- Bruce Levine, Chicago baseball beat reporter
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The Chicago Cubs’ seemingly imminent hiring of former Boston Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein should be met with approval by the vast majority of the fan base. After all, in Tom Ricketts’ pursuit of his front office chief of the future, he was looking for a man like Epstein.
Up until 10 days ago, the Ricketts family never imagined Epstein would be the man to fulfill the void created by the Jim Hendry’s late-season firing. From the very beginning, Epstein was at the top of the Cubs’ wish list, Major League sources said. Tampa’s Andrew Friedman, Oakland’s Billy Beane and New York’s Brian Cashman were perceived by the Cubs as the other front-line candidates. Those three never interviewed with the Cubs, sources indicated.
It took a perfect storm of circumstance to bring the Cubs and Epstein together.
Boston’s colossal collapse – the Red Sox squandered a nine-game September lead to lose the AL Wild Card – led to a mutual parting of the ways between the organization and manager Terry Francona. That September swoon, which caused the Red Sox to miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season, also put Epstein in a difficult situation. He had one year left on his contract and his power within the organization was eroding.
The first inkling that the Red Sox would part with Epstein was on Friday, Oct. 7, when owner John Henry stated on WEEI radio that regardless of how the situation worked out, “Theo is not going to be general manager forever.”
The best leverage the savvy exec had was 1,000 miles away, where a new ownership group was looking for a young, exciting baseball man capable of combing the worlds of sabermetrics and conventional scouting in his player evaluation.
Epstein will have a honeymoon period with ownership, fans and the media during his first year on the job. He’ll need it; the Cubs’ farm system – although improved and somewhat productive over the past three years – still has a ways to go in producing enough talent to allow the team to bypass the free-agent market for pitching and hitting help.
In spite of Epstein’s addition, the Cubs’ payroll likely will be in the neighborhood of $130 million – the same figure Jim Hendry had to work with in 2010. Epstein will inherit the locked-in contracts of Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano and Ryan Dempster. The Cubs owe Soriano $54 million, Zambrano $18 million and Dempster $14 million – assuming he elects to pick up a player option for the 2011 season.
The biggest challenge for Epstein will be remaining patient. An initial trade or two should help invigorate a team that has finished in fifth place the past two seasons. The learning curve for Epstein in Chicago will include spending free agent money wisely. With a lesser budget than he had to work with the past few years, Epstein must avoid cumbersome contracts. His bad signings include Julio Lugo, JD Drew, Mike Cameron, Daisuke Matsuzaka, John Lackey and Carl Crawford. In fairness to Epstein, his commitment to the Red Sox’s farm system and his overall approach to scouting in Latin America and the Pacific Rim, have given the Red Sox a steady flow of good talent to augment his free agent signings and trades.
Among Epstein’s first moves will be to address the Cubs’ manager post. Incumbent Mike Quade and his coaching staff will have to be informed in a timely fashion what their future holds. Of the Cubs' staff, only Quade and hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo are under contract in 2012. At the end of the 2011 season, Quade told his staff they were free to seek out new employment after he was told by Ricketts that hiring a new GM would take upwards of a month.
Rumors have had former Red Sox manager Francona and Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg as possible candidates. Epstein tried to hire Sandberg as a Triple-A manager in Boston’s farm system prior to the 2011 season. A Major League Baseball source with knowledge of the Epstein interview process said that Sandberg’s name wasn’t mentioned when Epstein was asked about future managerial candidates if Quade was replaced.
It’s being presumed Epstein will have total baseball authority, which may have been a factor in his decision to take the job. In Boston, Epstein was engaged in a power struggle with team president Larry Lucchino. Keep in mind that Epstein was brought through the ranks in both San Diego and Boston by the aggressive and sometimes acerbic Lucchino. This move will allow Epstein to be his own man at the very top rung of the Cubs’ organization. With Luchino in place, that was unlikely to happen in Boston.