Boston Red Sox GM Theo Epstein Wednesday forsook that title in favor of a better one with the Chicago Cubs, according to Sean McAdam of CSNNE.com and other outlets. The move marks a coup for two of baseball’s biggest and brightest brands, and for the game’s most famous intellectual wunderkind.
Epstein won the 2004 and 2007 World Series from the big chair in Boston, and he fits each of the criteria Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts enumerated at the outset of his inaugural GM search. Ricketts said he wanted an executive committed to player development. Ricketts wanted someone comfortable and adroit with objective analysis and sabermetrics. Perhaps most importantly, Ricketts said, he was looking for someone with both a positive track record and experience in a winning organization.
Epstein fits all of Ricketts’ criteria, but he does not fit the Cubs’ true needs, and bringing him aboard was the wrong move. Here are six reasons to prove that this was a bad hire.
Epstein might have demonstrated a fine commitment to player development in the past, but recently, he has fallen victim to what one might term "Jim Hendry Syndrome." Others who have suffered from this syndrome in recent seasons include Kenny Williams and Tony Reagins. In essence, these executives have fallen into an annual habit of refusing to rebuild, preferring instead to renew a gambit year after year in which they try to piece together a World Series (or at least division-winning) team without the necessary building blocks in place.
Epstein has certainly been better than his peers in his efforts to do so, but still, he has set aside player-development goals in the name of landing huge names like Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, John Lackey and Bobby Jenks.
Ricketts and his staff may view this as less of an issue, because Ricketts has ensured the potency and security of both Oneri Fleita and Tim Wilken in their key development roles already. Still, Epstein might not actually share Ricketts’ vision for building a Cubs franchise most viable in the long term.
Epstein is under contract with the Red Sox through 2012. If the Cubs were not offering a titular promotion, the Red Sox likely would not even allow their incumbent GM to discuss this move. The complexity of this acquisition might overwhelm even that of Matt Garza last winter, who came to the Cubs in a convoluted eight-player trade.
Now that Epstein's defection to Chicago is largely in place, Boston is due compensation, and that compensation could take the form of not only cash, but also minor-league talent. This at a time when the Cubs’ farm system is just beginning a climb past where they were when Hendry emptied the cupboards to land Garza in December. Compensating the Sox for Epstein’s loss might cost Chicago more than Epstein himself would be worth.
As noted, the Cubs must compensate the Red Sox, just as the Florida Marlins compensated the Chicago White Sox when they signed away manager Ozzie Guillen. This is standard protocol when a non-player with time remaining on a contract changes organizations, which leads to an obvious question: why on earth are these moves happening at all?
No manager is worth an everyday player in a trade setting. The Marlins gave up only two fringe prospects in order to get Guillen, and that seemed an exorbitant cost. Almost universally, managers are poor tacticians, rigid thinkers and have varying (but immeasurable and unpredictable) impacts upon team chemistry and individual player performance.
Of course, GMs are a different case. Player acquisition and organizational philosophy are critical components of success. Even if deployment of resources matter fairly little, the quality of those resources (i.e., the caliber of talent consistently flowing into an organization and onto the field) matter a great deal. The work a GM does is crucial, and GMs are very different in their abilities to handle their mission-critical duties.
Relying on a GM’s own acumen at every turn in this massive process, though, is to invite disaster. No one person should be making all the decisions about which players to bring aboard, let alone other choices about where to spend money and where to send key assets.
More importantly, an owner should not have a vague idea of how they want their guy to go about things. Only a certain amount of trust honestly needs to be placed in those executives. The information one needs to build a consistently competitive, profitable and upstanding team is objective, and much of it is freely available.
Theo Epstein has done very well at his job, but 100 people who have never had the chance to do similar work could do it just as well. Trade skills—the ability to consistently get the better end of deals with other GMs, and to sign free agents for less than their true value by negotiating well with player representatives—are arguably the only demonstrable skill inherent to any one candidate, and paying handsomely for anything but that skill set is folly.
If one accepts the assertion that a GM is not a unique and invaluable asset, it should follow logically and naturally that a capacity exists for such an asset to be overvalued. Epstein is in precisely that position. The Cubs landed the brilliant man, but it costs them one of the highest executive salaries in the league (nearly $20 million over the next five years), and with a number of bad contracts already on the 40-man roster, they do not need another.
Spending more on a single figurehead in the big chair than any other team in baseball puts the Cubs in the unenviable position of having that much less to spend on high-ceiling Latin American talent and amateur draftees. A GM is a fungible part of the organization, not without value, but not worth limiting oneself through overpayment.
Witness the Andy MacPhail years. Witness the Cubs’ try, try again routine with celebrity managers Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella. One way or another, when the Cubs bring in big-name people for off-field work, the results are predictable.
A short burst of unexpected success portends only a quick reversal of fortune, and every time the Cubs tumble back to earth, they seem to hit the ground a bit harder. Whether it is because winning track records lend themselves to cults of personality in a title-starved area of town, or because those men (so accustomed to winning everywhere else) cannot adapt to an inevitable and unspoken pressure to break the team’s World Series drought.
All three former managers MacPhail, Baker and Piniella watched the magic wear off quickly in Chicago. If Epstein expects less pressure to succeed at Wrigley than he felt at Fenway Park, he will be greatly disappointed.
This point follows logically from the previous two. Clearly, since the Cubs both promoted Epstein and gave him a healthy raise in the course of this acquisition, they intend to make Epstein the epicenter of baseball decision-making on Chicago’s North Side. If the past is any precedent, the Cubs can expect Epstein to have a few key advisers within earshot at all times, but to run a remarkably centralized ship.
This is a bad idea. Good front offices are cohesive and coherent, but also co-dependent. While group-think usually results in muddle, a too-powerful GM can get on tilt, tilt at windmills and tilt the balance of power even farther out of a team’s reach, even as he tries to restore equilibrium.
Rather than installing Epstein as King of Baseball Operations, then, the Cubs might have done better to build a small but powerful brain trust, one with fewer big names and fewer big egos in place. To Wilken and Fleita, Chicago might add a couple of the league’s top-notch assistant front-office types, people like John Coppolella in Atlanta; Rick Hahn of the White Sox; and Kim Ng, who works at MLB’s main office. Getting that kind of brain power for the same (or less) expense should have been enough to make the Cubs think twice before lunging desperately toward Epstein.