What's Next for Theo Epstein: Could He Save a New MLB Team...or All of Baseball?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 20, 2020

Chicago Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein seen during a media availability at the team's spring training baseball facility Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, in Mesa, Az. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

After stepping down as the Chicago Cubs' president of baseball operations on Tuesday, Theo Epstein is reportedly planning on taking next year off from baseball.

What he might do after that is anyone's guess.

Given his extensive and hugely successful track record in baseball operations, it's a fair guess that Epstein will eventually take charge of another front office. But if he's ultimately feeling extra ambitious, he might set his sights on a position that would have ramifications for all of Major League Baseball.

     

Theo Epstein's Resume

  • 46 years old
  • Boston Red Sox General Manager: 2003-2011
  • Red Sox won 2004 World Series, snapping 86-year championship drought
  • Red Sox also won 2007 World Series
  • Chicago Cubs President of Baseball Operations: 2011-2020
  • Cubs won 2016 World Series, snapping 108-year championship drought
  • Chosen by Fortune as the "World's Greatest Leader" in 2017

      

Why Epstein Shouldn't Be Ruled Out for Any Job in Baseball

Rest assured, Epstein will be seen in baseball again. Though he's taking a break in 2021, he has reportedly told friends that he isn't walking away from MLB altogether:

Whenever he's ready to work again, teams are bound to line up for Epstein's services. He is, after all, a guy who already has a legitimate Hall of Fame case even though he isn't even close to his golden years.

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As it is, there are two potential fits for Epstein in the National League East, where the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets have openings for a new head of baseball ops.

The Phillies are indeed interested in Epstein, according to Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports. Meanwhile, former Miami Marlins executive David Samson is hardly alone in speculating that new Mets owner Steve Cohen could back up the proverbial truck for Epstein.

Like he did with the Red Sox and Cubs, Epstein would have the benefit of deep-pocketed owners with Philadelphia or New York. He would also have a chance to once again play the savior with either team. The Phillies haven't won the World Series since 2009. The Mets have been without a title since 1986.

Yet Epstein might prefer that his next challenge be more, well, challenging.

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

For instance, he might answer if Cleveland comes calling. That would mean a chance to snap yet another decades-long (72 years, to be exact) championship drought. He would also have to build a champion on a budget with Cleveland, which routinely ranks in the bottom third with its Opening Day payrolls.

Epstein would face a similar test if he took a job with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Their last World Series title came in 1979, and it wasn't exactly out of the ordinary when they opened this past season with MLB's lowest payroll.

Alternatively, Epstein could help a team win the first championship in its history. Any potential expansion teams would fall into that category, as would these existing clubs:

For our money, the most intriguing possibility here is Epstein taking a job with the Rockies.

Though the Rockies have had contending teams here and there, nobody has cracked the code for how to build a consistent winner in Colorado. That has everything to do with the organization's unique difficulty of playing home games a mile above sea level, where nothing is as it is elsewhere. 

Yet it's worth entertaining the possibility that none of the above would be good enough for Epstein. He might decide he'd rather move up the ladder from baseball operations. To this end, there are some whispers that he might pursue an ownership position with the Padres—though those rumors are unfounded, per Dennis Lin of The Athletic—or some other team.

The catch is that he would have to buy a stake, which even he seemed to acknowledge as a reach on Tuesday: “It can seem so unattainable that I haven’t been realistic about it yet."

Besides, Epstein might already be thinking even bigger. According to Hannah Keyser of Yahoo, he could fancy something that would allow him to do some problem-solving for the game at large:

Epstein's concerns are well-founded. The league's strikeout rate is indeed rising on an annual basis, as is the rate of all plays that don't involve fielders getting in on the action: strikeouts, walks and home runs.

In addition to less action-packed, games are also getting longer. Whereas it took less than two hours to play an average nine-inning game in 1946, it now takes three hours and seven minutes.

If Epstein truly wants to see a more exciting brand of baseball, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred might be all too happy to give him a chance to make it happen. Manfred has also bemoaned the sport's shift toward the three true outcomes, and he especially has it out for pace of play.

Since Manfred's efforts—i.e., rule changes pertaining to intentional walks, mound visits and pitching changes—have thus far had little to no impact, perhaps it's not out of the question that he'll create an all-new administrative position just for Epstein. Something like, say, "Chief State of Play Officer."

Or, Epstein could take the big job himself.

Though Manfred's contract runs through 2024, you can practically hear his time as commissioner running out. His efforts to speed up games haven't been greeted with universal approval, and he frankly embarrassed himself with his handling of the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal. In tandem with his inability to solidify a longer and therefore more lucrative 2020 season in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, his leadership has never been more ripe for scrutiny.

In the event that MLB's 30 owners dump Manfred and invite Epstein to take the job, if nothing else they would be making a play for a credibility upgrade. He would also have the power to tackle the league's other existential threats.

With revenues climbing ever higher while the average player salary trended in the opposite direction, MLB and the MLB Players Association were on track for a nasty collective bargaining war even before the pandemic caused billions in losses. Regarding what comes next, only one thing is certain: Getting both the owners and the players back to a place of comfort is going to take some creativity.

The specific mechanics of how Epstein would overcome any one of the above challenges are a whole other matter, what makes an effective executive obviously isn't as straightforward as what goes into a good pitcher (i.e., velocity) or hitter (i.e., power).

In brief, though, his appeal is that of a guy who knows how to get things done. No matter what comes next for him, it will require him to put that reputation to the test.

        

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.