Commentary

Theo Epstein has a lot on his plate

Red Sox general manager will have busy winter after disappointing season

Updated: October 4, 2010, 8:47 AM ET
By Joe McDonald | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein's offseason to-do list is filled with uncertainty.

Where does he start?

He'll get a head start on his winter's chores after the Boston Red Sox's 2010 season ended with an 8-4 victory over the New York Yankees on Sunday at Fenway Park. Boston finished third in the American League East with an 89-73 record, which was a major disappointment given the expectations heading into the season.

Epstein We'd like to rewind and start over and do 162 games over again and see how it turns out. … But that's not the way you get to do it.

-- Red Sox GM Theo Epstein

Epstein and manager Terry Francona engaged in a 35-minute postmortem after Sunday's game to discuss the season and the many decisions and challenges the organization faces this offseason. Here's a recap of some of the major points:

* GENERALLY SPEAKING: "It was a disappointment in that we didn't get where we wanted to go," Epstein said. "We didn't reach our ultimate goal of getting to the playoffs and trying to do some damage in October. That said, there is still a lot to be proud of in the way these guys played and played hard to the end and overcame a lot along the way. There are mixed feelings. We're proud of the effort and proud of some of the things we accomplished, but disappointed in the ultimate result."

* OFFSEASON PRIORITIES: As Epstein attempted to do at the trade deadline, he wants -- and needs -- to improve the bullpen. He also wants -- and needs -- to try to retain the "important players" who are free agents. He wants to make sure the Sox have a well-rounded club going into next season.

"We need to pitch and play defense with anybody in the league too. We have the potential to do so, but we were a little bit short in that area this year," Epstein said.

* MARTINEZ IS A PRIORITY: When the Red Sox acquired Victor Martinez at the trade deadline in 2009, it seemed he would be playing for a new contract since his deal would expire after 2010. After a strong finish in 2009, he produced in fine fashion this season too with a .302 average, 20 homers and 79 RBIs. Martinez missed nearly five weeks with a broken thumb on his catching hand, but after he returned, he started 61 consecutive games before sitting out Game 2 of a doubleheader on Saturday.

Martinez wants a long-term contract and has said he wants to return to Boston. Epstein sounds interested, too.

"Vic's done an unbelievable job since he's been here," Epstein said. "When we got him in a trade we knew we were getting a first-class person, someone who prioritized winning, and who is a natural hitter. I don't think we quite understood the impact he would have here. He's done a great job and we would love to see the relationship continue."

[+] EnlargeDavid Ortiz
AP Photo/Michael DwyerTheo Epstein says he's "certainly interested" in bringing David Ortiz back. The Sox hold a 2011 option, Ortiz prefers a multiyear deal.

* BIG PAPI LIVES FOR ANOTHER SEASON: David Ortiz finished the 2010 season with a .270 average to go along with 32 homers and 102 RBIs.

"Papi had a great year," Epstein said. "Again, he had a tough April for the second straight year, and because of who he is and because of the passion in which everyone follows this team, he had to take a big burden with that, a burden of expectations and questioning. He did an unbelievable job setting that to the side and getting locked in at the plate. He did, and he didn't get unlocked for about five months."

Ortiz did everything a DH should. Now the question is whether Epstein will pick up Ortiz's $12.5 million club option for 2011 or try to sign the slugger to an extended contract, which Ortiz wants.

Per organizational policy, the Red Sox take the full allotment of time prior to the deadline to pick up such options, which is three days after the final game of the World Series. Epstein said the sides will discuss the matter before then.

"We're certainly interested in having him back next year and we'll sit down and talk it through," Epstein said. "It was another great year for him."

* EVERYBODY WINS WITH BELTRE: The reason veteran third baseman Adrian Beltre inked a one-year deal with the Red Sox last winter was to prove that he could still produce at a high level. He accomplished his goal, and the Red Sox reaped the benefits. He finished with a .321 average, 28 homers and 102 RBIs. The bidding will be high for the free agent's services; will the Red Sox be in on it?

"Adrian's a really good player," Epstein said. "He did an incredible job for us this year. He was everything we could have hoped for and more. The toughness he showed, playing through some injuries and the consistency he showed offensively, and bringing his normal great defense to the table was really impressive. We're not the only ones who saw that; everyone else saw it too.

"We'll do everything we can to bring him back," added Epstein. "We'll keep the best interest of the club in mind at all times when it comes to making a decision one way or the other. He had a great year and he deserves to go out and be a free agent."

* CAPTAIN, MY CAPTAIN: It is possible Jason Varitek played his last game in a Red Sox uniform on Sunday. It's also possible he will return. Of all the unknowns this winter, the captain's situation will be one of the most intriguing.

Boston's catching situation is up in the air for next season, as Epstein acknowledged, but when Varitek was removed from the game in the top of the ninth inning on Sunday in order for the fans to give him his due, it felt like a send-off from Boston.

"It was great to see," Epstein said. "I don't think anyone deserves that kind of reception from the fans more than he does. No matter what happens going forward, he's a Red Sox more than anyone of us. He's a Red Sox. The future is uncertain. Although the warmth the fans showed, his teammates showed, may have seemed like a goodbye, it doesn't necessarily have to be that way."

