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As Sox Say Goodbye to Epstein, Questions of the Future Abound

By Yong-yi Zhu
ASSOCIATE SPORTS EDITOR

The most instrumental person in the Red Sox 2004 playoff run was not Terry Francona, Curt Schilling or Manny Ramirez. It was Theo Epstein.

The man that traded away Mr. Red Sox, Nomar Garciaparra, brought in Curt Schilling and his bloody sock, and nixed the Alex Rodriguez deal only to find a better fit with Orlando Cabrera, is now a part of the Red Sox past.

In a surprise move, just days after he negotiated a new contract, Epstein resigned.

But how much difference can a General Manager make? Was he really responsible for the World Championship?

It’s clear Epstein played a large part in 2004, putting the pieces of the puzzle together before and during the season. He even made several moves that were not popular among fans at the time, but in the end paid off.

The first unpopular but fruitful acquisition was Keith Foulke. Anyone who’s read “Moneyball” by Michael Lewis knows not to buy even a good closer at a high price. But because closer by committee didn’t work for the Red Sox the year before, Epstein went out and acquired Foulke, who stabilized the Red Sox bullpen and had a spectacular postseason.

Another move that was highly criticized was abandoning the pursuit of Alex Rodriguez. Fans were sure that A-Rod would have guaranteed a Red Sox World Championship. The problem was his contract. Epstein didn’t feel confident giving the Texas Rangers all the money they were asking. In the end, the Yankees got A-Rod, but the Red Sox got the World Series, in part because they had the extra money they would have spent on Rodriguez.

The final questionable move was the trade of Nomar to the Cubs. He was at the center of the organization for years and very popular in Boston. Epstein, however, didn’t give a hoot what the rest of New England felt. He sent Nomar packing and his replacement Orlando Cabrera worked just fine.

It’s true that Epstein had a larger budget than anyone else in the business next to Brian Cashman, but that doesn’t take away from what he accomplished. Theo spent the money the right way, and that’s why the Red Sox are now a success, instead of a constant underdog.

So what will the Red Sox do without Theo? The most critical part of the off-season is at hand. Ben Cherington, Jed Hoyer, Peter Woodfork and Craig Shipley, former assistants, will take over for Epstein in the meantime. The Red Sox have assembled this team to represent them in the general manager meetings this winter.

Theo’s departure came at the worst time possible for Boston, as they have no leadership during what will be a crucial offseason. Coming off a divisional loss to the Yankees and a playoff loss to the Angels, the Sox have a summer of change ahead.

First and foremost, the Sox need to figure out Manny Ramirez. Does he really want to leave or is it just a negotiating stance? How can they possibly sign a contract of Manny’s size now that Alex Rodriguez may no longer be on the Yankees’ side of the equation.

One option is that they could put Manny on waivers again, but that means losing a player of his caliber without getting anything back. They probably won’t just let Manny go because there are fewer free agents to pursue this time around.

They also need to address the problem with Keith Foulke. Is he going to be a healthy closer? If not, what are their other options? Mike Timlin is not a natural closer. There may be a couple of free agents out there, or they could make a trade, but it’s tough to find a reliable closer of Foulke’s caliber these days. Perhaps they can convert Jonathan Papelbon to their regular closer, but he’s young and will go through rough stretches. Can the Red Sox and their fans bear that?

The last problem may be the easiest to deal with: they need another starting pitcher. The Sox saw how much they had to rely on Tim Wakefield down the stretch. Thank goodness he throws a knuckball and can go on short rest often, or else they would have had major problems. A.J. Burnett is a possibility, assuming he wants to leave south Florida.

One thing is clear, though: the Sox are going to have a tough off season. They need to get their act together, hire a GM and continue on their quest for another World Championship. Paul Depodesta, ex-GM of the LA Dodgers and a Harvard grad, will fit right into Theo’s role and is probably atop the short list.