As Jay Jaffe and I were making our way back from Washington, DC this morning, Jay read the news of Nomar Garciaparra’s retirement. We fell into discussing notable moments in the shortstop’s career that we’d like to remember. Jay mentioned an on-field moment that I’m sure he’ll share with you, whereas the first thing that came to mind for me really wasn’t one of Nomar’s profiles in courage, but Theo Epstein’s: the tremendous risk that the young GM took on July 31, 2004, when he traded one of the most popular players in recent franchise history while in the middle of a pennant race.
As the Red Sox drew nearer to the trading deadline, they were forced to confront the possibility that Garciaparra, sullenly playing out (and just as often sitting out) the last year of his contract, had changed from indispensable star into an albatross who just might prevent them from reaching the post-season. It was the kind of decision that one would normally like to take one’s time with, say a good six months or so of solid ruminating someplace quiet. The Red Sox had only days to come to grips with the situation.
The deal done, the howling began. Red Sox Nation wailed and sat shiva. The analysis community bled through their pores. Though Epstein offered defensive considerations as his prime motivation, analysts conditioned to revere offense over defense weren’t buying it. As Baseball Prospectus’s own Joe Sheehan stated, “I don’t think that the Sox are a better team today than they were Friday (before the deal)… I think they made the trade not because it makes them better, but because they didn’t have it in them to stand up to Garciaparra… .This trade happened because Garciaparra wasn’t going to come out of his full pout until he was dealt or filed for free agency.” Sheehan went on to observe, “The Sox are a poor defensive team, and it’s hurt them so much that they’re sixth in the league in runs allowed. How many fewer runs should the Red Sox give up?”
Epstein had taken a calculated risk, flaunting the conventions of the analysis that had sustained him in the past. In effect, the trade argued that the mind game might need to yield now and then to instinct. Still, he knew that the outcome could be as damning for him as the Larry Andersen-for-Jeff Bagwell trade had been for Lou Gorman, or the inflated expectations placed on Rudy Pemberton had been for Dan Duquette. Epstein wouldn’t have to wait long to find. The wisdom of the move might be debated forever, but the only proof that really mattered would be what happened on the field in the next two months.
There have been very few times when a team has improved itself by trading a star, but credit Epstein with recognizing that his team might just be the rare one that qualified. Nomar had been a great player, particularly from 1998-2000, and by 2004 he was still very good, but with growing flaws. How many GMs would have made that trade? How many ownerships would have let him do it? Garciaparra did many wonderful things on the ballfield, but the lesson in leadership provided by Epstein on July 31 will have more resonance in history than anything Nomah! did with a bat or glove.