Theo Epstein became the youngest general manager in major league history when he was hired, at age 28, as GM of the Boston Red Sox. Epstein, who turned 30 one month ago, now has 14 months under his belt as GM and 11 years in professional baseball. He also has three decades of experience with the Red Sox; Epstein grew up in Brookline, Mass., within walking distance of Fenway Park. As GM, he still walks to the ballpark every day. (Hours after this interview, the Red Sox re-acquired veteran designated hitter Ellis Burks. Burks, when he came up as a rookie with the Red Sox in 1987, was patrolling center field in front of his 13-year-old future GM.) Baseball Prospectus spoke with Epstein at his office inside a snow-covered Fenway Park.
There’s a new bit of conventional wisdom that’s gaining traction in the media. It says the Oakland offense will be so bad in 2004 that they’ll have trouble besting the amped-up Angels for the division title. I should know; I myself indulged in this bit of convention in a recent column I wrote for FoxSports.com, the gracious purveyors of my primary day job.
The question I should’ve asked before pontificating on the subject at hand is this: is it actually true? Is the Oakland offense really in such desperate straits. First, let’s acknowledge is no longer a team built around its run-scoring capabilities. Ever since the Moneyball furor, some observers haven’t enjoyed pointing out that the A’s are in fact a pitching-and-defense outfit. Pointing this out is no longer breaking news, and it never really was all that subversive. It’s just true; Oakland hasn’t ranked in the top half of AL in runs scored since 2001, but they’ve ranked second and first, respectively, the last two seasons in fewest runs allowed.
Nevertheless, runs are runs, and the A’s appear poised to lose quite a few of them on the offensive side of the ledger. Consider that shortstop Miguel Tejada and catcher Ramon Hernandez are both elsewhere. Tejada, among AL shortstops, finished third in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), while Hernandez ranked fourth among AL catchers in VORP. Tejada and Hernandez also ranked second and fourth, respectively, on the team in VORP. That’s a serious hunk of production lost by the team that ranked only ninth in the loop in runs scored.
The AL Central is close enough–or rather, mediocre enough–that a small factor could make a big difference. It could be a breakout performance, a smart mid-season acquisition, or a key injury. The Twins have dealt with quite a few injuries, seeing their Redbook numbers creep up each year. Some may be the result of playing more “important” games, since the numbers suggest that poor teams have fewer injuries due to end-of-season replacements and ‘coasting.’ While any team can have a bad year injury-wise, this three-year trend is disturbing since there have been no significant changes in the park or even in the personnel. The Twins, you’ll notice, have a distinctly “green” tint here in the THR. Does this mean their injury woes have turned? Perhaps. At the very least, two of the riskier players–Eric Milton and A.J. Pierzynski–were moved, and even the riskiest of Twins aren’t terribly risky.