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October 12, 2011
Curse to Curse
With reports out of Boston that Theo Epstein and the Cubs have agreed to a five-year deal, I thought now would be a good moment to consider what Epstein to Chicago would mean. This, of course, is not official until the Cubs and Red Sox work out an agreement to let Epstein leave with a year still remaining on his contract. And as will be pointed out repeatedly, Epstein has his current job because Billy Beane changed his mind after agreeing to be the Red Sox general manager. But it’s far enough along to make it worthwhile, I think, to clear the air on some things.
The easier question to answer is what this means for the Red Sox. Despite some people pining for a repeat of the Beane-to-Boston scenario, Ben Cherington is the guy that’s going to be the GM if Epstein leaves. Cherington is a well-regarded GM candidate throughout the industry who has been a key component of the Red Sox front office during Epstein’s tenure. Cherington will inherit one of the best baseball operations staffs in the game, as well as a roster that, despite a historic collapse, still won 90 games and doesn’t need a big overhaul to make the playoffs next year. His first priority will be getting a new field manager, and that might be fortuitous timing for him, as it may let him very quickly put his stamp on the team.
This isn’t to suggest that there will be no changes at all in Boston, although it’s hard to say yet what the changes will be. But it is to say there will be no turmoil; the Red Sox will keep running smoothly through this transition, and changes will be subtle at first—perhaps imperceptibly to people outside the organization itself.
The Cubs front office, however, will be shaken up substantially by this hiring, and by all accounts it needs to be. The Cubs have had one of the smallest front office staffs in the industry, and plans to build new office spaces to accommodate a growth in staff have stalled for years. The last time the Cubs team underwent a major roster overhaul, general manager Jim Hendry had to decide to pull his advanced scouts for the end of the season to have them scout potential acquisitions. Upon taking over as Cubs chairman, Tom Ricketts hired Ari Kaplan to serve as the team’s statistical analysis manager, but that doesn’t give the Cubs anything like what Boston has, with heavy hitters like Tom Tippett and Bill James available to give the team insight. (And no, I’m not giving you a link for Bill James.)
So Cubs fans need to significantly temper their optimism here; Epstein has his work cut out for him in building his new front office, and he’s going to have to start largely from scratch, as any agreement that lets him leave Boston for Chicago is likely to prohibit him from bringing key personnel with him.
Epstein is going to be taking on greater responsibility in Chicago than he had in Boston, where he famously left the team for a while in 2005 due to clashes with team CEO Larry Lucchino. Epstein will have a freer hand in Chicago, reporting directly to the Ricketts' without having to go through an intermediary. (Former Chicago Tribune executive Crane Kenney is likely to stay on as club president to help the Ricketts family with their plan to renovate Wrigley and other business matters but will have no oversight on the baseball operations of the team.)
Is that a good thing? It likely is for Epstein, which is presumably a big factor in his decision to take the position the Cubs are offering. It does mean that Epstein is taking on larger responsibilities, though, and nobody can be certain it’s going to work out in Chicago as well as it did within the constraints of the Red Sox front office. The Cubs have nothing to lose by gambling on this, of course—they don’t have a Larry Lucchino around, and letting Crane Kenney fill that role would be a big mistake.
The other thing Cubs fans need to be clear on is that Epstein’s new job will have a lot more challenges than his old one out of the gate. He’ll be trading in huge contracts for a left fielder and fifth starter for… huge contracts for a left fielder and fifth starter. And while picking between Carl Crawford and John Lackey versus Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano might be a wash, the rest of the rosters are no contest. Boston is a team that stumbled at the end of 2011, but the Cubs were a team that stumbled the whole season. (Kevin Goldstein has a full roster analysis for the Cubs, and it ain’t rosey in the short term.) It’s also possible that Epstein is Cherington’s chief competitor in hiring a new field manager, as incumbent Mike Quade is imminently expendable. There’s a lot on his plate at the beginning, and despite playing in an NL Central that’s weaker than the AL East that Epstein is used to competing against, the odds of a one-year turnaround are slim at best.
Cubs fans who think an Epstein hire is a harbringer of an Albert Pujols signing may want to temper those hopes as well; Epstein’s approach to running a team focuses heavily on player development (which is what the Cubs said they were looking for at the onset of their GM search). Now he’s very clearly hired some big-ticket free agents in Boston, and the Cubs can support a sizable payroll as well, but the Cubs aren’t going to be able to simply spend their way out of the hole they’re in right now, and they may well decide to pass on the expensive free agents this year.
If I sound pessimistic, it’s because I’m trying to temper the optimism, and there’s a lot of it flying around right now for Cubs fans. As well there should be—the Cubs made promises at the start of their GM hunt: it would be quiet, it would focus on player development, and it would give the Cubs a stronger grounding in analytics (read: sabermetrics) than it’s had previously. Getting Epstein, in the fashion they are going about it, would resoundingly check all those boxes. That’s something Cubs fans can cheer about.