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Rocky road for Sox's Epstein


Special to ESPN.com

Jan. 18

He had just been on stage at Boston's Paradise Rock Club playing Eddie Vedder's "I am Mine" with his band "Trauser" and was back in the audience watching the next band, "The Gentlemen." Theo Epstein was dressed in a stocking cap and flannel shirt. And yet because he is one of Boston's most recognizable 29-year-olds there was no disguise for him, and people who'd come to this charity marriage of baseball and music came up, in twos and threes, to praise his music and to wonder why in Matt Young's name that Bartolo Colon was in Chicago.

One of the answers was in the audience and, before the night was over, up on stage backing American Hi-Fi -- Casey Fossum. But two months into his tenure as Red Sox general manager, Epstein found himself in the eye of the media's perfect storm -- Yankees-Red Sox -- and on this particular evening wondering why the Yankees would be so concerned about his team that they would shuffle another $4-6 million around just to ensure that Colon did not go to Boston, even if Colon wasn't the pitcher the Red Sox sought.

Theo Epstein
Theo Epstein has undergone an interesting first two months as the Red Sox's GM.

One of Epstein's bosses, Larry Lucchino, had initiated the unfriendly fire with his "evil empire" whine after the Yankees signed Jose Contreras. Now Epstein -- who lists Yankees GM Brian Cashman among those for whom he has the utmost respect -- found himself dealing with New England Yankee paranoia and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner's unlimited resources and vengeance while trying to overhaul a Red Sox organization that had sunk to such depths that it left virtually nothing of use to trade for any frontline players.

Fossum, for whom Epstein had been offered Kevin Milwood, looked out from the stage at the Paradise and vowed that his general manager would be proven right. Tim Wakefield, from the same stage, talked about how the players loved the fact that the boss was a real human being who plays guitar, constantly calls them during the offseason and has "the guts to stick to what he believes in."

"All I heard at the end of last season," said Johnny Damon, "is that we had only one real strength -- starting pitching. Now that's our weakness? Is that because we've improved everything else so much?"

The players had joined in the finale of "Surrender," which someone suggested within earshot of Epstein "might be this winter's theme song." The Red Sox GM went back to his office, where he had a conference call with the Chunichi Dragons to discuss the Kevin Millar situation at 2 a.m.

When Epstein ascended to the GM position after Oakland's Billy Beane accepted the job, then changed his mind, he accepted a daunting responsibility: reconstruct the organization, rebuild a razed player development system and, oh yes, remain competitive while paring $10-15 million off the payroll.

"There are a lot of positive things that we have accomplished," Epstein says. "But there have been frustrations.

"But we also have to have a long-term philosophy here if we're seriously going to compete with the Yankees -- or anyone else, for that matter -- year in and year out. I just don't see how that can happen and get locked into bad long-term contracts."

Bad long-term contracts were the hallmarks of the previous Red Sox administration, which is why the so-called $110 million payroll in 2002 was actually $93 million since they had to eat the Darren Oliver/Jose Offerman/Rich Garces money. Epstein, using the Pat Gillick model, stuck to a plan on contract terms, and thus lost out on Edgardo Alfonzo, and to some extent, Jeff Kent. He had $27 million to offer Contreras, which wasn't enough.

Then for a month he tried everything to get Javier Vazquez from the Expos. At one point, he understood that Expos GM Omar Minaya coveted Astros outfielder Daryle Ward, so he worked out a deal to buy Ward and include him in a package. Minaya then said he really didn't want Ward.

There are a lot of positive things that we have accomplished. But there have been frustrations.
Theo Epstein, Red Sox GM, on the team's offseason

Last weekend, after Epstein explained that he could not move Fossum, Minaya reiterated that he needed a starting pitcher. So, Epstein made a contingency deal with Oakland to buy Aaron Harang (Beane would have used the cash to sign Kerry Ligtenberg), and package him with Shea Hillenbrand, Freddy Sanchez and the $2 million difference between the Vazquez and Colon salaries for Vazquez. Then there was a three-way trade with Hillenbrand going to the Mets that would have given Montreal Harang, Sanchez, Mike Bacsik, Timo Perez and Grant Roberts and the $2 million.

