make sense from a purely baseball standpoint either. And honestly the pure baseball argument doesn’t even matter. Ortiz is the most important player the Red Sox have ever had. He would deserve a new contract if he were here hit .220. He has done enough to be given another shot, just like Epstein and Francona. There is no excuse for Epstein to not bring Ortiz back.
All indications are that the 2011 Red Sox suffered from a dearth of leadership. Thus letting Ortiz, one of the few players who clearly is good leader, get away would be even less sensible. If anything this year his leadership was compromised by his uncertain contract situation much in the way Vince Wilfork’s was with the 2009 Patriots. Bringing him back would inject veteran leadership back in to the Boston club house. Something that was clearly missing in September. Not bringing him back would simply exacerbate the problem. He must be resigned.
At the end of the day Francona and Epstein have made mistakes. But they have also had great success, probably more than anyone in the history of the Red Sox, so these mistakes while egregious should not cost them their jobs. They have done enough in Boston to be given another shot. They have earned that. Unless Epstein doesn’t resign Ortiz. Then he should be gone and never welcome back.