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The Red Sox pay more than the recommended signing bonuses of the commissioner's office—so-called "slot money"—but their draft costs are also high because they hoard picks by letting free agents leave. In the past five years, for instance, Boston has had 12 first-round picks. (The Yankees have had half as many.) Moneyball ended the hidden value of OBP, what Beane called a market inefficiency. "I've been giving the same answer for years," Epstein says of the next inefficiency. "It's keeping pitchers healthy, and it's better drafting."
Epstein tried to trade for Adrian Gonzalez as far back as 2005, when the first baseman played for Texas, only to lose out to Epstein's old team, the Padres. He tried to trade for Gonzalez at the trade deadline in '09; in fact, Epstein went to sleep on the night of July 30 with possible deals in the works for Gonzalez and Seattle ace Felix Hernandez. Epstein considered trading a total of 10 prospects, virtually wiping out the upper end of his farm system, but both deals fell through. He tried to trade for Gonzalez after the '09 season, but his good friend Hoyer, who had just been named general manager of the Padres, wasn't about to deal a franchise player immediately after taking over.
Finally, after the 2010 season, with Gonzalez entering the final year of his contract, Epstein saw an opening. While the Cubs, White Sox and Mariners all made preliminary calls on Gonzalez, Epstein pushed Hoyer relentlessly. He wanted to close a deal before the December winter meetings, where he knew an auction atmosphere would develop.
When the Red Sox lost out on free agent Mark Teixeira after the 2008 season (the first baseman signed with the Yankees) they knew they had to put themselves in position to get one of the Big 3 first basemen scheduled to reach free agency after the 2011 season: Gonzalez, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. Epstein is a big believer in park effects, the impact of a player's home stadium on his statistics. Spacious Petco Park in San Diego muted the greatness of Gonzalez. Epstein considered Gonzalez not a .904 OPS hitter—his overall mark last year—but a .980 OPS hitter, his rate on the road in 2010. (Gonzalez's OPS this year is .953.)
Epstein, however, had one disadvantage when it came to cutting a deal with Hoyer: The guy across the table knew his system as well as he did. Hoyer—who had brought McLeod to San Diego with him—knew what Carmine knew about Rizzo, Kelly and Fuentes. "When you make a trade," Hoyer says, "you hope a team asks about players you don't like. The knowledge we had made it more difficult, but it also made it more transparent. There was no b.s. For us, the comfort was in knowing the prospects and their makeup. Taking prospects is very difficult when you don't know their makeup. Every G.M. says that's the scariest part of a deal. In this case [McLeod] drafted all three players."
The trade was announced on Dec. 6. Five days later, to considerably more shock, the Red Sox signed free-agent outfielder Carl Crawford to a seven-year, $142 million deal. (Gonzalez would sign a seven-year, $154 million extension in April.) The Crawford signing underscored how the team's "We don't know spit" mentality applied to major leaguers as well as the draft. Baird, for instance, had compiled a 40-page background report on Crawford. (The Red Sox prepared a similar one on Jayson Werth, another free-agent outfielder.) But the Crawford deal, on the heels of an 89-win season that left the Red Sox out of the playoffs, also signaled how high the stakes have been raised in Boston since 2003. Epstein is less an architect now than he is the supervisor of a factory that must operate continuously at peak load. One step back to take two forward—or heaven forbid, a second straight nonplayoff season—cannot be tolerated.
"We felt this [pressure] a lot my last two or three years in Boston," Hoyer says. "We missed being able to go after the cheap, undervalued player. The intellectual reward with star players is not the same.
"Boston's advantage now is—and Billy said this—Boston can do what Oakland did but they can do it at a bigger, stronger level. They can see a player like Adrian and sign him to $154 million. They can go after Crawford. They can go after players they want and retain the ones they want."
Like Beane, Epstein made his mark in baseball by understanding what numbers could reveal about the value of ballplayers. But the more Epstein learns, the more he values the human side of the game, in part because it is much more difficult to understand. His trust in his scouts often trumps his trust in numbers. Epstein, for instance, won't acquire a player, professional or amateur, with good numbers unless his scouts like him.
Boston's track record in free agency, Epstein admits, is checkered. Edgar Renteria, Matt Clement, Julio Lugo, J.D. Drew, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Brad Penny all brought little bang for the $261 million outlay. (Interestingly, Epstein chose none of the above when asked to identify the mistake that most gnaws at him. He instead offered a 2006 trade for backup catcher Doug Mirabelli. Epstein was on the road with the club when catcher Josh Bard was having trouble catching knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. Instead of returning to the office and convening his assistants to assess the club's options, he adopted the fix-it-now mentality of the clubhouse and rashly traded Cla Meredith, a valuable low-cost reliever who would thrive in San Diego, along with Bard to get Mirabelli. What bothers Epstein is not the result of the trade but the knowledge that he short-circuited the process.)