Thursday, October 13, 2011

Can the Cubs Fans Stay Realistic About Theo?

By Bill

I love Theo Epstein, which I'm sure isn't terribly surprising. Always have. I probably wouldn't have given John Lackey either five years or $82.5 million, but otherwise, I think pretty much everything he's done has been great. I also like the Cubs, God save me, and so I'm pretty excited that apparently, my favorite GM and my second- or third-favorite team are about to be joined in holy contractimony.

I do buy, to some extent, Dave Cameron's point that spending tens of millions on any GM is a mistake, given the wealth of brilliant minds out there who would do the job for less. But then, there's a lot more to GMing than knowing which stats are important and how to apply them (and in fact I'd say that's a pretty tiny part of the job, as long as you're smart enough to hire people who do understand those things). There's knowing what to look for in scouts, analysts, etc., there's managing personnel and maintaining good relationships with your manager and coaches, the art of negotiation with other GMs, and so on and so forth. And from everything I can tell (which of course is very much the tip of the iceberg), Epstein has been very good at pretty much all those things. Add on a couple million for the extra season tickets you'll sell (or rather, won't lose) based on excitement about getting THEO, and I think this is a great, great move for the Cubs.


I've spent too much of my time today wondering what it would be reasonable to expect of Theo, or anyone, in this situation. The Cubs are a bad team. Like, really bad. They were 71-91 with a Pythagorean record of 70-92, and other than Carlos Marmol kind of imploding (but kind of predictably), everyone performed more or less how you'd expect them to, or even a little better. Their farm system came into the year ranked in the bottom third of baseball by both Keith Law and Kevin Goldstein, and the system has not had a good year. Under the old leadership, the team was looking at a long climb back toward respectability. Things almost have to get better with Epstein, but how much better, how quickly?

I started out looking for comparably skilled GMs to have switched teams mid-career, but there just aren't many of those, and I don't know how much they can tell us. Branch Rickey left the very successful Cardinals to take the reins in Brooklyn, where the Dodgers had won 104 games the season before, so he didn't have a lot of turning around to do (and I suspect that Mr. Rickey's job back in those days had as much to do with Theo's as my job does). Pat Gillick chose his career moves carefully, joining the roughly .500 Orioles for 1996 (they'd also played at a 91-win pace in the strike-shortened '94), then the 88-win Phillies for the 2006 season. Gerry Hunsicker seems to have done a fine job with the Astros and has certainly had a hand in turning around the Rays, but no one seems to really understand what his role there is vis-a-vis Andrew Friedman's. Hall of Famer Lee MacPhail left a successful turn as Orioles GM to run the Yankees...during arguably the worst period in that franchise's post-1920 history (1966-1974).

So if Epstein does what I expect him to do, based on my cursory review, there's a good chance it'll be an all-time first: great GM has great success with one team, bolts for a team that seriously needs help, and is successful there, too. It's just not something that's happened, as far as I can tell.

So I don't know where else to go for this. Epstein himself took over the Red Sox after a year in which they won 93 games. Terry Ryan (who I never considered great, but a lot of others did) took over the Twins in 1994, and they weren't good until 2001, meaning it wasn't just a matter of coming in and turning the team around; he had to try and fail at least once in there. Billy Beane took over an awful A's big-league team in 1998, but it had one of the game's best farm systems, Jason Giambi, and so on.

I guess all I'm really saying is that there's no real precedent for this, and as such, there's no reason to expect things to get better immediately. The best Epstein can do, and the best anybody can do with this team right now, is hire a team of really smart, analytical folks, get rid of whatever small part of the Zambrano and Soriano contracts he can (and everyone else who won't be good or can't be kept around cheaply a few years down the road), and start planning for 2014. Or 2015.

I'm afraid that's not going to be good enough for Cubs fans, who, "lovable losers" and other similar cliches aside, actually started giving up on the team a bit in 2011. I just hope when the team is 41-52 next July, the fans, by and large, are able to focus on what will be the many and varied, albeit small and hard to notice, positives. And I worry that they'll be a bit harder on him than the stereotypes suggest and most people seem to assume.


Jason Wojciechowski said...

The best one I can think of is Dave Dombrowski to the Tigers in 2002. The Tigers were awful in 2001, bottomed out over the next two years, and then eventually became good (more or less to stay) in 2006.

There's also Kevin Towers in Arizona, but he took over (basically) for Josh Byrnes, who isn't exactly Jim Hendry.

And Walt Jocketty moved to Cincinnati, but I don't think anyone expected him to overhaul baseball operations. (For what it's worth, the team has basically had the same major league results since he took over, minus the 91 wins in 2010.)

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

All good points. But Epstein's work probably won't be felt until a few years out just like Jon Daniels' work in Texas took a few years to bear results. It will take time for Epstein to clean out the stench and make the team a viable franchise. Let's hope he has the fan backing for that time to occur.

Great post.