Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Theo-logical debate

What price for a top-grade big-market
general manager? What price for
him if he's NOT going to be your
general manager?
Theo Epstein has been running the baseball side (as opposed to the business side) of the Boston Red Sox for almost 10 years, which is a long time for a general manager with any team, much less one that gets the microscopic scrutiny of the Sawx.

His record in the job isn't impeccable, but no matter how one measures it, he's been the most successful general manager Boston's had since the job was invented. If, or rather when, he officially moves on to the Chicago Cubs, he will leave behind a better baseball operation than he inherited in 2002 — and a couple of World Series trophies.

The Red Sox gave "young Theo" – he may be a 10-year veteran of the job, but he's still just 37 — permission to pursue the Cubs job, but that's not the same as giving him permission to take it.
Epstein has a deal in place with the Cubs, and a year remaining on his contract with Boston. The two teams have spent about a week jawing over compensation for the executive, with the Red Sox supposedly opening negotiations with a demand for Matt Garza.

I don't see that the Sox have that much leverage here. Epstein may be, over the long haul, worth that price, but it certainly appears that the wunderkind's time with Boston has expired. If the Cubs walk away from the table, what will the Sox ownership do — keep Epstein in the job as a lame duck when they know (a) he doesn't want to be there and (b) he'll certainly be in demand from other teams next offseason? There's too much potential for mischief there.

One interesting aspect to this is that the Cubs have tried this before — almost 20 years ago, with Andy MacPhail. "Young Andy" — like Theo, he was, when he became the Twins general manager, the young man in the job in the majors — won two World Series titles at the helm of Minnesota, and then jumped to the North Side to try his luck with the Cubs.

And as with MacPhail, Epstein is apparently being pursued not so much to be general manager, limited to running the baseball side, but to be atop the entire operation as team president. I believe MacPhail's tenure with the Cubs ran aground on his poor hires as general manager (Ed Lynch and Jim Hendry) — the way I put it when MacPhail left Chicago a few years ago was that he never found his Andy MacPhail.

Titles and duties vary from team to team, and the Cubs are under different ownership now than when MacPhail was there. But the Cubs in many ways are in a similar situation to the Red Sox when Epstein became GM — a big market team with a large but restive fan base, a beloved but increasingly decrepit park, a farm system that has not been particularly well cared for, a history more noted for failure than success.

Epstein in Boston dealt with only part of those problems, and did his job well. He fixed the farm system. He didn't fix the problems at Fenway Park; somebody else — co-owner and team president Larry Lucchino — did that.

Epstein, like MacPhail, may be eager to move up the ladder to other, more corporate, duties — if the reports of his rivalry with Lucchino are correct,  he may be really eager to prove that he can fix Wrigley Field better than Lucchino did Fenway. If that's the kind of thing he wants to do in Chicago, he'll need to do a better job than MacPhail did at finding his Theo Epstein to handle the baseball operation.

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