In Defense of Epstein

Orioles manager Buck Showalter says Epstein isn't smart, he just has enough money to overpay for whomever he wants. (Derick E. Hingle/US Presswire)

Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter is no fan of Theo Epstein. In the April edition of Men’s Journal, Showalter said that overpaying for players because you have the highest payroll in Major League Baseball does not make you a smart manager.

“That’s why I like whipping their asses: It’s great, knowing those guys with the $205 million payroll are saying, ‘How the hell are they beating us?’ ” Showalter said in the article. He also said that Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter frequently jumps back from down-the-middle pitches during his at-bats, but the refs call balls anyway because of his reputation.

Terry Francona responded with his usual self-effacing sense of humor, citing Epstein’s choice for manager as a sure sign of his intelligence.

Since that time Showalter has backed off the intensity of those comments, praising both Jeter and the Red Sox. Given that Showalter manages one of the worst franchises in recent memory (.437 winning percentage since winning the AL East in 1997, only once finishing better than fourth place), this is probably a smart move. No need to give the Red Sox more reasons to beat you (Epstein’s Red Sox are 24-18 against Showalter’s Rangers and Orioles).

Money Isn’t Everything

Showalter was right about one thing: to get Carl Crawford, the Red Sox paid too much. Crawford was the highest profile free-agent available and the Red Sox wanted to improve their outfield. They wanted him, they threw a bunch of money at him, they got him.

Having a $163 million payroll certainly gives you advantages over teams with low payrolls. Managers for such teams, as chronicled in Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, have to find more creative ways to win games. Some do, some don’t. But having a lot of money and using it properly are two entirely different things. For example (stats taken from USAToday):

  • The Chicago Cubs have had an average payroll of $106.4 million every year since 2003 (Epstein’s first year), placing them in the top-10 all but once. They’ve gone to the playoffs three times via NL Central titles, but have only won one postseason series.
  • The New York Mets payroll averages $119.1 million since 2003. They’ve been in the top-5 every year, but have only one NL East title and postseason victory to show for it.
  • The New York Yankees have had the highest payroll in baseball every year since 2003, averaging $193.3 million. They’ve been to the playoffs seven times – on five AL East titles and two wild card births – but have only one World Series title.

All three of these teams (even the Yankees, to a far lesser extent than the Cubs or Mets) show that payroll isn’t everything. And Epstein’s record – six postseason births on one AL East title and five wild card births, two World Series titles – is the best of the bunch. Clearly, Epstein must be doing something other than just throwing money around. Some degree of intelligence and ability is evidenced by his success.

Free Agents, Trades, and the Farm System

Do the Red Sox overpay for players? Absolutely (although “overpay” is a relative term when the average player makes over $3 million playing a kid’s game). And because they overpay, if a player under-performs, the general manager comes under fire. Bad players become spectacular busts. J.D. Drew and Daisuke Matsuzaka are examples of this.

Such busts can come to define a general manager, but let’s not forget that a number of Epstein’s high-impact free-agents actually came pretty cheap:

  • Bill Mueller never cost the team more than $2.5 million a year, and he won a batting title in 2003.
  • Keith Foulke fixed Boston’s bullpen issues in 2004, and he only cost the team $6.75 million a year.
  • Mark Bellhorn hit key home runs during three-straight 2004 postseason games, then led the Red Sox during the World Series in on-base percentage and slugging. Epstein spent $500,000 on him.
  • David Ortiz earned $1.25 million in 2003 and has since reached the pinnacle of Boston sports superstardom.

No general manager’s record of free-agent signings is pristine. But Epstein’s shows that he is just as capable of careful scouting and bargain hunting as he is of overpaying.

Epstein has also acquired some pretty important Red Sox players via trades. Curt Schilling came via trade. Victor Martinez came via trade. 2007 ALCS and World Series MVPs Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell came together in a trade.

Given Epstein’s solid trade record (ignoring Eric Gagne, of course), you’d think the Red Sox would be giving away all their homegrown talent. Not so. How many major contributors to the Red Sox in the last few years were once minor leaguers? Kevin Youkilis. Jonathan Papelbon. Jon Lester. Dustin Pedroia. Jacoby Ellsbury. Clay Buchholz. Daniel Bard. Those seven are probably the core of the team, and they’re all homemade.

Epstein continues to balance the acquisition of veteran major-league talent with the maintenance of the Boston farm system. Even this year, as he traded for Adrian Gonzalez, he held onto Jose Iglesias.

Buck’s Bravado

Showalter probably said what he said to continue demystifying the Red Sox and Yankees in the eyes of his players. He pretty much admits as such in the Men’s Journal article. He has a pension for bluster, and this was just another case of it. It’s unlikely Showalter regards Epstein with anything other than professional respect. And that’s a respect born of action, not speech.

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