This is part one of a twelve-part series highlighting the most notable Red Sox offseason acquisitions and departures from the 2002-2003 offseason to the 2013-2014 offseason.
The 2002-2003 offseason was the first official offseason of the Theo Epstein regime. None of his acquisitions were of the blockbuster variety. However, several of the acquisitions would help set the foundation for what would transpire the following season.
First, let’s begin with a few notable players who departed the club that offseason:
Oct 24, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox former first baseman Kevin Millar catches a ball for the ceremonial first pitch with other members of the 2004 Boston Red Sox prior to game two of the MLB baseball World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
Rickey Henderson: This departure is more notable for namesake rather than performance. While Henderson put up a .721 OPS as the club’s reserve outfielder in 2002, he was far removed from the player he had been in his prime. Having recently recorded his 3,000th hit, Henderson had accomplished everything needed to assure a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection (which he was) and was 43 that season. Boston would actually NOT be his final Major League stop. The Dodgers would sign the “Man of Steal” in the middle of the 2003 season, where he put up a .627 OPS in his final run in the Majors. Five years later, Henderson was elected to the Hall of Fame, the same year as Red Sox legend Jim Rice.
Ugueth Urbina: There’s a lot of irony regarding Boston’s decision to let Urbina go following the 2002 season. Urbina had been a stable closer in 2002, recording 40 saves with a 3.00 ERA, 1.067 WHIP, and 71/20 K/BB ratio in 60 innings pitched. The bullpen for the 2003 squad would be a glaring weakness at least for the first half of that season. After landing in Texas, Urbina would be traded to the Marlins at the 2003 trade deadline for a prized first base prospect (more on him later). He would record six saves for the remainder of the season and four in the postseason as the Marlins would go on to win the World Series.
The dark cloud of losing Urbina did provide a few silver linings. The need for bullpen help required the Red Sox to trade off some redundancy to help fill the need. After that, one of the offseason signings would find his niche. The other silver lining: That notable prospect was one Adrian Gonzalez. Who knows what would’ve happened had the Marlins not dealt him for Urbina.
Now it’s time to revisit the acquisitions of the 2002-2003 offseason:
Todd Walker: As difficult as it is to imagine the 2004 club without Mark Bellhorn, I do wish Walker’s stay in Boston had lasted longer than one season. He was acquired from the Reds for the modest price of Tony Blanco and Josh Thigpen. In 144 games, Walker put up a .760 OPS with 13 home runs, 92 runs scored, and 85 RBIs. A very solid one-year investment.
Walker signed with the Cubs after the 2003 season. He was traded from the Cubs to the San Diego Padres in 2006. His final season was for the Oakland A’s in 2007.
Kevin Millar: Millar will be remembered most as the mouthpiece for the Red Sox in the 2003 (“Cowboy Up”) and 2004 (“Idiots”) seasons. He actually arrived in Boston after the Red Sox broke an unwritten rule.
Millar broke into the Majors with the then-Florida Marlins in 1998. After the 2002 season, the Marlins had an agreement to sell Millar to the Chunichi Dragons of the Japanese Central League. But in order for the sale to be completed, the player had to first pass through waivers. The Red Sox placed a claim on Millar and were awarded his services, but not before paying the Marlins the sum of money they were going to receive from the Chunichi Dragons.
Millar would put up an .820 OPS in 2003, .857 OPS in 2004, and .753 OPS in 2005 while serving as the Red Sox first baseman (with the occasional start in left or right field). It was Millar who would draw the walk against Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning of Game Four of the 2004 ALCS. Dave Roberts then replaced him as the pinch runner. And the rest is history.
Millar would depart Boston after the 2005 season and would play four more seasons with a three-year stop in Baltimore and a one-year stop in Toronto. His lack of camera-shyness has led him to a pretty nice new gig as co-host of Intentional Talk on MLB Network.
Bill Mueller: Mueller was a veteran of seven big league seasons when the Red Sox signed him in January of 2003. In his first season, Mueller would hit .326 with a .938 OPS (both would be career bests) in 146 games, good enough to win the batting title that season.
In 2004, his OPS dropped to .811, but was still a reliable bat in the lineup and solid on the field. The game against the Yankees on July 24, 2004 will always best be known more for the brawl started by Alex Rodriguez and Jason Varitek after the former was plunked by Bronson Arroyo. But Mueller would hit a walk-off home run that day off Mariano Rivera. That wouldn’t be the last time he got the best of the legendary closer.
It was during Mueller’s at-bat when Dave Roberts stole second while pinch running for Kevin Millar. Mueller would then bat Roberts in for the tying run with a line drive up the middle.
Mueller would depart the Red Sox after the 2005 season where he put up a .799 OPS. He signed with the LA Dodgers prior to the 2006 season. Sadly, Mueller would suffer a career-ending knee injury during that season and retired shortly after. He would remain involved in baseball, however. He remained with the Dodgers organization from 2007-2013 serving stints as a hitting coach, special assistant to the GM, and as a scout. This past offseason, he was hired as the Chicago Cubs hitting coach.
David Ortiz: The player who has done more to reverse the fortunes of this organization actually came to Boston as a reclamation project. Ortiz had spent parts of six
Sep 4, 2014; Bronx, NY, USA; Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz (34) gestures after his home run during the first inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports
major league seasons with the Minnesota Twins. While he put up a then-career best .839 OPS in 2002, the Twins decided to non-tender the young slugger. The Red Sox signed him several weeks later and he’s been making history ever since.
Ortiz would put up a .961 OPS in 2003 with 31 homers. He would finally get a full-time spot in the lineup after the club dealt free-swinging Shea Hillenbrand to the Arizona Diamondbacks for reliever Byung-Hyun Kim.
Ortiz was even better the following three seasons: In 2004, he put up a .983 OPS with 41 homers and 139 RBIs and led the way to that historic comeback in the ALCS and the sweep over the Cardinals in the World Series. In 2005 he would put up a 1.001 OPS with 47 and a league-leading 148 RBIs. Unfortunately voters held the DH position against him and he finished second in the MVP voting behind Alex Rodriguez. Ortiz would lead the AL in homers and RBIs in 2006, but would once again miss out on the MVP.
Since 2007, Ortiz has had three more 100 RBI seasons and is currently on pace for his fourth. He hasn’t hit fewer than 23 home runs in a season. Aside from a 60 RBI campaign in 2012 when he would rupture his Achilles after 90 games, Ortiz has never batted in less than 89.
In the 2013 World Series, Ortiz put up a line of .688/.760/1.188/1.948 en route to the club winning its third World Series in a decade and the player being awarded MVP honors.
This season, Ortiz joined a very exclusive group. After hitting his 400th home run in a Red Sox uniform, he became only the third player to hit as many in the history of the franchise. If he continues at his current pace, he should pass Carl Yastrzemski for second in club history. While he’ll likely not surpass Ted Williams for the franchise home run record, he has a very good chance at doing so on the all-time list.
Final Thoughts: Theo Epstein inherited a franchise that was creeping closer to achieving the ultimate prize. While he didn’t quite get all the pieces he needed in the 2002-2003 offseason, he did get several very important ones. While that season would end in disappointment, Epstein would follow up with one of the most memorable offseasons in club history. More on that next week…