Boston Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein acknowledged on Thursday that shortcomings in the run prevention department were the biggest reason why his team won't be playing postseason baseball, but also said he thought the Red Sox were "pretty close" to getting back to a championship level moving forward.
"We ended up being what we thought offensively and not what we wanted to be pitching and defense-wise, and that's probably why we are where we are," Epstein said during an interview with Boston sports radio station WEEI.
Epstein called Boston's run prevention struggles "just not acceptable". That weakness stands out even more when you consider that it was billed as a strength heading into the season.
"If you're looking for one area of the club, that's really it," Epstein said. "We didn't pitch like we wanted to, we didn't play defense like we wanted to, and we allowed our opponents to just score way too much."
Specifically, Epstein pointed to the bullpen (4.35 ERA, ranked 12th of 14 AL teams) as the biggest flaw on this Red Sox team, saying he has to "completely fix" the relief corps this offseason. The GM also reiterated that he attempted to bolster the bullpen at the trade deadline but the price was just too high.
"I would have loved to have made a trade for a reliever," Epstein said. "I feel bad. I feel like we didn't get it done. I said that on July 31 and it ended up being a factor and cost us. But not for lack of effort."
Epstein acknowledged that the Red Sox were close to acquiring reliever Kerry Wood at the deadline, but ultimately got outbid by the Yankees.
"That was an important decision," Epstein said. "We scouted [Wood] on rehab, we liked what we saw. He was available last minute at the deadline ... and we put in what I thought was a pretty aggressive financial bid for him and we were outbid by the Yankees when they were willing to take on just a little bit more of his salary. It ended up being a great move for them and cost us."
Epstein called 2010 a "tough year" for closer Jonathan Papelbon, who has blown eight saves and is on pace to have the highest ERA of his career (4.02).
"It wasn't his best year," Epstein said. "Do we still consider him a very good closer, someone who capable of helping us win a lot of games? Absolutely. He's under club control for one more year, and we certainly hope that he can perform again as he did early in his career. But at the same time we understand that's an impossible standard. You're talking about someone who for a couple of years there was near perfect. This year he certainly wasn't perfect. We just expect him going forward to be really good and make some adjustments and make some improvements and I think he's going to do that."
The bullpen certainly wasn't the only area of weakness for the Red Sox. Outside of Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, Red Sox starters, through Wednesday, have a 4.99 ERA. Much of the blame for that high number can be placed on the shoulders of Josh Beckett (5.78 ERA) and John Lackey (4.47 ERA), who heading into the season signed long-term deals worth $150.5 million.
Epstein didn't waver when asked what he expected out of his high-priced duo next season and beyond.
"To be top of the rotation type guys and pitch up to previous levels," Epstein said. "Those are still my expectations for those guys going forward."
On Beckett, Epstein placed at least part of the blame for his woes on the back injury that cost him nearly a dozen starts.
"The [back] injury really cost him," Epstein said. "It's hard to say how much it cost his performance before he went down and then coming back he clearly wasn't himself all year.
"He's been very stand-up about it. He's taken a hard look at his performance, taken accountability for it, which is an important first step. Last time he had this type of season ... was 2006. The last thing he said to me going out the door at the end of the 2006 season was 'I'm going to fix this this winter.' He came back and had a great 2007. He's showing a lot of the same tendencies right now."
Epstein called Lackey's first season in Boston a "mixed bag".
"He did some good things," Epstein said. "He's leading our club in innings pitched, he's tied for the club lead in quality starts. But that said there was definitely an adjustment period for him. The first half of the season in particular he didn't pitch his best baseball. He's had a pretty good second half, starting to pitch much better of late."
The performance of the offense (ranked second in baseball) has probably been the biggest positive of the season for the Red Sox despite a spate of injuries that saw, among others, key players like Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia go down. Still, with the futures of middle-of-the-order hitters David Ortiz (a $12.5 million team option), Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre (free agents) up in the air, the lineup could have a very different look next season. Epstein would not address the contract status of Ortiz, Martinez and Beltre, saying it was in the best interest of both the team and players to keep those matters private.
Despite the uncertainty, Epstein was confident in reloading for 2011.
"I think this offseason presents us with a lot of challenges but at the same time it presents us with a lot of opportunities. You have to sort of be reasonable about everything. In a year that ends like this, sometimes there's a tendency to look at all the issues and all the problems, and you think that you're nowhere close to a championship team. Certainly there are elements to a team that are close to championship caliber.
"We have to completely fix the bullpen, we do have a lot of important position players eligible for free agency. We're going to have to keep those guys or replace them, or some combination thereof. You can't let the way things happened this year cloud your judgment about what you have.
"We had one of the best two offenses in baseball this year. We had a starting staff coming into the year that we expected, and just about every baseball person expected, to be if not the best in baseball then one of the two or three best in baseball, some good things happened on that starting staff -- the continuation of Jon Lester's dominance, the Clay Buchholz emergence -- but clearly there were some other issues ... we have room for improvement on that starting staff as well.
"I do think there are some foundational pieces in place. I think we have some young players who are going to contribute to the club next year -- the [Jed] Lowries, [Felix] Doubronts, [Jarrod] Saltalamacchias, maybe [Ryan] Kalish. And then another wave coming behind them, possibly 2012, the [Casey] Kelleys, [Jose] Iglesiases, [Anthony] Rizzos, Lars [Andersons], bullpen arms, young catchers.
"Those pieces, combined with the strong nucleus that we have -- many of whom weren't available for most of the year but will be next year, the Youkilises, the Pedroias of the world -- combined with what we do this winter, either retaining some of our best players or perhaps bringing in some talent from outside the organization if we don't retain those guys, I think adds up to an organization that's in really good position and not far away from a championship at all.
"In fact, we could very well win one next year and that's the goal."