Paul Sullivan: The spotlight is back on Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer — just like the old days

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer were a successful tag team of baseball executives that parted ways three-plus years ago but never really separated.

The ties that bind remain — and probably always will.

Now that Epstein is back with the Boston Red Sox organization after becoming a minority owner of Fenway Sports Group and a part-time adviser for the Red Sox, Pittsburgh Penguins and Liverpool FC, the two old chums should have plenty to talk about.

Let the texting begin.

The last time Epstein and Hoyer were publicly on display together was in 2020, when Hoyer replaced Epstein as president of the Chicago Cubs. Epstein decided to leave with one year left on his five-year, $40 million deal after building the Cubs into a world champion in five years and then watching them fail to win a playoff game over his final three seasons.

“In the first six years or so, we did some pretty epic things,” Epstein said upon his departure. “And the last couple years weren’t as impressive.”

It was the end of an era in Chicago and the start of a new one, albeit with Theo’s “bro” now in charge.

Upon his departure, Epstein wrote a letter to Cubs employees about his decision and stated that Hoyer needed some breathing room to make the organizational changes he thought were needed.

“Jed has been a loyal and impactful right-hand man, but he is his own man, with his own eyes, his own opinions, and his own leadership style,” Epstein wrote. “He does not need me watching over his shoulder for another year as we finish off a transition that in many ways has been years in the making.”

Hoyer, who had been Epstein’s wing man in Boston in the early 2000s before joining him in Chicago in 2011, decided to do things his way. He got rid of most of the star players who helped turn the franchise around, began a rebuild that he refused to label as such and last fall shockingly dumped Epstein’s choice as manager, David Ross, replacing him with Craig Counsell on a five-year, $40 million deal.

The Cubs are coming off a wild season in which they blew a wild-card spot down the stretch, and Hoyer begins his fourth season at the helm. Spring training is only 10 days away, and an impatient fan base is waiting for him to re-sign free agent Cody Bellinger to salvage what has been a relatively quiet offseason.

Boston, meanwhile, is in a tizzy over Friday’s news of the prodigal son returning to the fold following an acrimonious relationship between Epstein, then the Red Sox general manager, and owner John Henry in 2011. The Red Sox have fallen off the map in recent years with three last-place finishes since 2020, and who better than Epstein to resurrect them from the ashes?

Epstein no longer is the “boy wonder,” having turned 50 in December and getting grayer by the day. But he still brings instant credibility to an ownership group that Red Sox Nation has soured on in recent years, and he’ll always be the hometown kid who ended the curse.

The Epstein tree of front-office executives began to sprout years ago, and its branches have spread all over the game. Three are in top front-office roles — team presidents Hoyer, Jerry Dipoto of the Seattle Mariners and Scott Harris of the Detroit Tigers, and many others are general managers.

Arizona Diamondbacks GM Mike Hazen took his team to the 2023 World Series, and Harris brought in former Epstein protegee Jeff Greenberg, most recently of the Blackhawks, to become Tigers GM. Craig Breslow, the former pitcher whom Epstein hired for the Cubs front office in 2019, was named Red Sox GM over the winter and will now have his former boss watching over his shoulder.

Baseball’s “Old Boys” network of executives hiring their pals has evolved into a younger version of execs doing the same basic thing, for better or worse. I recently asked Hoyer if the Epstein family of executives was a particularly tight-knit bunch.

“There’s the Boston part of that and the Chicago part of that and some that overlap,” Hoyer said. “But there are like a handful (of executive trees in the game). The L.A.-Tampa kind of group (which includes the hires of current Los Angeles Dodgers President Andrew Friedman), the group from Cleveland (begun by current Toronto Blue Jays President Mark Shapiro) and there was the Boston-Cubs group.

“So there are some big pockets around the game. It’s easy to talk to all those people. We all had a lot of fun together. If I’m going to call and gossip with someone or check in with someone, it’s going to be someone from that (Epstein) group most likely. Trade conversations can be some ways harder and some ways easier in those groups.

“I always feel very fortunate I was able to be in the right place at the right time in Boston, going back to when I got in. There were some people that got in at the right time with the Cubs. And if you think of it, being part of winning, and being part of a good organization and certainly having Theo’s name on your resume, it’s a good thing. It is a pretty close-knit group.”

Epstein and his family left Chicago for Connecticut in summer 2022, and he famously had his picture taken lounging in the basket in the left-field bleachers at Wrigley Field in his last hurrah. Hoyer declined an invitation to join him for one last drinkfest in the bleachers, which might look unpresidential to some.

Still, you could only imagine the group text strings from Theo’s gang making the rounds Friday when the news of Epstein’s return was announced.

“Bigfoot is back.”

“Cue the midlife crisis.”

“One small step for mankind …”

So what’s next for Epstein?

Red Sox CEO and President Sam Kennedy told The Athletic that Epstein would be a “sounding board and executive coach” for Breslow and Penguins GM Kyle Dubas. The Red Sox and Penguins are in similar positions — not quite bottomed out but far, far removed from the successes of previous years.

It’s Epstein’s preferred spot — performing a makeover for a flagging franchise. He started the rebuild trend and is back doing what he does best. Fifty is a good age to try new things. If it doesn’t work, he always can go into politics when he hits 60.

“He told me, ‘This might be one of your worst or one of your best ideas,’ ” Kennedy told The Athletic of their conversation. “I eventually wore him down.”

Hoyer, meanwhile, has a ton on his plate as spring training nears. The only saving grace for Cubs fans this winter is that no one else in the National League Central spent much to improve, and the defending division champion Milwaukee Brewers seemingly waved the white flag by trading ace Corbin Burnes to the Baltimore Orioles for two prospects and a draft pick.

Either way, the spotlight on Hoyer and Epstein will be interesting to watch as the season progresses. The two should be back together on April 26-28 at Fenway Park when the Cubs travel to Boston for a series, depending on Epstein’s schedule.

Shaking the tree never gets old.