The Cubs signing of Theo Epstein is all but officially official. The Cubs have a penchant for blowing things that seem certainties, so until this is finally final and Theo is standing up at a podium with Tom Ricketts grinning from ear to ear, I know it should be wise to temper my enthusiasm. But I can’t help myself.
I’m thrilled. I’m beyond thrilled. I’m giddy.
I am not, however, giddy because I think the Cubs will definitely win the World Series now. I’ve seen numerous conversations on my Facebook wall, other’s Facebook walls, Twitter, and message boards all revolving around people making the point that hiring Theo doesn’t guarantee us winning anything. That is true. I never said it did.
The Cubs are an old-fashioned team in more ways than just where they play their home baseball games. Jim Hendry never actually laughed out loud at people who asked about advanced analytics, but he came as close as one can without actually doing it. The farm system doesn’t teach its players fundamental skills that are important to winning baseball games. Namely, getting on base.
Sam Fuld indicated that the Cubs valued batting average above on base percentage in their development system to the point where anything else he did as a player was overlooked.
I suppose it depends on who your manager is, and who your front office is. I came up in the Cubs system, and they’re probably not as involved in the statistics side of the game as some other organizations. It still is important to me to get on base, even though (laughs) there were some guys who, all they cared about was my average.
If I recall correctly, Ryan Theriot has made similar statements about the Cubs wanting him to hit for more power and basically be aggressive early in the count, which seems counter-intuitive to the type of players that both Fuld and Theriot are because the Cubs do not value their skills.
The Cubs valued toolsy athletes. To hell with the fact that none of them could recognize a fastball from a breaking ball or a strike from a ball. The Cubs figured they could teach them that, and very often, they couldn’t. Hence, you get the Corey Pattersons and Felix Pies of the world.
There comes a time when you have to separate the baseball skills from the athletic skills and the Cubs have never done that well for any consistent period of time. Sure, they signed Carlos Pena and his anemic batting average because he was a great OBP guy, a good defender, and great in the clubhouse. He was also dirt cheap. The fact that the Cubs happened upon a guy who was undervalued was not necessarily the result of a superior process, it was blind luck and happenstance.
This is what will change under Theo (provided he is given the kind of autonomy that Ricketts has indicated his “baseball guy” would have). the Cubs entire evaluation process is subject to revision. The entire developmental philosphy of the minor league system can be in lockstep with a long-term organizational personality. Instead of constantly reaching for the Cubs’ patented Handbook of Short Term Solutions to Long Term Problems, the Cubs have hired a guy capable of diagnosing the actual underlying flaws within the Cubs system.
But that alone is not the reason for jubilation. Any number of GMs out on the market could do that for the Cubs in their own way. Andrew Friedman of the Rays was a favorite around this blog and many other places. He was one of my top choices at one point based on his phenomenal results in the draft over the years. Billy Beane “invented” the Moneyball concept in actual practice in an organization. There are tons of up and coming talent that would love a chance to put their imprint on a team like the Cubs, from Ben Cherington to Rick Hahn to Kim Ng.
But none of them, besides Theo, has led a team that is “cursed.” Laugh if you want, but the curse is a real psychological factor with the Cubs. The one thing that I came away with from watching “Catching Hell” was how a singular incident that didn’t really conclusively even impact the game became an instant turning point for both the players and the fans that night. The Curse may not be real in a mystical sense, but it is a real obstacle the Cubs must overcome.
Theo has been there. He has constructed teams and put people in place that managed through the gloom of being down 3-0 to the Yankees in a best of seven series. They were down in the 9th inning to Mariano Rivera in a clinching game and they survived. Was it luck? Almost assuredly. If you put those same teams in those same situations 99 more times, the Yankees would probably be the American League World Series representative all 99 of those times. But that doesn’t matter psychologically.
The gravitas of having a leader that can recall that story at times when things seem darkest at the corner of Clark and Addison can make whatever the Cubs are facing seem a little less impossible. If it helps the players relax even a little bit, it will help tremendously on the field.
