When Theo Epstein took over the Boston Red Sox in November 2002, the franchise was coming off of a 93-win season in which they missed the playoffs thanks to a 99-win -- and eventual World Championship-winning -- Angels team that took Wild Card honors. Boston had used Vice President of Baseball Operations Mike Port as acting general manager from February through November of the 2002 season, but prior to that, Dan Duquette, who started the job in 1994, was in charge. His was the roster that Epstein inherited: the major contracts and core of a championship-caliber team, his doing -- the lack of major-league-ready help in the minors, as well.
While Epstein finds himself in a familiar situation to that now that he's headed to the Chicago Cubs -- a city without a championship in seemingly forever, a farm system with some high points, but not enough, and a big league roster with big contracts and names, but not all of the pieces -- Ben Cherington, his successor in Boston, takes control of an organization that has already benefited from Theo's handiwork. Nine years of it, in fact, enough time to win five Wild Cards, an AL East title, and two World Series.
While the end of the 2011 season and one of the worst collapses in the history of baseball have tarnished what had otherwise been a stellar year, there is still much to love about the Red Sox roster and farm, even if it's hard to see it through the lens of blind rage. Cherington is taking over for the roster that bombed in September, sure, but he's also taking over a system he helped to build alongside Epstein for the last nine years -- that's a better situation to be in than the one Theo was tasked to fix when he came on the job back in 2002.
What the 2003 Red Sox needed were a few moves to fill out a roster and complement the supremely talented core in place. It's not hard to envision a scenario where that 93-win team would have done more had Tony Clark (.207/.265/.291) not spent half the season at first base, or if Jose Offerman (.232/.325/.325) didn't have to be replaced by Rey Sanchez (.286/.318/.345 -- and remember, this is when offensive levels were much higher than they are today), or they had an actual fifth starter they could rely on, rather than a hybrid Casey Wakefield (or Tim Fossum, if you're into that sort of thing) as swingmen throughout the year. It was the little things that needed attention.
Epstein famously fixed those little things with low-cost, high-reward acquisitions like Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, Todd Walker (and then Mark Bellhorn), and, of course, David Ortiz, partially because the farm had nothing to offer to solve any of their problems, and partially because all of those players represented much better possibilities than what they already had or could get elsewhere. That team, a combination of Duquette's core and Epstein's ingenuity, made it to the ALCS in 2003, then won the World Series in 2004. After that, Epstein and people like Cherington set about rebuilding the infrastructure for selecting and grooming players to go be drafted, go through the minors, and end up in a Red Sox uniform -- it was a "scouting and player development machine," in Epstein's words. If you care to see the fruits of that labor, you can look at the 2007 World Series roster, which featured the likes of Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester (drafted under Port), and Jonathan Papelbon complementing the higher-priced acquisitions of the Epstein era (and the remnants of Duquette's, in the form of Manny Ramirez and Tim Wakefield).
Cherington doesn't have to go through all of that, though he does have to make decisions about Papelbon, Ortiz, and others. The system he helped to build, both while working as director of player development and as assistant GM under Epstein, is still in place. The emphasis on building the farm, if anything, might be stronger than ever -- Cherington got his start as an advance scout, and his entire job used to be about developing the next big thing in-house. The core of talent the Red Sox have at the major league level is even more impressive than the one that Epstein inherited: sure, there's no Pedro Martinez in the rotation, or an all-world shortstop, but top-to-bottom, the lineup is loaded, and the pitching staff, for all its problems with injuries in 2011, still has the likes of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz in it, three starters any team outside of Philadelphia would likely kill for if they thought they could get away with it.
The upper levels of the farm system are lacking in top prospects, but they aren't barren. Lefty Felix Doubront is out of options and will contribute in Boston next season, while Kyle Weiland might get the chance he deserves to pitch out of the bullpen, rather than as a member of a patched together rotation. Alex Wilson, who finished the year at Pawtucket, could be a spot-starter or bullpen piece in the second half of 2012. Will Middlebrooks isn't the third basemen of 2012, but he might be at the hot corner in 2013. Ryan Lavarnway, who kept Boston's 2011 season alive at the 11th hour, might even split playing time at catcher next year.
A team missed the playoffs by a single game is what Ben Cherington is inheriting, along with a quality farm system. He's also been part of a process that is not only tested, but wildly successful in Boston, to the point where 179 wins over two years is considered failure. Epstein might be gone to Chicago now, but had all of this been in place when he got to town initially, he wouldn't have been nearly as necessary. Let's not give Epstein all the credit, though: Cherington was a part of that, and now he gets to oversee it.