The 45%: When Theo Epstein Is Wrong

During Theo Epstein's introductory press conference, as well as the many rounds he made to various radio and tv shows, there is one line that I remember more than any other.

if you do a great job, you're right 55 percent of the time.

Of the many hours Theo spent talking with people about the Cubs on that day, I don't think he said anything of substance. Sure, we heard about The Cubs Way. Baseball is better at Wrigley or something like that. We heard more about The Cubs Way even though that had yet to even be defined by Theo himself.

For what it's worth, I don't even believe the 55% thing. I'd say the best GMs are lucky to bat .300. If all we're talking about is 1st round picks, trades, free agent signings and the top international signing then maybe it's .400. Maybe. Probably not. If you expand it to include the top 5 rounds or 10 rounds there's no way the best GM is batting .550. He might be lucky to bat .250. We know most free agent signings end up looking bad. The player is past his prime, the projections are overly optimistic and if the player is switching teams the projections are wildly optimistic. Maybe you bat .550 when it comes to trading, but there's a lot more involved with being a GM than making trades. That's kind of irrelevant to the this article though.

This isn't to say it wasn't a great day. It was. The Cubs had hired one of the better GMs in the game and it was a day most Cubs fans will remember. We don't have championships to remember so we're stuck remembering when certain individuals are hired. We remember when Andy MacPhail, Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella were hired. The big free agent signings I remember outnumber that, but not by a lot.

We've all heard about the two championships Theo helped bring to Boston. We've heard that was in part due to one of the strongest farm systems in baseball. They did have one of the best farm systems in baseball. One thing not considered by people is the number of draft picks the Sox had.

If I throw one dart at the board my odds of hitting bullseye are not good. If I throw 3, 5 or 10 darts I have a much greater chance. The Red Sox have thrown a lot of darts while in comparison the Cubs have thrown the minimum amount of darts possible. To make things worse, the Red Sox stood at the line when they threw those darts and the Cubs were 10 feet behind it.

There is certainly a lot of credit that goes to Theo and the Red Sox for taking advantage of what could be taken advantage of. It's their job to do just that and they did, but I don't think pointing to the value they've received from their farm system tells us the entire story. Because of those additional picks, the Red Sox absolutely should have more value from their farm system.

From 2003 through last season's draft the Red Sox had 43 picks in the first 3 rounds. That's 16 additional picks and most of them were in the 1st round. During those same years, Jim Hendry's Cubs drafted just 25 players in those rounds. That's 2 additional players per year the Red Sox drafted in the top rounds. It's those players who are most likely to become MLB players.

As a comparison, the A's had 35 picks. The Rays have had 39 and most of the additional picks were the last two years.

That the Red Sox have had better success with their minor league system doesn't tell us about the quality of their drafts. It doesn't tell us whether or not Theo and company have had superior scouts or if this is something they can duplicate in Chicago. It tells us that they had more draft picks and therefore spent considerably more money on amateur talent than did the Cubs. It also tells us the Red Sox were willing to let free agents walk and get the extra picks when Jim Hendry had a tendency to re-sign his best players (Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, Carlos Zambrano and others).

Furthermore, the Red Sox spent on draft bonuses in 2009 and 2010 a total of $17.8 million. In those same two years the Cubs spent $8.8 million. You could look back through the years and the totals would be similar. The Red Sox were among the leaders in draft bonuses and the Cubs were near the bottom. In 2011 the Cubs outspent the Red Sox and will more than likely see more talent at the big league level from this past draft. 2011 was an exception though. It would be a mistake to assume the Red Sox did better with all of those picks than another organization could have.

The reason this is important is because the new CBA limits the amount of money teams can spend in the draft and on the international free agent market. Gaining extra draft picks requires you offer a guaranteed contract worth around $12 million or more. This means you can take all the type A relievers in the past and eliminate them as potential sources of additional picks. You can take many other type A's and eliminate them too. The chances to increase draft picks has declined significantly. most teams will have 3 picks in their first 3 rounds and that's it. Gone are the days when a team gets 5 picks in the first round like the Red Sox had in 2005.

The new CBA has taken that advantage away and Theo and company are left with a system very similar to what we've seen in Chicago for years now. Also gone is the ability to spend big bucks on later rounds picks. The difference between teams and talent acquired in the draft is going to be very little.

Think about the Cubs so-called improved farm system. All of the top prospects with the exception of Anthony Rizzo were already in the Cubs organization prior to Theo taking over. Rizzo cost the Cubs a former top 100 prospect in Andrew Cashner. The Cubs farm system has actually improved little to none since Theo took over. What improvements it made since last year were due to the money the Cubs and Jim Hendry spent in last year's draft. This, by the way, is interesting. Jim Hendry anticipated the changes in the CBA while Theo and Hoyer were taken by surprise.

