Can Theo Epstein Deliver for the Cubs?

One of the brightest of baseball’s new breed of data-driven front-office execs, Theo Epstein is being hailed as the Cubs’ savior. But don’t order those World Series tickets just yet

Cubs GM Theo Epstein
Epstein built championship teams in Boston but also presided over one of the worst collapses in baseball history.
 

OK, baseball fans: Name your five all-time favorite field managers.

Mine: Billy Martin, Connie Mack, Leo Durocher, Miller Huggins, John McGraw. I can picture each one of them—Martin with those sad, wounded eyes, Mack in his suit and tie. I feel like I knew them.

Now name your five favorite general managers.

Mine: Um. Well, there was Ed Barrow of the 1920s Yankees—he was cool. Barrow once emptied the clubhouse of players so he could challenge Babe Ruth to a fistfight. And, oh yes, Branch Rickey of the Dodgers. He signed Jackie Robinson and broke the color barrier. Wait, he was the owner, not the GM. Come to think of it, I can’t really name too many more—and none of them inspire strong feeling.

Lately, of course, in Chicago and elsewhere, fans have been getting excited about baseball business executives, especially those of the nerdy variety. Hollywood even made a movie about one of them, starring Brad Pitt. And now we’ve got our very own here, the best of the lot (or so we’re told), in 37-year-old Theo Epstein, late of the Boston Red Sox. Technically, he is more than a mere GM: He’s the Cubs’ new president of baseball operations, with a rich contract paying a reported $18.5 million over five years.

But before you start ordering your World Series tickets, think about it for a minute. A baseball general manager is the head of casting, not the director. He’s the wedding planner, not the priest, not the DJ, and certainly not the groom. Does he matter? Absolutely. Is Epstein an upgrade from Jim Hendry? Oh my, yes. Does Tom Ricketts, the Cubs’ owner, deserve a pat on the back for going after the best man available and getting him? No doubt about it.

But does Theo Epstein merit all the hoopla? Ask yourself this question: Whom would you rather have for the next five years, Epstein or Justin Verlander, the Detroit Tigers pitching ace?

In his 2003 book Moneyball, Michael Lewis ushered in the era of the celebrity GM. He told the story of the Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane and his team of spreadsheet-loving analysts, who overturned the traditional methods of evaluating baseball talent. Suddenly, at least in baseball offices, it became hip to be square.

The new-age GMs got results. They found a competitive edge and exploited it. Epstein and his peers have proved that their approach works. I don’t fully understand some of the new statistical measurements, including WPA (win probability added, the factor by which each play by an individual player alters the outcome of a game) and APR (adjusted pitching runs, the number of runs a pitcher prevents compared with the league average), but it doesn’t matter. The new gurus of baseball have dug deep to understand the game at levels that would have dazzled men like Branch Rickey.

Knowledge is good. Cubs fans can agree on that. But it won’t count for much if Epstein fails to deliver a winner before his five-year contract expires.

We are putting our faith in Epstein for one simple reason: He delivered the goods in Beantown, helping the Red Sox win a championship after an 86-year drought. If you’re looking for someone with experience at cracking tough cases, he’s the obvious man for the job.

Epstein was only 28 when he became GM in Boston. Less than two years later, in 2004, he made his biggest and boldest move, trading away the team’s most popular player, Nomar Garciaparra. Epstein didn’t get a star in return, but he shook up the roster and added a few small but important pieces. It was a stroke of brilliance—or astonishing good luck.

The Red Sox won it all that year, and the GM lifted the championship trophy on the front of a duck boat as the team paraded through Boston.

“Epstein was a rock-star GM,” wrote Dan Shaughnessy in The Boston Globe. “He was the best and the brightest, Boston baseball’s John F. Kennedy.”

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Photograph: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

 

Yes, but when I think of that amazing 2004 season, I don’t think of Epstein. I think of the Red Sox refusing to quit. Down three games to none against the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, the Sox stormed back to beat them and rode that wave to a sweep of the Cardinals in the World Series. I think of Curt Schilling pitching with a bloody sock. I think of Manny Ramirez and the big grin on his face as he belted line drives all over the field. I think of manager Terry Francona in the dugout, cool as ice.

Epstein deserved credit for putting those men in position to win, but he didn’t swing the bat or pitch with a bloody ankle or decide when to call the bullpen. GMs exert only so much control. And there’s no better proof of that than the 2011 Red Sox, one of the greatest train wrecks I’ve ever seen in the world of sports. The same smart executive who put together championship teams in 2004 and 2007 presided over one of the most disastrous collapses in baseball history this fall. Leading the wildcard race by nine games in September, the Red Sox fell apart.

And when the season ended, the Boston media revealed that several members of the team had been drinking beer and eating fried chicken in the clubhouse during games, taking advantage of Francona, who may have been distracted by personal issues, including a divorce.

Was the collapse Theo Epstein’s fault?

I don’t think so. But it came on his watch. He built teams that brought both glory and shame, and I think it raises the question of whether character still matters to the stats-oriented bosses who assemble teams today. Do they care if their players are good citizens? Do they believe that, beyond the numbers, building a winning team requires athletes with discipline, dedication to their teammates, and respect for authority? Do they care what sort of man wears the team’s uniform or only how he is likely to perform in it?

A bigger question would be: Is the GM a leader of his team or merely its architect?

The group Epstein inherited in Boston had some difficult personalities, but it also had talent. He tinkered with the roster in 2004 and somehow created a winning spirit in the clubhouse. In Chicago, the job might be more difficult. Epstein takes on a roster not just lacking in talent but also spotted with players who have shown little desire to work hard and improve. He recently told reporters that he was not giving up on one of the worst offenders, Alfonso Soriano. “I think it’s a sign of a good organization to look at every player and ask, ‘How can we get the most out of this guy?’” Epstein said. “I think with Alfonso there’s more in there.”

More of the same, maybe.

The best thing Epstein could possibly do is dump Soriano and Carlos Zambrano and build a team with character.

Baseball is losing its grip on this country. The Cubs have been losing their grip on me, that’s for sure. Players are spoiled. Ticket prices are too high. The romance of the game has been sacrificed at the altar of big business.

That’s not Epstein’s fault, and I don’t expect him to solve the problem singlehandedly. All I ask is that he put some talented, fun-loving kids on the field. All I ask is that he give me a team that looks excited to be there every day, a team that appreciates that I spent 200 bucks to bring my wife and kids to the park. Give me a lanky right-hander who throws so hard he bruises the catcher’s hand. Give me a beefy young slugger whose bat thunders across the rooftops of Wrigleyville.

I’ll cheer for them, and I’ll forget all about Theo Epstein.

Because that’s the way it should be.

And when the World Series parade rolls down LaSalle Street, I’ll notice Epstein on the lead float and think about him for the first time in months. Then I’ll cheer for him too.
 

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