(UPDATED in title and text at 6:10 p.m. EST and again at 10:16 p.m.) Boston Red Sox fans throughout the world had better prepare for a new era. According to ESPNBoston.com, and other well-placed sources, after meetings today between BoSox ownership, GM Theo Epstein and Terry Francona, among other principles, the Red Sox ownership and Francona himself all agreed it would be best not to bring the latter back next year after eight seasons as manager. This means that even though it was Francona’s decision to leave Boston, Francona has been technically fired, as the Sox owners will not pick up his $4 million-plus options for 2012 and 2013 before the October 8 deadline (10 days after the regular season ends).
This is a crying shame, as Tito was the best manager in Sox history, having led the storied franchise to two World Series titles in four seasons (2004 and 2007). I can’t blame him for wanting out of the organization after he helplessly watched one of the best teams in baseball from May-August rapidly fall apart in historic fashion in September. He also probably wanted out because, as he said in his final press conference this evening, he didn’t always get “support” from the ownership. I don’t know exactly what that means, but it is maddening. They should’ve picked up his two options long ago, for starters, and if there was any issue(s) between players and Tito this year, the likes of CEO Larry Lucchino (or even Epstein) should’ve stuck up for him over them. .
Francona leaving the Sox is the players’ fault first and the front office’s fault second, including the ownership’s but especially Epstein’s, who put this year’s team together. Tito should not have been the fall guy for the September fallout, but everyone involved in today’s meeting apparently agreed the Red Sox could use “a fresh voice.” Epstein should be the fall guy, even though he was the best GM the Sox ever had and put together those same two championship teams.
To be fair, no one could’ve foreseen how awful the September Swoon would be and how terrible Carl Crawford was this past season (right until the last play of the year, which was a fairly easy ball to catch). It was easily the worst season of his career, and he’s got six more years inked with the Sox. The former star outfielder was one of the top-class free agents on the market last offseason, so Epstein was rightly praised for that move and for the big trade with San Diego for Adrian Gonzalez (where the only big tradeoff was losing highly touted pitching prospect Casey Kelly).
But lack of pitching depth (both on the active 25-man roster and in the organization as a whole) is what killed this year’s team. And it’s Epstein’s fault, along with the Sox scouting and player development departments. Anytime you have the likes of minor leaguer Kyle Weiland making important starts, like the ones he made in September (in place of injured starters like Eric Bedard), and when the Boston GM has to panic and try and (unsuccessfully) make desperate deals with the Mets and Royals for a veteran starting pitcher (Chris Capuano and Bruce Chen, respectively) at the end of the season, you know you’ve failed in this crucial department that led to two championships, the first two since 1918..
There also appeared to be a lack of clubhouse leadership, some player selfishness and “conditioning” issues with the Sox in 2011, again according to ESPNBoston.com. But it appears in this report that Epstein is blaming Tito for some of this, and that is a bunch of scapegoating bullshit (even if Epstein doesn’t see it that way). Tito, the ultimate player-friendly manager, has always let the players run the clubhouse (David Ortiz, Mike Timlin and Kevin Millar come to mind). Remember, in 2004, the “idiots” (led by Johnny Damon) ran the clubhouse all the way to the World Series, not Tito.
Sure, Francona can lay out team rules and see that they are uniformly followed (and if he’s guilty of not doing that to some extent, then fine), but only the players can truly bring themselves together as a unified group in any given season. Everyone does or should know that. Still, if Tito, a two-time-winning World Series manager couldn’t get his players—especially, as he said tonight, ones he got through to in the past—to listen to him in general during the 2011 season, that is shocking and unacceptable. The owners and Epstein now have to find out who it was that tuned out Tito and get them to shape up or ship out of Boston.
Also, there’s not much Tito (or any manager) can do about selfish players, except ask the GM to get rid of them if he can (i.e. Jay Payton in 2005). But if the selfish players include, as I suspect, a former leader like Big Papi, who bitched in August about not getting a contract extension, second-guessed Tito’s use of Alfredo Aceves as a reliever, and whined about not getting credit for an RBI, what’s Tito supposed to do about that, bench him during important games down the stretch? (I, by the way, have lost a lot of respect for Big Papi over these incidents and for not coming clean on PEDs.) And, he can’t help it if Kevin Youkilis, John Lackey, Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz and others are or get out of shape or injured as the season goes along. That issue (conditioning) is on the individual players.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for the big collapse, but if someone at the top has to pay for this with their job, again, it should be the man who brought the problem-causing. and poorly performing players to the clubhouse, Epstein. He is the one who saddled the Sox with John Lackey for five years even though he was clearly past his prime coming into last year and this year (one of the worst in Sox and MLB history for a pitcher with over 10 wins). And it was Epstein who believed in (the average) J.D. (DL) Drew and his deceitful OBP production enough to give him a five-year deal (that is thankfully completed). So the good news is that I know Drew won’t be back next year. Free agents like Ortiz and Jonathan Papelbon, I’m not so sure.
Even Epstein’s move to go after injury-prone Bedard from Seattle at the end of July after deciding to pull off the table a deal for REALLY injury-prone Oakland A’s pitcher Rich Harden had me scratching my head. Neither were smart risks. (I could go on an on about bad moves in recent years, but you get the picture). The only pitching moves Epstein made that had any lasting impact in 2011 was getting Aceves (a former Yankee) and lefty reliever Franklin Morales from Colorado. That’s it. And that’s a bad record (which just adds to his bad record of moves made in the last three seasons: Mike Cameron, Brad Penny, etc.).
So thanks to Terry Francona for the memories, but he shouldn’t have been the one to go. He could only deal with the cards that were handed to him. Tito made the right moves on the field (most of the time). His players just failed him in every way possible in September (base-running mistakes, lousy pitching early in ball games, even from aces Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, and inconsistent defense and bullpen outings from the likes of Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon).
And so for whatever reason, it just wasn’t in the cards for the Red Sox to make the 2011 playoffs—no such Sox team ever had made it after starting 0-6, which was a stat that haunted me all season long. The Sox weren’t going to go far even if they did win the AL Wild Card spot instead of the Tampa Bay Rays. In truth, the better and more balanced teams did make the eight playoff spots in both the NL and AL, and that’s the way it should be.
But if the Red Sox are to make the playoffs next year and in the near future, it should be with a new GM who can bring quality pitching back to the forefront of the organization. With the Sox now having two consecutive third place finishes to its name in the AL East, not enough starting pitching and bullpen arms to count on, not much major league-ready talent in the farm system and no playoff series wins since 2008, I no longer believe in Theo Epstein’s ability to build a championship organization in Boston.