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October 17, 2011

Future Shock

The Epstein Holdup

by Kevin Goldstein

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You like chickens? You like counting them before they hatch? Well welcome to Chicago, where such endeavors have turned a public relations boon into a potential nightmare.

Throughout much of September, the Cubs search for a new general manager following the dismissal of Jim Hendry was a story for what a non-story it was. The Cubs new owner, Tom Ricketts, promised a stealth search and certainly honored that by simply not talking to anyone. It forced many questions about Ricketts and the influence of team president Crane Kenney, but in retrospect, the club was simply waiting for their top target to become available. The Cubs reportedly covered their bases by talking to potential candidates such as Dan Evans and Josh Byrnes, but when the Red Sox gave Ricketts the gift of a September collapse, the Cubs pounced, getting a deal done by the end of the first round of the playoffs. Epstein surprised much of the industry by agreeing to terms with the Cubs, much of it because of what he'd be leaving: a franchise that has finished third in each of the last two years and seems to be reacting to it with an unprecedented scorched earth policy. “I was just surprised to see him want to go out like that,” said one insider.

This is where things get complicated, as while the Cubs may have a deal done with Epstein, that's not the only deal to be made. With one year remaining on his contract, Epstein can't move to the Midwest without the two teams working out a compensation arrangement. Basically, the Red Sox need to trade Epstein to the Cubs in order for him to become the team's next general manager.

So now, nearly a week since news of a deal became public, there's been no official press release, no press conference, no confirmation that it really was Theo at the Starbucks in Lincoln Park. Multiple reports have compensation talks between the two organizations at a standstill, but what is being missed is the reason why. This isn't over what the Red Sox get back in compensation for Theo going as much as it's over the organization getting compensated for their anger while getting the last word in.

Make no mistake, the Red Sox have the leverage here simply by holding the most desirable asset in the negotiation. That's business 101. Adding to the difficulty for the Cubs is that Ricketts has now wasted more than a week with the promise of a new savior of a general manager, yet in reality, he doesn't have him in the fold.

Theo is a wonderfully talented general manager, but the Red Sox lose little here. Ben Cherington, one of the brightest candidates for the role in all of baseball, is set to become the new general manager with the Red Sox, and the people and processes there are still in place. The Cubs are the team with no general manager and a World Series about to start, during which time they cannot announce a hiring. The Cubs are twisting in the wind here while the Red Sox have already all but moved on. Of course they still want Epstein as their general manager, but they're also resigned to the fact that it's just not in the cards, while knowing that the Cubs have put all of their eggs in this particular basket without looking at the bill.

Making things more difficult for the Cubs is who Ricketts is staring down across the virtual table. Red Sox team president Larry Luchino is, to put it kindly, an intense individual, and his clashes with Theo are generally seen in the industry as one of Epstein's primary reasons for bolting. With the Red Sox blowing a playoff slot, this negotiation is his World Series, and he's not exactly known for blinking.

This is going to get done. Compensation will get figured out, press conferences will take place, and Cubs fans will get excited about their future. I keep saying that, but with each day that we wait, my confidence wanes. Not on any extreme level but at least to the point where instead of acting like this is a sure thing, it simply seems highly probable. Negotiations last week were one thing; negotiations with 48 hours to go before the Cubs have to wait another week for an announcement? Something entirely different, especially with one source close to talks on Sunday classifying Boston requests as “ridiculous combinations.”

With both League Championship Series ending at six games, these talks suddenly gain a little more of the spotlight until Wednesday, which could end with even more confusion in a series of events that seem more choreographed by the Marx Brothers than experienced baseball executives.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

Related Content:  Cubs,  Ricketts

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