To be fair, Theo has only had a few month with which he could have improved the farm system so it's way too early to draw conclusions.

He also left the Red Sox with a farm system that includes only 3 top 100 prospects according to Baseball America. None of them are higher than 51. The Cubs have 4 in the top 100 and 2 of them are in the top 50. Despite spending big money on amateur talent, the Red Sox farm system right now is rather bare of impact talent. As a whole they do rank 9th, but is that good enough for a system that has spent more money than all but a couple teams in recent years?

As Cubs fans we've come know how disastrous a bad contract or two can affect the team. Long-term contracts have a way of doing that. It's just too difficult projecting performance years down the road. We've seen that with guys like Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano and Kosuke Fukudome. But over a nearly 10-year span bad contracts will be given out. It's just part of the business. A team can do the best homework possible on a player and things just happen.

It's happened with Theo's Red Sox too. Last offseason the Sox signed Carl Crawford who managed to provide 0.0 rWAR on the season. He's out with a wrist injury this year and those usually aren't good signs for hitters. The offseason before that the Sox signed John Lackey who in two seasons has compiled 0.6 rWAR. After the 2006 season the Sox paid a total of over $100 million to acquire Daisuke Matsuzaka. Dice-K got off to a good enough start. He was worth 8.3 rWAR in the first two seasons, but he'd been worth 1.3 over the last 3 years.

Combined, the Sox paid those three $328.5 million. While none of their contracts are up (Dice-K has one year left, Lackey 3 and Crawford 6), they've gotten well below what they've paid for to this point. In fact, to this point in those contracts the Sox have gotten less of a return than the Cubs did for the three players I mentioned above. And the Cubs paid their 3 less than $300 million.

Theo left the new GM with these contracts that have, at least to this point, provided little value. There's reason to think Carl Crawford can turn it around. One bad season isn't enough to write someone off, but consider Alfonso Soriano for a moment. In Soriano's first season with the Cubs (2007) he had 7 fWAR. He followed that up with 4.1. In neither season did he come close to playing a full season and he was still worth 11.1 fWAR in the first couple years of the contract. After a terrible 2009 he rebounded with 3.1 fWAR in 2010. He had 1.3 last season and so far this year he has 0.7. That's a total of 16.4 fWAR.

That's considerably less than the Cubs had hoped to get when they signed him to that large contract, but it's entirely possible that Carl Crawford doesn't come close to that total in his career with Boston. I'd bet a lot of money against him being that valuable. Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projections and RLWY's CAIRO projections have him projected to be worth below 2 WAR. Because I'm a nice guy, let's go ahead and bump that up to a 3.0 WAR projection in 2012.

As players age they get worse by roughly .5 WAR per season. Here's what we get for Crawford (including last season's fWAR):

2011: 0.2
2012: 3.0
2013: 2.5
2014: 2.0
2015: 1.5
2016: 1.0
2017: 0.5
Total: 12.7

But Soriano's contract isn't over yet. He already has 16.5 so let's say he adds only another 1.5 WAR over the next 2+ seasons. He'll be up to 18 total. To pass that Crawford will have to be worth roughly 5 WAR this year, which just might give him a projection next year of 4.0. I doubt it would be that high for what it's worth. Considering Crawford is injured right now I'd say the odds of him being that good are awfully slim.

If the Soriano contract is a terrible one, so is the Crawford one. If the Soriano contract has been an albatross for this organization and one left to new management, Theo left one that's probably even worse to new management in Boston. On top of that, they still have 3 years left for Lackey who is basically terrible at this point. They have only 1 left for Dice-K. Compare that to the Cubs having 3 left for Soriano (6 for Crawford) and 1 for Zambrano. Theo left Cherington with 10 years of contracts that most teams would want nothing to do with. Hendry left Theo and company with 4 years of contracts nobody would want.

What's been written here is, more than anything, contrasting the overwhelming positive reviews we've read about Theo by highlighting the negatives. Theo has made mistakes and he'll continue to make them. He's had some great signings and took advantage of something the Cubs didn't by building a very strong farm system. That advantage is gone now so it will be interesting to see how he and Jed Hoyer go about building a better farm system.

Like all people, Theo isn't great. He isn't bad. He's a combination of the two. He has his strengths and his weaknesses like any person does. To put it as simply as I possible can, Theo is a combination of this post and the hundreds of articles you've read over the last 6 months. Most importantly, by himself Theo will not turn this organization around. He's said so many times. It's an organizational effort that begins at the top with the owner and extends through the lowest level of the minors to those scouting amateur talent across the world.

aisle424

About aisle424

I used to write lots of things about the Cubs. Now I sometimes write things about the Cubs.

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