A great general manager is the most valuable individual commodity in baseball. Forget an arm-whispering pitching coach, a soothsaying scout, a tactical-genius manager, a stat-nerd nonpareil, even a power-hitting, swift-running, great-glove shortstop. A general manager, you see, is the only one who can ensure a franchise has all of those things.
Theo Epstein is a great general manager, and not just because he won two World Series with the Boston Red Sox, who continued their month of horror by letting him walk to the Chicago Cubs, where he is expected to take over baseball operations. Ask his contemporaries who they most respect and Epstein's name surfaces more often than any other because of his player-development history, scouting savvy, statistical acuity and the simple fact that good people want to, and like to, work for him.
How the Red Sox let Epstein go without barricading the doors, writing him a blank check and asking what he wanted and how they could satisfy it was a testament to their ownership's ability to alienate and undervalue those who thrived in what often seems an untenable Boston bubble. First they did it to manager Terry Francona – and later leaked his marriage troubles and clumsily alleged the Red Sox's collapse had something to do with his use of painkillers. Next, certainly, will come some damning nugget about Epstein from atop 4 Yawkey Way. Maybe he was eating fried chicken and drinking beer during games with Josh Beckett(notes), Jon Lester(notes) and John Lackey(notes). Ooh! Ooh! Or he and Bill James were spending too much time playing World of Warcraft.
Epstein leaves the Red Sox how everyone leaves the Red Sox: on the river of madness that eventually sweeps up their best and brightest. Epstein can be a diva, yes, and he hasn't acquitted himself well in his last few forays into the free-agent market. But his ability to use big-market resources and streamline an organization through information and intuition proved unrivaled during his nine years with Boston and represents a massive coup for Cubs owner Tom Ricketts.
For only $20 million – $2 million more than the Cubs will pay Carlos Zambrano(notes) to go away this year – they will get five years of Epstein's services. He will overhaul the scouting and player-development departments that have dried up the Cubs' farm system. He will help implement the statistical databases that helped fuel the Red Sox's ascent and that, along with Epstein's scouting acumen, made him the Platonic ideal of GMness for Ricketts. And even if the Red Sox promote his assistant, Ben Cherington, to the GM role and block Epstein from stealing away his other trusted lieutenants (Allard Baird, Craig Shipley, Brian O'Halloran, Mike Hazen, James), Epstein will build a proper staff to do exactly what he did in Boston: leverage a financial advantage into winning.
There are no New York Yankees in the National League Central, either, no team with anywhere close to the spending power the Cubs possess. It's big now and could get bigger with the publicly funded renovations to Wrigley Field that Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel desires. Even without Wrigley 2.0, the Cubs have spent upward of $150 million on payroll, and even if Ricketts orders a payroll slashed by 20 percent, that's still more than the St. Louis Cardinals plan to spend, and significantly more than the Milwaukee Brewers, Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates ever will.
Just how Epstein approaches this offseason will give insight into how he plans to renovate a franchise in dire need – and, more important, the leeway Ricketts affords him. Almost certainly Epstein would not have left for the Cubs without promises – about payroll, about spending on the draft and in international free agency and, most important, about the dangers of meddlesome ownership. Such handcuffs can render a great GM mediocre. Epstein will win in Chicago; he won't do on the cheap, and if this partnership is to succeed, Ricketts must not change his tack.
Of course, autonomy does necessitate an enormous amount of trust on Ricketts' part, especially with Epstein's recent track record. The 2011 season was not kind to him. Outfielder Carl Crawford(notes) bombed in the first year of a $142 million deal. Starter John Lackey was even worse in the second year of an $82.5 million contract. Epstein didn't prepare for the starting rotation's year-end meltdown by acquiring a reliable starter at the trade deadline. Ultimately, the Red Sox's epic failure in September wound its way back to him, the team's architect as well as its steward.
Still, it doesn't diminish his ability to build a winning ballclub over the long haul. Five years gives Epstein plenty of time to rejigger the Cubs' practices and turn them into the well-oiled machine they should have been for years. One GM recently called the Cubs "a sleeping giant" whose awakening could come under the right person. And the right person, that GM said at the time? "Theo."
When the Cubs start contending – and they will – the same tired arguments will bubble up about how he's winning only because of the money. And to some extent, it's true: money can make winning much easier. But as these playoffs have shown, it guarantees nothing. And as the Cubs and New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers and other nine-figure-payroll messes indicate annually, sometimes the ability to spend turns into a long-term hindrance. Alfonso Soriano(notes) on Line 1.
Epstein inherits the three years and $54 million left on his deal, plus the Zambrano problem, the likely hiring of a new manager, fixing a near-bereft farm system and, oh, yeah, a pretty dreadful major league roster. On the other hand, he escapes a situation in Boston where interference run by president Larry Lucchino remained palpable to the end, he consolidates his power and he takes aim at Curse No. 2.
And while that is far from the principal reason Epstein preferred Chicago to the situation he was offered in Boston, breaking the Cubs' 103-year championship drought offers added incentive. Ending Boston's 86-year wait made him a hero there; doing the same in Chicago would make him a god. Another championship would put Epstein alongside Pat Gillick and John Schuerholz on the Mount Rushmore of greatest post-free agency general managers.
[Related: Red Sox finger-pointing officially begins]
Less than a week ago, Epstein was telling friends that he was likely to stay in Boston. In that time, something happened and the best marriage of a GM and team in the game – the hometown boy who had brought so much to the franchise that needed it – dissolved quickly. The Red Sox may not regret it. Chances are that even without Epstein they'll continue to win. With baseball's systemic inequity, it takes only a good GM to do so in Boston.
Greatness, meanwhile, heads to Chicago, where the Cubs begin anew their ascent. Epstein has an excellent young shortstop in Starlin Castro(notes), and he'll find stat nerds and a manager and scouts and a pitching coach. And from there the franchise that should be among the best annually will begin to take shape, just like the Boston Red Sox did when they handed their reins to a 28-year-old. Epstein is now older, wiser and better, the sort of commodity that can – and will – change everything.
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- Theo Epstein