Red Sox Erred in Firing Francona, Should Cut Epstein Loose

Theo Epstein's bad personnel decisions caused the Red Sox's historic collapse this season. If anyone should be fired, it's Epstein, not Terry Francona. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

It’s too late to undo firing Terry Francona, a rash decision born from the kind of rabid bloodlust that few fanbases besides Boston’s are capable of. But if John Henry wants to cut out the true cause of the Red Sox’s historic collapse, he needs to go one level higher and axe Theo Epstein.

Player misuse caused by bad lineups, rotation or bullpen order can certainly kill a team, and that’s the manager’s fault. But this Red Sox team had a faulty foundation, and that’s the responsibility of the general manager who built it.

The rotten core that killed this Red Sox team began five years ago, when Epstein signed J.D. Drew and Daisuke Matsuzaka for big-time bucks. Drew’s pedestrian .264 average, 16 home runs and 57.2 RBIs per season have not been worth the cost, but that’s nothing compared with Matsuzaka. The Japanese so-called superstar was a dud in Boston, failing to contribute anything meaningful from 2009 until Tommy John surgery essentially ended his Boston tenure early this season. On top of that, he became one of the most frustrating, least entertaining pitchers in recent Red Sox history. Fans hated him, and that likely translated into less revenue from him than other pitchers. This is the exact opposite of what Epstein envisioned when he signed Matsuzaka.

Were these the only two bad contracts of the Epstein Era, he keeps his job. But these were just the beginning of a downward trend of spending big money on big games that could never hack it in Boston. For example: the 2010 John Lackey signing – a desperate, panicked attempt to prove to the fans a year after losing Mark Teixeira that Epstein could still attract major talent to as tough a media market as Boston. Lackey didn’t even have a particularly good 2009 (11 wins, fewest since 2003; 3.83 ERA, highest since 2004), but it didn’t matter: Epstein took him and his histrionics anyway. The result? A winning percentage barely above .500 and an ERA over 5.00.

And if Lackey was a bad decision, signing Carl Crawford was downright awful (or: “Crawful,” as other media members have said). Here was a player who had said he didn’t like big-market teams, who said he was creeped out by Boston’s incessant scouting practices. That Epstein didn’t see a potential problem with that reflects a blindness when it comes to evaluating major league talent. Perhaps Epstein’s deep belief in sabermetrics is such that he can’t see the potentially dangerous but non-statistically measurable psychological elements of baseball. Perhaps that explains the revolving door of shortstops the Red Sox have had every year since Epstein took over.

Epstein’s inability to gauge major league talent has become so obvious that it’s time for a change. Even as the rotation was holding itself together with masking tape and Alfredo Aceves (an admittedly good signing) mid-season, Epstein still refused to go after good pitching. He acquired an injury prone Erik Bedard because he didn’t want to give away more minor prospects. Well, where were these vaunted minor leaguers? Kyle Weiland went 0-3 with an ERA over 7.00. Andrew Miler went 6-3 with a 5.54 ERA, but 0-2 in five September starts (all Red Sox losses). And discounting Aceves, only four Boston relievers (many of whom were minor league call-ups) with more than five innings pitched finished with an ERA under 4.00.

The farm system isn’t turning out the same superstars it once did, meaning that the one thing keeping Epstein among the elite GMs – his eye for young talent and scouting – is starting to disappear as well.

People blamed Francona for mis-managing this team, but that’s unfair. Perhaps Francona didn’t properly motivate his players, but how much can anyone really motivate a man who’s already a millionaire? Francona could have taken Tim Wakefield out of the starting rotation once it became clear Wakefield’s pursuit of 200 wins was distracting the team, but the public outcry against that decision would have been as loud if not louder than it’s been for Francona’s head. And besides: who could have pitched in Wakefield’s place?

How many games did the Red Sox lose because Francona used the wrong pitcher in the wrong situation? Maybe six? Lackey alone lost 12 games this season.

The fault, dear Nation, lies with Epstein, not Francona. Epstein’s moves might make sense at first, especially once run through the Red Sox PR machine. But after so many failed ideas in a row, it’s time to pull the weed out by the root.

Epstein is the root. Francona was just a bent stalk.

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