Epstein's first three moves since taking over in Boston on Nov. 25 fit the pattern of minimal risk with a good chance of at least a modest return. On Nov. 27 he claimed righthander Ryan Rupe off waivers from Tampa Bay to bolster the Red Sox bullpen; despite a 5-10 record and 5.60 ERA last season with the Devil Rays, Rupe had a 2.7-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 6.7 K's per nine innings, above-average totals in areas that are strong indicators of future performance.
Last Thursday, on the eve of the winter meetings, Epstein dealt two minor leaguers to Cincinnati for second baseman Todd Walker, who will replace Rey Sanchez, a .286 hitter with a subpar .318 on-base percentage and only 16 extra-base hits last year. In Walker, Epstein obtained a superior OBP (.353) and a two-hole lefthanded hitter who will aim his opposite-field power stroke (11 home runs among 56 extra-base hits) at the inviting Green Monster in left.
Then on Sunday, Epstein acquired Jeremy Giambi from the Philadelphia Phillies for mid-level pitching prospect Josh Hancock. A power-hitting lefty with extraordinary plate discipline—4.52 pitches per at bat and one walk every five plate appearances last season—Giambi gives Boston a first baseman with pop, and his .414 OBP dramatically bests the .348 of incumbent Brian Daubach.
None of those moves rocked the Hub as did, say, the eight-year, $160 million contract former G.M. Dan Duquette bestowed on outfielder Manny Ramirez two years ago, but blockbusters aren't Epstein's style.
Boston's new G.M. will face unique challenges, because his age and relative inexperience will breed resentment among some executives. "You're always going to have people in the business who are jealous," Towers says. " Boston is one of the more attractive jobs in the game, and Theo's 28 and he's never run anything." Although Epstein has moved in executive circles, he does not possess a playing, coaching or scouting background, a deficiency that could hurt him.
"The obstacle Theo will have to overcome is that he's not in the good-ole'-boy network," Ricciardi says. "There's sometimes the idea in baseball that if you didn't play or manage in the bigs, you don't know what a big league guy has to be." Epstein's thorough knowledge of the personnel in other organizations, however—with San Diego, he annually produced depth charts of each club's 40-man roster and its top minor league prospects—will give him credibility at the bargaining table.
Finally, Epstein must disabuse doubters of the notion, which has acquired some currency, that he's a puppet of Lucchino, well-known as one of the game's most hands-on chief executives and the man responsible for each of Epstein's moves up the ladder, from Baltimore to San Diego to Boston. "They're dead wrong," Epstein says of those who assume he'll take his marching orders from Lucchino. "We have very healthy debates. On baseball issues we disagree more often than we agree. I don't think he exercises any more control over me than most presidents do over their G.M.'s."
After Epstein's hiring there was disbelief, followed by skepticism and, hard on its heels, envy. Twenty-eight is no age to take over the Boston Red Sox, not even if the kid grew up a mile from Fenway, game always on the tube. Not when he leapfrogged a crowd of baseball lifers, front-office men who've been doing deals since he was in diapers. And not in a city thick with amateur aspirants to the post, shouting in the Southie bars and on WEEI's phone lines how they could do it better. Yet here is Epstein, an overachiever or a born winner, take your pick.
"No, I'm neither of those things," he says. "The best way I can explain it—and I'm not trying to be immodest, because I don't think this is anything special—but I remember going down to Baltimore on spring break in February of my freshman year, to interview for a p.r. internship with the Orioles. It was 9:15 in the morning, and I remember finding a bathroom somewhere, tossing some water on my face to prepare myself, looking in the mirror and saying, This might be your one chance to break into baseball. Don't f—- it up.
"That's being honest. This was very, very important to me. It's really hard to break into a front office, and I knew I wanted to work in baseball for the rest of my life."