Sometime soon the adjectives will be replaced. For the breadth of his career as Boston Red Sox general manager, Theo Epstein's name has been preceded by some variation of his youth – kid, wunderkind, prodigy, all said with good intentions, and all tinged with derision. Like being young and talented was mutually exclusive.
Epstein's wife is due with their first child in a couple weeks now, so maybe, finally, once and for all we can put to rest the hullabaloo about his age – 34 in December, by the way, and rather dry behind the ears – and start recognizing him with the appropriate title.
Best GM in baseball.
Of course, to suggest such a thing to Epstein is verboten, as public self-promotion goes against his nature. Sure, he has won two World Series in his five seasons as Red Sox GM, constructed an organization with a farm system that produces big league players like the Kenai does salmon, and left the New York Yankees huffing behind, wondering when a $200 million payroll stopped sufficing. And yet with the afterglow of the championship worn off and most of Boston's heavy offseason lifting done, Epstein won't crown the Red Sox for next season, no way.
"Just look a year from now," he said. "You might see some injuries, some poor performances. We don't think we know any more than anyone else. We're just at a good point right now."
How the Red Sox reached this point is the ultimate testament to Epstein and his lieutenants, a front office that includes a pair of contemporaries from elite schools (Jed Hoyer from Wesleyan and Ben Cherington from Amherst), two been-there-done-that scouts (Allard Baird and Craig Shipley) and the father of statistical analysis (Bill James), which gives Boston unparalleled ability to balance all sides of player development.
What, you think the Red Sox are here because of money? Oh, no. They can afford Manny Ramirez at $20 million a season and make mistakes like J.D. Drew at $15 million a pop because of their incredible revenue streams, but this group – the Jonathan Papelbon-Dustin Pedroia-Kevin Youkilis-Jon Lester-Jacoby Ellsbury-Clay Buchholz core – does not materialize like rabbit from hat.
"You start planning for a season three or four years in advance," Epstein said. "That was the case this time. The decisions you make over the course of a long period effect the upcoming season. We're always thinking about this one."
When Epstein took over the Red Sox, their farm system was ranked 28th of 30 by Baseball America. It takes time to build a minor-league foundation, and next to winning a World Series, it was chief among Epstein's goals.
Because look at where they are now. In an offseason teetering again toward insanity – really, Scott Linebrink for $19 million over four years to the Chicago White Sox? – the Red Sox have positioned themselves to avoid the free-agent market. Starter Curt Schilling re-signed for $8 million, and even if he gets the $2 million from his don't-get-fat clauses, it's way under market. Third baseman Mike Lowell turned down a reported four-year, $50 million deal from the Philadelphia Phillies to stay with Boston for three years and $37.5 million.
And just like that, Boston will return almost its entire team, plus add Buchholz, Lester and Ellsbury for full seasons.
"We're winning," Epstein said. "Players like to be with organizations that have a chance to win the World Series. They see that in our future. We're honored they have that belief and that they think it's a nice place to work.
"Some years there's more demand than there is supply. You might be witnessing some of that right now. Certainly it's a desirable position to not have to fill any holes through free agency, and that's where we're at."
Now, that doesn't mean Epstein will sit on his hands during the Winter Meetings, which start a week from today in Nashville. The best pitcher in baseball, Johan Santana, is on the trade market, and as Epstein proved when he bartered a deal for Alex Rodriguez in 2003, only to see it shot down because of a money snag, he isn't averse to risk. So is Dan Haren, the American League All-Star starter this season. And with his cache of young major-league talent and coming minor-leaguers, Epstein has the chips to get either.
However much the thought of a Santana-Josh Beckett-Daisuke Matsuzaka-Schilling-Buchholz/Lester rotation appeals to him – the best rotation since Palmer-Cuellar-McNally-Dobson? – Epstein won't sacrifice Boston's organizational principles.
"There are no untouchables," Epstein said. "If there's an opportunity to get better, we'll do it. We believe in those guys. Their value to us is legitimate. We're not eager to get rid of them."
No reason to be, not with how the Red Sox marauded through the Cleveland Indians over the final three games of the AL Championship Series and dismantled the Colorado Rockies in a four-game World Series sweep. Epstein said he's not talking with anybody about taking on Ramirez's contract – "There's nothing happening with him at all," Epstein said, "because he's happy in Boston" – and all that concerns him is winning 95 games, which, he figures, gets the Red Sox into the postseason.
With their success, the Red Sox could fall into the same trap the Yankees did, placing so much emphasis on the present that the future, even a year or two away, will be a problem solved with money. It doesn't work, a fact that sobered up the Yankees' way of doing business.
"Never prioritize one year over the future," Epstein said, a phrase of which he's rather fond. Boston has built not just a great team but a powerhouse franchise on planning and patience, the same vital characteristics that now embody Epstein, too, and prove that he really is all grown up.