Who's the boss of bosses?
Ranking the best general managers in the game
Posted: Monday February 18, 2008 12:13PM; Updated: Tuesday February 19, 2008 9:33AM
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Who is the best general manager in baseball?
Normally that's a tough call, but not this year. There's one fellow who stands out, only one GM whose team has won two World Series championships in the last four years after failing to win even one World Series for 85 straight years.
OK, so it doesn't take a sabremetrician to see it all adds up for Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, an easy choice for my first Best GM in the Game award.
Epstein is a man who won the most coveted job in New England before age 30, yet preaches patience, stability and painstaking player development. In many ways, according to his Red Sox colleagues, he behaves like a small-market GM in the way he likes to think long-term. Yet, he also knows how to take advantage of Boston's vast resources.
What's more, the Red Sox, champions last year and favorites this year, are built for the future, with starters Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka and stud closer Jonathan Papelbon in their mid-20s and future stars Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester and Jacoby Ellsbury in their early 20s.
If he has an ego, Epstein doesn't show it. "I'm the luckiest guy in the world,'' he said. "I grew up rooting or the Red Sox and wanting to play shortstop. This is in some ways the next best thing.''
Epstein is universally praised for being a team man, for always putting the organization first, for delegating and taking advantage of the vast and varied talents of a foursome of assistants as good as any in baseball (Jed Hoyer, Allard Baird, Ben Cherrington and Craig Shipley) and for considerable organizational skills.
Though luck may have played a small role in Epstein originally landing the job in 2002 (Oakland's Billy Beane turned it down) and hasn't necessarily hurt his endeavors (a risky, yet superb, trade with Florida of young star Hanley Ramirez for Beckett was made during a brief respite when team president Larry Lucchino and advisor Bill Lajoie were calling the shots), it is a miniscule part of his winning equation.
The original acquisition of Curt Schilling and pickups of David Ortiz ("We thought he had a chance to be a middle-of-the-order hitter, but we never envisioned him becoming one of the best hitters in baseball'," said Epstein) Kevin Millar and Bill Mueller led to Boston's 2004 title, while the re-emphasis on youth allowed them to triumph again only three years later. Every last move has been guided by hard, cold calculations and considerable smarts.
It isn't easy remaining consistently dispassionate in Boston's baseball hotbed, where the fans' passion is out of control. Yet, Epstein manages it. He says, "We try to set a value for a player, and not exceed that value ... no matter what. If we're playing competitive baseball in October, the fans will be happy''
It was Epstein's cold computation that limited the offer to popular but brittle superstar Pedro Martinez after the first championship season to two years (in that rare case, ownership bumped it to three after the Mets had already almost clinched the deal by offering four) and kept this winter's trade offer for Johan Santana to two fair but comfortable quartets of prospects, one leading with Lester and the other Ellsbury. There was a celebration -- one of many recently -- when Santana went to the Mets instead of the Yankees. Epstein said, "We made two strong offers. But they liked the Mets' offer better. At least he didn't end up in the Bronx.''
Perhaps there was a little bit of luck there, perhaps it was something else. Epstein made sure their offer was high enough that the Yankees would have to include top young pitcher Phil Hughes to have a chance, and they did, but only for three days before getting cold feet and pulling out altogether. Eventually, the Yankees emulated Epstein's strategy and emphasized youth to the point where their offers were less than overwhelming. In this case, imitation wasn't just flattery; it was a boost for Boston.
Epstein was a driving force behind the push to land Matsuzaka, the international sensation, and while some free-agent deals haven't worked (see Edgar Renteria) the bulk of the big-money moves have been nothing short of boffo. "Let's be honest, we can survive a bad contract or two, whereas it might cripple someone else,'' Epstein said.
Even so, it is the re-emphasis on player development that excites Epstein most. Asked to name the best decision made during his tenure, he points to following the 2004 championship with an '05 draft that set up the Sox to compete for years: Clay Buchholz, Ellsbury, Jed Lowrie, Michael Bowden and Craig Hansen were their first five picks.
Thanks to the youth of their roster, the Red Sox seem set for the future. And that goes for their front office, too.