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Friday

14

October 2011

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COMMENTS

Welcome to the Theocracy

Written by , Posted in General

Late Tuesday afternoon, semi-confirmed rumors (are there any other kind?) started to swirl that the Cubs had reached a basic agreement with the Red Sox to hire away from Boston one of the youngest and most-successful GM’s in baseball, Theo Epstein.  At the time, I was preparing a post for today that would broadly survey the careers of some key candidates in Tom Ricketts’ search for a new Cubs GM (Epstein included).  I’ve never been so happy to throw away an idea.

Try to mentally rewind to late August.  Remember some of the names that were thrown around in the days after Jim Hendry was fired?  Epstein was part of the conversation from the beginning, but with another year on his contract and the Red Sox sitting in good shape for the playoffs, he was not considered one of the prime candidates for the job.  He seemed firmly planted in the “wishful thinking” category, along with Brian Cashman, Andrew Freidman, and Pat Gillick.  In fact, he was perhaps the least-likely of those elite possibilities.

So you’ll forgive me if I feel the need to extend a hearty, long-distance pat on the back to Tom Ricketts* for accomplishing the near-impossible, or at least the highly-improbable.

*Just a side note about Ricketts–for more than a year now, it’s been hard to get a good read on what kind of owner he will be.  It was no surprise when he took over the team and didn’t immediately conduct a scorched-earth campaign to clean house–it’s clear he’s not Jerry Jones, Mark Cuban, or a Steinbrenner.  But his inactivity since those early days has looked to many–including me–like complacence.  What’s more, his defense of Hendry and Quade, and his quote about injuries being the only thing that held this team back from contention made him sound like a buffoon, and did not inspire any confidence in his fanbase.  I got a sense there might be more to him the day he fired Hendry, but it wasn’t until this week that I felt like he really might be showing his true colors as an owner.  What’s clear now is that he did really want to get an inside look at what was right and wrong with the team, and it seems like he’s taken his time not just to sit and watch, but to formulate a plan for success.  We’ll have to wait to see what the next step is, or if it will work.  For now it’s just reassuring to know the Cubs are heading in a new direction, and that Ricketts is committed to it.

And certainly it wasn’t all Ricketts’ doing–he had to rely on the alignment of stars well beyond his control to make this dream a reality.  The historic collapse of the playoff-bound Red Sox, the mysterious character assassination of beloved manager Terry Francona, the allegations of clubhouse antics and division, and the rampant overspending in Boston all conspired to bring Red Sox owner John Henry and team president Larry Lucchino to the tipping point where they were willing to part ways with GM-ing wonderboy and noted gorilla suit enthusiast Epstein.

Take it as a sign of Red Sox Nation’s speedy transformation from long-suffering loyalists to entitled front-runners that Epstein’s departure was met with anything less than weeping and gnashing of teeth.  After all, this is the guy who led Boston out of the perennial also-ran wilderness and into the promised land of two** world championships and routine playoff contention.  That he left town with little more than a collective shrug of the shoulders from Boston fans might be at least part of the reason he was ready for a change of scenery in the first place.

**Some naysayers will say “Nay,” pointing out that Epstein inherited a contending team that included Manny Ramirez and Pedro Martinez, and that his World Series victory is more a credit to the front office he replaced.  And while it’s true that he had many advantages in his first years with the Red Sox that he won’t enjoy with the Cubs, he did return to win another World Series with an overhauled team in 2007.  I don’t expect a dramatic one or two year turnaround, but I think it’s clear he knows how to build and sustain a winner.

Or perhaps Epstein just wanted a new challenge?  It’s hard to say for sure what could attract a guy like him–a Boston native who grew up in the shadow of Fenway Park and achieved the highest level of success in what may well have been his dream job–away from the deep pockets of the Red Sox and the fierce competition of the AL East.

What is sure is that the Cubs present some different challenges for Epstein.  He’s essentially starting from scratch, attempting to build a winning franchise from the ground up.  Matt Garza looks to be the anchor of our pitching staff moving forward, but he’s not Pedro Martinez.  And aside from budding superstar Starlin Castro, Epstein’s inheriting a collection of overpaid veterans and under-skilled role players.

The minor league cupboards might be just as bare.  To my knowledge, there aren’t many future Kevin Youkilises and Jon Lesters in the Cubs’ farm system.  Is it possible?  Certainly, but it’s hard to tell right now.  Player development has not been the Cubs’ forte since, well, ever, so it will take more than Epstein’s presence alone to get the prospect pipeline moving in the right direction.  Fortunately, Ricketts seems willing to pour additional funds and resources into the farm system.

