The cult of the general manager is upon us, like a wave of pre-teen girls at a Taylor Swift concert.
It's not Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder who will save the Cubs. Not a new owner with deep pockets or a tactical and motivational wizard in the dugout. No, it's Theo Epstein! Former boy genius of the Red Sox! The general manager who combined statistical analysis with scouting reports with the intelligence of NASA engineers planning a trip to the moon. Forget the World Series, what's the latest update on Theo?
My question: How accurate is the narrative as Epstein as the best -- or one of the GMs in the game? Did we not learn with Billy Beane and the post-"Moneyball" A's that there is no such as a front-office genius? (Epstein will serve as the Cubs' president of baseball operations, with current Padres GM Jed Hoyer serving as the GM.)
Fact: During his tenure as Red Sox GM -- 2003 through 2011 -- Epstein won fewer division titles than the Tampa Bay Rays.
Fact No. 2: Epstein took over a franchise that had won 93 games in 2002 and included on its roster Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, Nomar Garciaparra, Johnny Damon, Jason Varitek, Trot Nixon, Derek Lowe and Tim Wakefield. Kevin Youkilis and Jon Lester were in the farm system.
In his nine years as GM, Epstein won just one division title and never won 100 games. He did, of course, win two World Series, and that's the most important line on his résumé; I'm not knocking his accomplismens. It was a terrific run. I just don't think you can assume he'll turn around the Cubs
His best trait as a GM: Exploiting the financially strapped franchises of the major leagues. Consider the biggest trades he made during his career:
2004 -- Curt Schilling from Diamondbacks.
2004 -- Nomar Garciaparra to Cubs in three-way trade that netted Orlando Cabrerra.
2008 -- Jason Bay from Pirates in three-way trade involving Manny Ramirez.
2009 -- Victor Martinez from Indians.
2011 -- Adrian Gonzalez from Padres.
Other than the Garciaparra trade, the other five were all deals that brought over established superstars (or in the case of Bay, an underrated star). Yes, Epstein deserves credit for managing to pull off those types of deals, but it's important to remember those players were available due to salary concerns by their former teams. When a player like Adrian Gonzalez becomes available, there are only a few franchises that have both ability to trade prospects and the financial means to sign the player to a long-term contract.
Those are not high-risk deals to make. If you have the capital to afford Curt Schilling, it's a no-brainer to trade for him. The risk is made by the team acquiring the prospects. In order to make similar deals with the Cubs, he and his new GM will need deep pocketbooks more than brains.
In his early years, Epstein had success on the second-tier free agent market. In 2003, he signed Bill Mueller for $2.1 million, less than he'd made the year before with the Cubs. A .286 hitter to that point in his career, Mueller hit .326 and won the batting title. He purchased Kevin Millar from the Marlins. The Twins had let David Ortiz go; the Red Sox signed him for $1.25 million. (Although Jeremy Giambi actually began '03 as the team's DH.) He signed Mike Timlin as a free agent at a lower salary than he'd been making; most teams saw him as a failed closer; the Red Sox saw a durable set-up guy.
In 2004, he acquired Mark Bellorn, a so-called "Moneyball"-type player: Weak defensively at second, but a guy with power who drew walks. Bellhorn had one good season for the Red Sox. The year before, the Sox had picked up Bronson Arroyo off waivers from the Pirates; in '04 became a key part of the rotation. He signed Keith Foulke as a free agent, a relatively easy move to make since he'd posted a 2.48 ERA over the previous five seasons.
Those were all good, smart moves that paid off. But those kinds of moves have been few and far between since. Just like Billy Beane's genius -- in part -- was having a rotation with Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, part of Epstein's genius was ... well, getting a little bit lucky. It's not easy to find guys who suddenly hit 40 points above their career average or strike it big in exactly the right season.
Since then, the Sox relied mostly on the free-agent market: Edgar Renteria, David Wells, Matt Clement, Alex Gonzalez, J.D. Drew, Julio Lugo, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideki Okajima, Takashi Saito, Adrian Beltre, Marco Scutaro, John Lackey, Mike Cameron, Carl Crawford, Bobby Jenks.
I'm not reviewing Epstein's entire career here, but you can judge that list for yourself. Some moves worked, some didn't, and a few don't look good right now.
The Cubs are in a much different position than when Epstein took over the Cubs. The big league talent base is lacking; the farm system isn't strong. Fixing the Cubs will be a bigger challenge than the getting the Red Sox over the curse.
Now ... can we please get back to the World Series.