* WILL THE REAL BECKETT PLEASE STAND UP: Josh Beckett dealt with a back injury in 2010 and never really got on track, this after signing a four-year contract worth $68 million in April.

The right-hander finished with a 6-6 record and a 5.78 ERA in 21 starts.

"Josh didn't have the season he was looking for, and it reminds me a little of 2006," Epstein said. "Right toward the end of that 2006 season, which was a disappointment for him, he really took responsibility for it and the last thing he said on the way out the door that year was, 'I'm going to take a look in the mirror and fix this over the winter.' That's exactly what he did, and from the first day he showed up in spring training right through the end of the 2007 season he showed it.

"I see the same look in his eye now. He's not avoiding responsibility for the year, even though there was an injury that played a critical role in the underperformance. He's taking responsibility for it. He's not dodging the questions and he's going to fix it this winter. The past is usually a good predictor of the future and the last time he had an off year he really bounced back, and that's what we're looking for again."

* WELCOME TO THE AL EAST: Veteran right-hander John Lackey won the final game of the season on Sunday to finish with a 14-11 record in his first year with the Red Sox. It wasn't exactly what the Sox had in mind when they signed him to a five-year deal worth $82.5 million.

[+] EnlargeJohn Lackey
AP Photo/Michael DwyerJohn Lackey's first season in Boston had to be considered a disappointment, but Theo Epstein saw good signs in the second half.

"To me he had a strong a second half," said Epstein. "The first half wasn't quite his best. Perhaps there were some adjustments coming to the American League East from pitching in the West with the bigger ballparks and different lineups, but he made the adjustments along the way and pitched pretty well in the second half."

With his victory on Sunday, Lackey earned his team-high 21st quality start of the season. He also finishes with a team-high 215 innings pitched, which is the most by any Red Sox starter since Tim Wakefield produced 225 1/3 in 2005. So Lackey proved his value in that department.

"He's a horse who takes the ball and gives you innings and gives you quality innings," Epstein said. "He certainly pitched the way in the second half the way we expected and we look forward to next year."

* ROLLING THE DICE: The Red Sox believe there are positive signs heading into the winter with Daisuke Matsuzaka. The right-hander had his issues again this season and finished with a 9-6 record and 4.69 ERA. It wasn't great, but Epstein was happy with the way Dice-K finished the season.

"There was a mixed bag with him," said Epstein. "There were moments of brilliance and there was some frustration along the way too. The positive is, coming off of last year when he wasn't able to maintain health and consistently take the ball, he did that this year after coming back from the injury in spring training. To look at where we were with him in March, and where we are now, we feel a lot better about it now."

* A SOLID ONE-TWO PUNCH: The Red Sox saw a pair of aces take control of the starting rotation this season in Jon Lester (19-9, 3.25) and Clay Buchholz (17-7, 2.33). Both are considered Cy Young candidates.

"They are two young, strong, athletic pitchers that went from being good young pitchers, to good pitchers, and some of the elite in the league," Francona said. "They are built to be durable and they're both going to get better. That's exciting."

* CLOSING ARGUMENT: Jonathan Papelbon finished the season with 37 saves, 8 blown saves and a 3.95 ERA. But that didn't translate into a productive season because of Papelbon's dominant success in the past. He had trouble commanding the strike zone and didn't produce the swing-and-miss velocity on a consistent basis. He also blew eight save opportunities. Epstein expects Papelbon to continue his offseason routine in preparation for spring training.

"We have confidence in him," Epstein said. "Pap didn't have the year this year that he traditionally puts up, and certainly not to the standards he set earlier in his career. He's judged against that standard and that's understandable.

"He didn't live up to that standard this year, but at the same time it's just about an impossible standard. The guy was so good for the first part of his career, he was just about perfect, and it's hard to be perfect in the American League East as a closer. He's still a really good closer, and he's still going to help us win games. He's got a little bit of work to do to get back to that elite level where he was at."

* ELLSBURY WANTED MAN: Jacoby Ellsbury was limited to 18 games because of three separate rib injuries this season. Epstein made it a point Sunday evening to make sure the message was clear to the club's talented outfielder that things should be better in 2011.

"We expect him to be healthy and be a significant part of the team, an everyday outfielder for us. If he does what he's capable of doing, an offensive catalyst, a guy who contributes not only with the bat, but also defensively and on the bases. Not let this season carry over at all, and in essence pick up where he left off in 2009 and continue his growth as a player and as a major contributor here."

* IN CLOSING: Injures were a significant factor, but Epstein and Co. were not about to blame 2010's disappointment solely on the club's depleted health. If anything, Epstein and Francona wanted to focus on the positives from the season.

"There is a lot to be proud of down there with those individual performances those guys had, and the things this team overcame," Epstein said. "We'd like to rewind and start over and do 162 games over again and see how it turns out. With some different breaks, some different health, just do it over, we feel pretty good about our chances. But that's not the way you get to do it and this is the way the 2010 Red Sox turned out. We have to live with that, move forward and try to make up for it in 2011."

Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.

Joe McDonald

Reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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