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

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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

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