Let's hope that Red Sox management had a contingency plan in place to deal with the loss of GM Theo Epstein. But gauging by the remarks of owner John Henry at Wednesday's highly anticipated Fenway Park press conference, we shouldn't count on it. The organization clearly seems to have been caught flat footed.
Discussing Epstein's surprise resignation, Henry faulted himself for the breakdown in negotiations.
"I hold myself wholly responsible," Henry lamented before a packed conference room. ''This is a great, great loss, to lose Theo. What could I have done? There's plenty I could have done. I have to ask myself, maybe I'm not fit to be principal owner of the Boston Red Sox."
That revelation was starkly revealing, and Henry seemed genuinely shocked and saddened by Epstein's departure.
''Never in my wildest dreams did I think this would ever happen. I had this romantic notion that Theo's going to be our general manager for the rest of my life. We have the best relationship imaginable. We still have the best relationship. I can't imagine having a better relationship with a human being than I have with Theo."
''This is a great loss. It's a great personal loss."
In claiming personal responsibility, Henry was careful to defend CEO Larry Luchino from the sharp criticism that's been leveled at him by the fans and the Boston media.
"I am much more responsible for this than Larry Luchino is," Henry said. ''Did I blow it? Yeah, I feel that way."
''You may notice Larry Lucchino is not here today. He's been maligned and blamed for this situation over the last couple of days. I think that's wrong. I think that's inaccurate."
"Larry Lucchino is not the root of the problem here. He's going to do what he did before, and build a baseball organization."
Building the team, or more specifically rebuilding it, will be the work of the next general manager - Kevin Towers or whoever else it may be.
And perhaps that is just exactly the task that Epstein wanted to avoid. After careful examination, Epstein may have concluded that, at least for the for time being, the Red Sox have reached the pinnacle of their success and have begun a slow process of decline. Perhaps he sees the last three seasons as a remarkable run that cannot be matched with the personnel that will take the field next spring, including available free agents. Maybe he thinks the Sox have been as good as they'll be for quite a while.
Doubt it? It's not that inconceivable. If ownership is determined to trade Manny Ramirez - no matter what they get in return - and Johnny Damon decides to leave due to a combination of Manny's departure and a better offer from another club, two central components of the vaunted Red Sox offense will have been lost.
And in assessing next year's likely roster, things don't look much better from there. First base remains a mystery, and the top prize, Paul Konerko will likely re-sign with the White Sox. If Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis are the starting second and third basemen, respectively, the infield will be quite inexperienced. Youkilis has never played a full season in the majors, and hasn't had the opportunity to prove himself over the long haul. As for Pedroia, he's never even played a single game in the majors, and yet he may inherit second anyway.
Edgar (Error) Renteria's contract is an albatross slung tightly around the team's collective neck. That signing appears to be one of the glaring errors of Epstein's tenure. Perhaps ER will rebound and have a better all-around performance next year, but he'll never be worth $10 million per season, no matter what.
And then there's the pitching staff. David Wells reportedly wants to be traded back to the West Coast to finish his career. With his 15 wins, he was one of the Sox best pitchers last season - for whatever that's worth. His trade availability may garner some interest this off-season and perhaps a decent player in return. Another pitcher would be nice, but the team certainly has no shortage of of holes to fill. The addition of Jonathan Papelbon to the rotation will help, but it won't be enough to get them back to the World Series, much less win it. The team needs an ace - someone who is consistent and who they can count on at every start. At present that pitcher is not on their staff, and that is their Achilles heal. Or at least one of them.
Even is he's physically healthy, Keith Foulke's mental and emotional problems may continue, and at this point the team should expect that likelihood. Mike Timlin's pending return is the one positive in an off-season that has otherwise gotten off to a rather ominous start. He'll resume his role as the team's top set up man, but a front line closer is needed. Billy Wagner anyone?
The question is money. If ownership is determined to shrink payroll, despite the potential subtraction of Manny's contract, Epstein may have seen the writing on the wall and known that they wouldn't cough up the money needed to fill all the holes, replace all the parts, and make this team a World Series Champion again next year.
Perhaps, in Epstein's view, this Red Sox team was as good as it gets and saw their glory years come and go. As a result, he may have concluded that this was the perfect time to get out of Dodge. Nothing less than greatness is expected in Boston now, and Epstein may see those expectations as being completely unrealistic for the 2006 Red Sox. He's always been praised for his intellect and his youthful wisdom, so who's to doubt that this was his estimation? And perhaps he's right. It certainly doesn't require a leap of logic to come to that conclusion.
When you've seen the top of the mountain at such a young age, and in only your second season, you enjoy the view while it lasts. But deep down inside, you know you can't stay there forever, and that the only place to go is back down.
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