But player development has been only one aspect of Epstein’s success in Boston.  He’s also clearly not afraid to spend big on the free agent market.  Many skeptical fans and sportswriters have already pointed out that Epstein’s free-spending ways with the Red Sox mirror some of the bad contracts handed out by Jim Hendry in the last days of the Tribune’s ownership.  In fact, you could make a case that Epstein’s signed far more bad deals than Hendry ever did, and you’d probably be right.

But I do see one significant difference between Epstein’s circumstances in Boston and the situation he’ll face here in Chicago: the absence of the Yankees.  When Theo said goodbye to the Red Sox earlier this week, he also said goodbye to the constant arms race of the AL East.  He won’t have the same pressure in Chicago to keep pace with the Yankees spending, and he won’t need to throw money at players to keep them out of the Bronx***.  I expect Epstein to be a little more selective with how and where he spends big, now that he’s not trying to operate in the shadow of the Steinbrenners.  Neither the Cardinals, Brewers, or Reds can compete with the money the Cubs can spend if they want to–and as long as they spend it wisely, I’m on board.  All that remains to be seen is how financially committed Tom Ricketts is to winning.

***The signings of Daisuke Matsuzaka and Carl Crawford in particular always seemed to me to be as much about bringing those guys to Boston as they were about keeping them away from the Yankees–which seems to be what you have to do to compete in the AL East (unless you’re the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and you draft high for more than a decade straight).

And it’s still too early to say what Epstein’s responsibilities will even be.  The initial reports were that he was coming over to the Cubs for a position higher in the organization than the one he had in Boston.  That might mean he will be the President of Baseball Operations, or something similar, and hire his own GM beneath him–possibly Josh Byrnes, Rick Hahn, or someone out of the Boston organization.

But none of that matters until the Cubs have actually signed Epstein to his reported five year, $15M contract.  The main holdup right now is over compensation for Boston.  In return, the Cubs want to give them cash; the Red Sox apparently want players, too (there’s a rumor that one of the players they covet is the reportedly untradeable Jeff Baker, which cracks me up for some reason).  Also still undecided is who Epstein will be allowed to bring with him to Chicago from his front office staff in Boston.  And there’s speculation that both teams are getting pressure from the MLB to slow things down so that Epstein’s official announcement and press conference can happen on a day without a playoff game–possibly Monday or Tuesday.

For now it appears things are in a holding pattern until there’s an official announcement from either team.  In the meantime, I’ve linked some key stories an articles below, and I’ll continue to update the links throughout the weekend as more news and details become available.

  • What do we know about Epstein away from baseball?  He’s a dad.  He’s a philanthropist.  He’s reportedly a hard worker and a genius–which is good news, because the Cubs need both.  And he’s a fan of Pearl Jam and fake mustaches, and reportedly followed them on a tour through South America during his brief hiatus from the Red Sox in 2005.  Maybe he can work it out with Eddie Vedder to play “Someday We’ll Go All the Way” at Wrigley Field after losses?  Maybe not.
  • Dave Kaplan tells the inside story on what Ricketts did and said to bring Epstein to Chicago.  Specifically, it sounds like some of Tom Ricketts’ recent moves–and the substantial money he committed to his draft picks this year, in particular–convinced Epstein that the Cubs’ owners are willing to do whatever it takes to win.
  • ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski explains the cautious optimism felt by many Cubs fans, and asks some good questions about what we can and should expect from Epstein.
  • The Chicago Tribune’s David Haugh with some thoughts on what Epstein’s hiring says about Ricketts’ plans for the team.
  • Also from the Tribune, Phil Rogers takes a look at what led to the Red Sox/Epstein divorce, and why Boston might regret it.
  • In case you missed it yesterday, our own Dustin Godsey wrote up a nice to-do list for the Cubs next GM.
  • And here’s a link to Cubs page on MLBTradeRumors.com, where you can usually find he latest rumblings on what’s going on with the Epstein situation, and the team in general.
  • UPDATE: Red Sox owner John Henry made a surprise appearance on a Boston sports radio station today to discuss a variety of topics concerning the state of the Red Sox.  His statements about Theo Epstein, which you can read in part here, made it clear Epstein has parted ways with the team.  In fact, Henry and team president Larry Lucchino were already talking in broad terms about parting with Epstein at least a day before the rumors of him joining the Cubs caught fire.  Why then is the transition still stalled?  Despite the fact that they’re already moving on without him–including a semi-announcement that team VP Ben Cherington is going to be the new GM–they still think they’re owed something in return for releasing Epstein from his contract.  They might just be dragging out the inevitable, or they might steadfastly believe they deserve a combination of prospects and cash in return for a GM they seemed set to fire earlier this week.  Either way, expect it to take into early next week before there’s any official announcement from the Cubs.
  • UPDATE:  Dave Kaplan with some further insight into the holdup on Epstein–essentially, Boston is dragging this out to make things difficult for Epstein.  The short article includes some scathing quotes about Larry Lucchino from an unnamed baseball executive.
  • Buddy

    Nice work on the article J.J. I can’t imagine for even one second that Jeff Baker is actaully impacting these negotiations. If that’s the player the Red Sox want as compensation, the deal would be done alredy.

