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As the Monster turns

Boston's slide puts spotlight on fractured front office

Posted: Tuesday August 22, 2006 1:17PM; Updated: Tuesday August 22, 2006 5:49PM
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GM Theo Epstein won his offseason power play, but he's now feeling the heat as the Red Sox's season slips away.
GM Theo Epstein won his offseason power play, but he's now feeling the heat as the Red Sox's season slips away.
Simon Bruty/SI

Boy, that was some race in the American League East. Although, I must say, the end came a little quick. Four fateful days was all it took for the Yankees to bury a surprisingly ill-equipped Red Sox team by sweeping them in five games.

Boston's swagger now resembles a stagger. The Red Sox lack pitching and they've lost confidence. They're 6½ games back, done in their division. And as for their overall playoff chances, let's just say it'll be more interesting to watch the behind-the-scenes soap opera that could unfold in their front office.

Outsiders predict a continuing clash of egos between club president Larry Lucchino and golden boy general manager Theo Epstein, whose winter power play resulted in more say-so for him. While it's a plus for Epstein that he no longer has to answer to Lucchino, he's the one who'll have to explain his failing team.

Major league sources say Lucchino and his protégé Epstein, now 32, still struggle with their working relationship, a reality likely to be exacerbated by the team's slide. As one major league executive observed, "It's still a house divided.''

Even in victory, Boston's front office featured hurt feelings and a gross waste of executive talent. Lucchino has shown little respect for some extremely good baseball people who happen to be Epstein loyalists, from highly regarded Josh Byrnes, who left to become Arizona's GM, to even manager Terry Francona. Insiders say Lucchino won't even call Francona by his first name but invariably refers to him dismissively as either "Francona'' or "the manager.'' Epstein is more personable but no more inclusive. He virtually disregarded three exceptional baseball people -- Bill Lajoie, Mike Port and Lee Thomas -- who combined brought about 100 years of experience and were all driven to work elsewhere.

As long as Lucchino and Epstein remain together, Boston's front office may always be fractured; each is used to being the smartest guy in the room, and their spectacular early success in leading Boston to its first World Series title in 86 years only cemented their beliefs in themselves.

While the current losing streak is mostly on Epstein, the belief here is that the GM's boyish charm, quirky personality and immense popularity with Red Sox Nation and owner John Henry (who according to the Boston Globe's Dan Shaughnessy just threw Epstein an engagement party on a boat while the team was taking on water) eventually will ensure victory in any future face-off with Lucchino.

Epstein's quick ascension and immense early success have caused some league-wide jealousy, and supporters point out that "people have been waiting to jump on Theo.'' But even his friends have to concede there's finally cause for criticism.

Big mistakes were made. Boston never should have let Johnny Damon go, replaced him with serial outmaker Coco Crisp (1 for 19 against the Yankees) or, worse still, compounded the errors by giving Crisp a three-year, $14.5 million extension. Epstein never should have traded viable starter Bronson Arroyo for Wily Mo Pena, eventually leaving a virtual tryout camp in the rotation, one that continues to fail.

Epstein's inability to make an impact deadline deal left the team shorthanded, and perhaps even depressed. Some think he overshot in his attempts. "If you'll notice, except Arizona [which made a waiver deal to get Livan Hernandez], none of the Moneyball teams made a trade,'' one critic said. "They all make trades too complex. One-for-one isn't in their vocabulary. They'll say, 'I'll get you this player' and they don't even have this player.'' And another critic added, "It's very difficult to make a trade with these guys. They're always trying to trade guys they don't actually have.''

Epstein has a valid excuse for missing out on the Bobby Abreu-Cory Lidle blockbuster trade in that he didn't have the payroll flexibility to absorb the $22 million remaining on Abreu's deal and understandably wanted Phillly to cover about $7 million of it. However, it's fair to point out he might have had more money to spend if the Red Sox didn't pay Atlanta $11 million to take shortstop All-Star Edgar Renteria off their hands in the offseason.

If it wasn't bad enough that the very two players Yankees GM Brian Cashman beat Epstein to at the trade deadline were instrumental in finishing off the Sox in their recent series (Abreu had 10 hits and six walks in the five games, and Lidle threw six shutout innings on Monday), Epstein got no one to speak of (unless you count Jason Johnson, Bryan Corey, Kyle Snyder and a shadow of Javy Lopez's former self; I don't) and is on a months-long losing streak since perhaps his last executive victory -- the play that won him all this power.