Minaya, who is on a one-year contract himself, opted instead for 33-year-old Orlando Hernandez.

"I really did not want to trade Vazquez; I preferred moving Colon," said Minaya, who had been to the Dominican and seen Colon for himself amidst several reports that the 6-foot pitcher is on the road to 270 pounds. Even if the Red Sox had included Fossum with Hillenbrand and Sanchez -- one of Boston's five best prospects -- with the $2 million, it may not have landed the 26-year-old Vazquez.

"It is true that at the end of the season, our rotation was our strength," said Epstein. The Red Sox's staff was second to Oakland in quality starts, but when Epstein tried to get Contreras and Vazquez, he was thwarted in each case by the Yankees' money and left to stand and take the heat for ownership, and did so, answering fans at the Paradise and in the street and the morning after the Colon trade when he went on a WEEI radio talk show at 8 a.m. with John Dennis and Gerry Callahan knowing they always ask the tough questions. "You don't hide," said Epstein. "All I can do is try to explain our side. We have tried to accomplish a lot of things here in two months, but I grew up here, I understand (the fans') frustrations. No one gets more frustrated than I do."

Colon likely makes the White Sox contenders in the AL Central, or, worse for Boston, a wild-card contender. Good grief. The AL East should be better this season, but where the Red Sox last year were killed by an interleague schedule that included 12 games with the Braves, Diamondbacks and Dodgers, this year they play Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia on the road while getting the Astros, Cardinals and Marlins at home.

In Cleveland, GM Mark Shapiro, who has had to remake the Indians in a more striking redevelopment project, reminded Epstein that "if you base your decisions on public relations, in the end you will fail." Which is a more philosophical adaptation of the Bobby Knight wisdom that Toronto's J.P. Ricciardi imparts to Epstein, that "if you start listening to the guys in the stands, pretty soon you'll be sitting up there with them." Of course, Epstein plans to come down from the glassed-in GM box upstairs during the regular season and sit with the fans behind home plate because it's a far better view of the game.

Epstein had to renovate the organization, and has brought in Josh Byrnes from Colorado, a person with a World Series ring in former GM Bill Lajoie, and Craig Shipley. He and farm director Ben Cherrington have changed two-thirds of their minor-league coordinators and more than 50 percent of their minor-league managers and instructors, while instituting mandated philosophies. He has overhauled the professional scouting department, adding, among others, Jerry DiPoto, Bill Latham and Mark Wasinger, while adding to the amateur scouting department.

"Billy (Beane) gave us an organizational rallying cry -- 'a $100 million developmental machine' - and that is what we're focused on," says Epstein. "We're excited to have the two extra draft picks (for Cliff Floyd). We're hoping to be as aggressive as any team in the game in that area. But fans want to see us get a big name, and when we don't, we suffer the short-term price. But we won't sacrifice the long-term commitment and responsibility, not to mention flexibility, for the immediate ego gratification."

The Red Sox did win 93 games, and ran out of breath by Labor Day because of a thin, erratic bullpen and an inert bench. Too many games the lineup hit a hole after Manny Ramirez or Nomar Garciaparra batted in the cleanup spot.

You can never lose sight of your vision. That would be my advice to Theo. I know it's hard in his hometown with that fan base to do what he believes is right, but he's shown me something, because he's stuck to what he knows is right.
Mark Shapiro, Indians GM

So after former interim GM Mike Port re-signed Alan Embree to go with Bobby Howry, the Red Sox have added Ramiro Mendoza, Chad Fox, Mike Timlin, Ryan Rupe and several younger arms -- including lefties Matt White and Javier Lopez in the Rule 5 draft -- to try to build a deep, flexibile bullpen that manager Grady Little wants.