  • Buddy

    I meant “already.” Crap!

  • BLPCB

    How about both of us get rid of some garbage in the deal? Boston gets Bozo and Soriano, we get Lackey.

  • Buddy

    I’m sure the Cubs would jump at that idea BLPCB. The Red Sox, not so much.

  • Buddy

    I really hope the new manager doesn’t wear wristbands.

  • Jeremiah Johnson

    Agreed Buddy. Never understood Dusty’s multitude of wristbands stacked up his forearm–always seemed like a sweatshirt would have been simpler and more effective.

    Regarding Baker, I don’t think he’ll be a deal-breaker in any direction. But I do think it’s funny that his name popped up in the transaction.

    BLPCB, Lackey’s name also came up in the same post on MLBTradeRumors, and I think they Sox are hoping to unload a bad contract in the process. I agree it would be nice to send one back in return. I think the easy choice is Soriano–Boston can easily eat a few million dollars for a replacement DH (Papi looks like he’s leaving town). And call me crazy, but I still think Zambrano has something left in the tank, and a new GM–and possibly a new manager–might not want to let a pitcher with his talent leave for nothing. With his contract ending after next season, a good start to the season could make him trade bait.

  • BLPCB

    I like the story about him smashing tables after losing the bidding on the old Cuban fart Granda Jose Contreras. We need that kind of Billy Beane esque rage. I can see it already. Qaude tells Epstein he’s going to play Bozo, and Epstein smashes his desk like Beane did, gets on the phone with someone and finally unloads Bozo.

    JJ – I agree that Bozo is still capable, but the Cubs just want him gone

  • Norm Bothwell

    Red Sox playing hardball. Sounds like they aren’t going to make it easy for Theo to move on and after the smearing of Francona, doesn’t shock me that Theo wants to move on.

  • Doc Raker

    Jeff Baker? Maybe other teams covet him due to his numbers against lefties just like some people covet Carlos Pena because of his numbers verse righties. Funny how some are on the Pena bandwagon but not the Baker wagon, count me off of both wagons.

  • Allan Bendert

    Theo is hopefully just what the Cubs need the only thing I wonder about is the Tigers got the then hottest young GM around in Randy Smith. The person given credit for the Padres second World Series and Smith proceeded to destroy the Tigers and was blamed for the 2003 119 loss season. I am a Die Hard Cub fan but I do wonder if Theo is as smart as everyone says. Jeremiah put it pretty good with Crawford and Daisuke. Go cubs!

  • Buddy

    The problem with players who only hit LHP is that most opposing pitchers are right-handed. So, a player who hits RHP is much more valuable because of the lopsided number of plate appearances.

  • Buddy

    Regarding Theo, one GM (who wouldn’t allow his name to be printed) said it pretty well. The Red Sox have to make a deal at this point. What are they going to do, bring Theo back?

  • chris in illinois

    Wait, Buddy, so you are telling me that Pena’s 460 PAs against rhp mattered?? And more than Baker’s 130 PAs against lefties wouldn’t be as impactfull?? What are you, some sort of sabermathematician??
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    Pena’s OB% vs. rhp was 16th best in all of baseball, how is that not good?? I guess if you like outs…

  • Norm Bothwell

    Why couldn’t Boston just let Theo sit at home while the contract expires, like the Cubs did with Zambrano?
    Fans were on Ricketts case mere months after taking over the team, if he were to let this fall apart, the PR hit would be big and everyone would know the new GM would be the 2nd choice.

  • Buddy

    I hear you, Chris. Shocking, isn’t it? Also, here’s some more “Theo talk” from MLBTradeRumors.com:

    –David Kaplan of CSNChicago.com reports that talks between the two sides have grown “increasingly contentious.” A source told Kaplan that Boston president Larry Lucchino is “trying to make it very difficult for Epstein to accept his dream situation in Chicago because of his fractured relationship with his one-time protege.”

    –The Red Sox “are believed to be requesting at least two top players from the Cubs’ farm system,” according to Scott Lauber of The Boston Herald.

    –Paul Sullivan of The Chicago Tribune says talks are not expected to be completed this weekend.

  • Buddy

    Neither side will let this fall apart, Norm. They’re in a pissing contest right now, but a deal will get done, probably before the WS begins.

  • Norm

    Yeah, I don’t think so either Buddy, but a lot of talk with Cub fans about who has the leverage and what to give up. There will be A LOT of complaining if the Cubs let B. Jackson go (I won’t be one of them).