But that can all be dismissed as hokey nonsense, so that isn’t even why I am jubilant. I’m ecstatic because the Cubs haven’t done anything like this in my lifetime. I said on my Facebook wall that this is the biggest acqusition since the Cubs desegregated and signed Ernie Banks.
Melissa pointed out Dallas Green and I would probably place him second on my list. He could have been first and probably should have been first and therefore this move might not have even been necessary, but ultimately just putting a new guy in the office won’t cut it.
Dallas Green came in and trashed the Cubs image of being lovable losers. He fired Billy Williams, Ernie Banks and Randy Hundley among other former Cubs in the organization. He then started rebuilding the farm system that produced guys like Greg Maddux, Mark Grace, Rafael Palmeiro, Shawon Dunston, Jamie Moyer, Dave Martinez, and Joe Girardi.
But Dallas was not a people person and the Tribsters were not in it to change the organization. They wanted to make money and that meant being competitive on the major league roster while the rest of the system was fixed behind the scenes. That part didn’t go so well after the 1984 NLCS crash and the 1985 Season of the Injured Pitcher where every pitcher in the rotation was on the DL at one point. Not separately throughout the season, all of them at once.
So the major league team fell apart, Dallas Green was pretty much forced out and in came Jim Frey to re-fuck everything that Dallas had un-fucked about the organization. So he came close, but he was never given the power to do as he saw fit to fix the Cubs. He pretty much forced his will on the team until they got sick of him and canned him. The Cubs at that time were not interested in anything but cosmetic changes to how they did business.
The same can be said for the next great organizational move with the hiring of Andy MacPhail. He was supposed to bring his small-market smarts to the Cubs where he would be in a big market. The problem was MacPhail was just the wrapping on a package of the Cubs going cheap. They wanted to spend like a small-market team, so they got themselves a small-market guy with an old-school philosophy about how money doesn’t win championships as a bow on top for the fans.
Of course, the Cubs organization has remained pathetically ill-equipped over the years. They have one of, if not the smallest front offices in baseball. They have player facilities that make my out-classed Division III school’s facilities look cutting edge. Seriously, take the Wrigley Tour and see the Cubs home clubhouse. It is a joke. The Spring Training facilities are out-dated (which is being addressed now).
This is due to an organization that either was led by a Team President that either didn’t know it was a problem, didn’t care it was a problem, or didn’t have the support of the ownership to make the real changes necessary to turn the Cubs around.
If Tom Ricketts has shown anything over the two years he has been in power, it is his willingness to try to fix the underlying issues. Until this point, that philosophy had been restricted to the business aspect of the team and the physical facilties. He built new revenue streams wherever he could find them, he strong-armed Mesa into ponying up money to build a new Spring Training Facility, and he is sinking millions into a Dominican training facility. But the baseball operations side remained rooted in old-school “see what happens” cronyism that Hendry seemed to embody to the point of being a caricature.
We started to see signs that maybe Ricketts was getting it when the Cubs parted ways with Carlos Silva by basically calling him a sunk cost. Then they actually went out and spent money like big boys on the draft and landed many extremely talented players that had been passed over due to “signability issues.” The Cubs signed them.
So when it came to light that Jim Hendry had been relieved of his duties, those of us that had been so critical of the new regime saw an opening for a real change. Could the Cubs take this opportunity to not just change the nameplate on an office door, but fundamentally change the way they do business? Theo is the one candidate that I have confidence in accomplishing such a Herculean task.
They may never win a World Series under Theo Epstein. In fact, the odds are still pretty much against it, but I think we will start seeing the Cubs act like a major market team that knows how to spend its resources more effectively than just throwing cash at long-term problems. It will not be easy and it will not be quick, because nothing worth doing right ever is.
But Theo is capable of bringing about change I can believe in and something that makes the Cubs an annual threat, which is all I really want.