Analyzing Theo: 2003

Theo Epstein is currently at the tail end of a contract dispute with the Red Sox. A Brookline native, Epstein has always had Red Sox blood and has said this was his dream job. But that won’t stop him from demanding upper-echelon GM money, and this is apparent after rejecting a 1.2 million dollar offer from the Sox brass. But after a meeting with Lucchino on Friday, it appears there are some good signs, and the Red Sox could have their boy wonder locked up on Monday. While all this is going on, let’s take a look at what Theo has done in his three years as Sox GM in three different parts. 2003 is today:

Epstein’s first move in late 2002 turned out to be one of his worst. He dealt right-handed pitcher Josh Hancock to the Phillies for the Immortal Jeremy Giambi, who hit close to the Mendoza Line in his stint with the Red Sox, before David Ortiz took over. Shortly after, Epstein sent some minor leaguers to the Reds for future starting second baseman Todd Walker. Walker emerged as the big hitter in the 2003 playoffs, but due to a lack of defensive abilities and sometimes inconsistent hitting, the Sox let him go to the Cubs. One of the big disputes in the winter of 2002 and 2003 was the bidding war over Cuban sensation Jose Contreras. He would end up taking the 4 year, 32 million dollar offer from the Yankees, causing a report to leak that Epstein trashed his hotel room in anger. But, Contreras turned out to be the Red Sox punching bag in his stint with the Yankees, and was a bust that caused his trade to the White Sox for Esteban Loaiza, who gave up Ortiz’s bloop hit in Game 5. What goes around comes around. One of my favorite Epstein moves of his tenure was the signing of capable third baseman Billy Mueller. He signed a modest 2.1 million dollar deal, and later Theo rewarded the gold glove caliber fielder with an extension. And without this signing, my Bill Mueller Commemorative Statue would never have been built. Unquestionably the most legendary and genius move Theo ever made was grabbing David Ortiz. Ortiz was recently released by the Twins and Theo took a chance on the forgotten DH/first baseman, signing him to a 1.25 million dollar contract. Throw in 119 home runs, 388 runs batted in and two seasons batting over .300, not to mention clutch hit after clutch hit, and you’ve got yourself a heckuva ballplayer. Add his efforts in keeping Kevin Millar from Japan, and there’s three starters from 2003-2005 in two months.

But the pitching disaster would begin here. Theo signed Ramiro Mendoza and the embattled Chad Fox to help out an imploding bullpen. Remember that bullpen-by-committee? I still have nightmares about it. Those two signings turned out to be complete busts, but getting Mike Timlin was not. Timlin averaged 76 appearances in three seasons in Boston. Theo also picked up young guitar-playing starter Bronson Arroyo from the Pirates for a grand total of 332,500 dollars, the same Arroyo that would contribute to the rotation in 2004 and 2005 with 24 wins.

Unquestionably, the biggest gaping hole weakness in the 2003 team was the bullpen, so Theo set out to improve that area in order to finally win a championship. Theo traded third baseman Shea Hillenbrand for Byung Hyun Kim, who would help at times during the season, but was left off the playoff roster and completely fell off the table in 2004 after signing for two more years at 10 million. Kim would also flip the bird to the Sox crowd, causing full-scale Byung Hyun Kim lynching protests in Kenmore Square. That has to be TheoÎs worst decision. What appeared to help the bullpen made it even worse when Scott Sauerbeck joined the team at the deadline. Scott posted a terrible 6.48 ERA in the second half, along with walking more batters than innings pitched. Quietly, Theo traded for Scott Williamson, who didn’t do much in 2003 in the regular season but emerged as the closer for the postseason. Wild at times, Theo rewarded Williamson with a new contract in 2004. He then dealt for Pirates starter Jeff Suppan. Not the best of ideas. Suppan was disappointing with a 5.57 ERA and dropped out of the rotation, completing a disastrous deadline for the young Epstein. To sum it up, the 2003 Ïbullpen by committeeÏ contained of Chad Fox, Brandon Lyon, Ramiro Mendoza, Todd Jones, Bruce Chen, Bobby Howry, Rudy Seanez, Jason Shiell, and Steve Woodard at different points during the season. None of those players remain with the Red Sox today. Unfortunately, Fox ended up having a great year for the Marlins in 2003, Seanez has emerged as a great setup man in San Diego, Howry pitched brilliantly for the Indians in 2005, Todd Jones was the Marlins closer with an ERA around 1.40 and Chen is a solid starter in Baltimore. Tough luck.

In my mind, Epstein’s 2003 campaign was not a success nor a failure. He made some questionable moves regarding the pitching staff, but Millar, Mueller and Ortiz turned out to be key signings for a long time. Jonathan Papelbon, the next Roger Clemens (hehe), was also drafted. The 2003 Cowboy Up brothers would have a 4-0 lead in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS but lost in the 12th inning to the Yankees, probably the worst night/following day of my life. But making it that far would be the stepping stone for a 2004 World Championship and send Theo Epstein into Paul Revere-esque Boston lore.

2003 Grade: B

2004 analysis on Tuesday.