  • Seymour Butts

    The Cubs likely don’t have to give up anything.
    Say the teams can’t agree on compensation. Boston really can’t demote Ben Cherrington and make Theo do a job he’s given up. Well, they can but won’t. They are faced with a fan base, ownership, and front office that no longer sees him as their man. He gave them up for greener (well, different) pastures. There is no going backwards. The Cubs can just bide their time and wait. It does not need to cost the Cubs anything they don’t want to give up.

  • chris in illinois

    If it takes Brett Jackson, Danny Jackson, Mike Jackson, Reggie Jackson, Bo Jackson, Randy Jackson and Andrew Jackson so be it if it means we get a leader who can put together a professional organization that can finally get past the failed ideas of one hundred years of Cub Baseball.
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    Plus it seems like the kid’s got moxie…

  • Jeremiah Johnson

    Seymour’s right–the Red Sox were basically done with Epstein before the ball started rolling with the Cubs. Their compensation demands–whatever they are–will go down the longer this takes. While they might be acting like it, they’re not negotiating from a position of strength. I actually think Boston has more to lose the longer the GM transition takes. My guess is they settle on Monday or Tuesday for some cash and maybe Baker or another throw-in player.

  • Buddy

    I’ll bet Theo is “cluth” too!

  • Buddy

    It might have been funnier without the typo. How about clutch instead of cluth?

  • BLPCB

    It’s quite clear Boston is trying to have their cake and eat it too. Not going to happen. Maybe we should make them take on Soriano’s full contract if they want Jackson. And Bozo’s deal.

  • Norm

    What does BOS have to lose? Cherington becomes GM, Theo gets a year off, Cubs don’t get the GM they want.

  • Jeremiah Johnson

    Norm, can Boston force him to sit out the year? Either they do the deal with the Cubs, they fire him, or he quits. My guess is he’ll quit if this drags on past next week. Either that or the MLB gets involved–not sure they’d let a team hold an executive hostage like that.

    I added a link above to a post Dave Kaplan wrote overnight. He looks at Boston’s motivation to drag this out, and includes some scathing quotes about Larry Lucchino.

  • Norm

    As long as they pay him I don’t see why not?

  • chris in illinois

    I don’t think it would be in Boston’s best interest to hold Epstein hostage…they do have a future reputation to consider. Who would work for them in the future?? That said, Ozzie Guillen brought back two decent prospects, why wouldn’t Theo??

  • Jedi

    Eh, I think they’re waiting to do this on an off day – be it Monday or Tuesday. Epstein isn’t going to be “forced” to sit out…that doesn’t make any sense for either team.

  • Norm

    I’m with everyone else, a deal will get done. But BOS doesnt *have* to do anything.
    Read the link Jeremiah posted. BOS can be ruthless.

  • Jeremiah Johnson

    Norm, you might be right if Epstein hadn’t already found a new job. I don’t think he’s bound to Boston–if he wants leave, I think he can. I’m sure Ricketts would be more than happy pay him whatever Boston is asking for as a signing bonus.

  • BLPCB

    Tampa’s GM doesn’t work under a contract? Interesting
    Wow reading those articles, I just lost a lot of respect for Boston. I can’t believe I used to root for them.

  • Larry Sproul

    I always had alot of respect for the Red Sox . that just went down the drain . They had no trouble trashing Francona did they ??

  • Doc Raker

    Boston is out of line, I like the idea of sending Soriano to Boston along with the top prospect they want. Then we send Z to FL with his lunatic buddy Oz and we get a whole lot more moxie by subtraction. If Baker and Pena were one person that would be great but with the Cubs luck we would probably get the Baker half that hits against righties and the Pena half that hits against lefties while we trade the good half of the Pena Baker player away for 2 gamers with grit.

  • BLPCB

    I just got an evil genious idea. If Boston wants to be unreasonable, we ought to be unreasonable too. They can have our entire farm for all I care, but demand that they take on Bozo, Soriano, AND give Ricketts the 300M he needs to renovate Wrigley.
    @Larry – I used to root for Boston because of the similarities between us with no WS. I still rooted for them after they won in 2004. It was right when they won their 2nd title I started hating them. Because this is when Boston sports was at a peak with the Celdicks and Pats. Boston has also really overtaken the Yankees mantra for being hated. I remember when they lost out on Tiexieria and Sabathia to the Yankees that John Henry started crying, even though he went after those same players and spent as much as the Yankees. Now I only root for Boston when they’re playing the White Sox or Cardinals.

  • Doc Raker

    How about that and they give us Adrian Gonzales BLPCBIMOWTF?

  • BLPCB

    BRILLIANT!