They picked up .300-hitting second baseman Todd Walker to hit between Damon and the Garciaparra/Ramirez duo. They grabbed Jeremy Giambi, who after finishing fourth in the National League in those Baseball Prospectus numbers that few of us understand but all study, has completely refocused his conditioning and career. They have David Ortiz, ever close to breaking out, and Bill Mueller, if Hillenbrand must go, as well as the versatility, energy and speed of Damian Jackson.

But Millar, who would be a significant piece of their lineup, now is a huge issue. Millar agreed to a contract with Chunichi because he says he was told "that no one was interested and that the choice was staying in Florida as a part-time player making less than $2 million on a one-year deal or (taking) the deal in Japan." By the way, the deal in Japan is $6.5 million for two years. Of course, what was most important to the Marlins was the $1.2 million Chunichi paid them for Millar.

Florida put Millar on release waivers to get him to Japan, which is usually a formality, but Boston put in a claim, which gave Epstein the right to negotiate with Millar.

"I had no idea that they wanted me so badly," says Millar. "Look, this is no disrespect to the Dragons, because they're great people. But this is exactly the same as the Japanese third baseman the Mets signed, only to have him change his mind. The chance to go to the Red Sox is a dream come true. I know a lot of those guys like Trot Nixon, Lou Merloni and Nomar, and it's a great baseball tradition. Trot (Nixon) keeps calling me.

"And the more we face reality, the more my wife is uncertain about going oversees, with all that's happening."

Epstein assured Chunichi, with whom Boston has been negotiating to form a working agreement, that the Red Sox would reimburse the $1.2 million they paid to Florida. He found a player in Alex Ochoa that the Dragons deemed acceptable, and agreed to sign and deliver him. But Major League Baseball jumped in Friday and decreed that Millar couldn't get out of the contract, and that if he were to be released, he would have to be posted, which means a team could force Millar to play where he doesn't want to play by posting an absurd $10 million bond for the exclusive negotiating rights -- then offering him a one year, $500,000 deal that would force him to Japan.

"I want to play in Boston, the Red Sox want me, it seems as if Chunichi is OK," says Millar.

But then there is the world of MLB ...

"If it doesn't work," said Epstein, "Shea can play first against left-handers. But Millar would be a major addition to our lineup." Like .300/25/110 in the six-hole.

If it doesn't work out, Epstein and the Red Sox have the flexibility to get something when the non-contenders flood the market after Memorial Day. Beane constantly reminds his close friend Epstein that pennants aren't won by building a team to win PR in January -- that the first two months of the season are spent finding what you need, the next two months are acquiring what you need and the last two months are spent running with the wind. The Athletics, playing in an ultra-competitive AL West, are the perfect model.

Meanwhile, the larger issue of thumbing an entire organization back to heaven has begun to be addressed. At 29, Epstein in two months has tried to build a model that is beginning to alter the baseball business. In the NFL, one highly successful model (Bill Parcells, Jimmy Johnson, Bill Belichick, et al) has been for the coach to set the tone, direction, philosophy and personnel decisions. In baseball, 15 years ago --- with exceptions like Gillick in Toronto and Lajoie in Detroit -- organizations tended to be fragmented. Now the general manager is responsible for everything.

"It's the way it has to be, although it's a huge responsibility," says Shapiro. "But everyone in scouting and development to the major league staff should be on the same page. I look at the manager as my partner, and I couldn't feel better about my working partner than Eric Wedge."

Shapiro has had to endure the fire of retooling a franchise, but he now may have more top prospects than any organization in the game and knows that there isn't one player he got for Colon that he'd trade for any of the players the Expos now hold for the same pitcher.

"You can never lose sight of your vision," says Shapiro. "That would be my advice to Theo. I know it's hard in his hometown with that fan base to do what he believes is right, but he's shown me something, because he's stuck to what he knows is right."

Which means trying to listen to "Flavor of the Week" while someone is screaming "Why didn't you get Colon?" and remembering this is what he always wanted to do.

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