Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Theo Epstein's Windy City introduction
By Christina Kahrl
Tuesday’s news conference at Wrigley Field wasn’t simply an exercise in introducing Theo Epstein to fans or the media, it was the unveiling of a brand new world view for the Cubs. In short, Epstein, the Cubs' new president of baseball operations, was everything a Cubs fan or a member of the media could wish for: a fresh breeze for an organization too deeply steeped in its century of failure and frustration.
The checklist of things that need fixing on the Cubs might run a few volumes. At the major league level, Epstein inherits a generally bad defense, a bullpen that was long on expectations and short on results, and an weak offensive lineup that finished next-to-last in the National League in walks. You might also politely accuse the Cubs of being the latest of late adopters when it comes to the utilization of contemporary metrics for performance analysis.
Asked about all this and more, Epstein demonstrated crisp confidence in addressing every item, stressing the need for a “culture change” and the invention of “a Cubs way” when it comes to playing the game -- and when he talks about a Cubs way, suddenly that doesn’t sound so much like a punchline. And when he stated that “Every opportunity to win is sacred,” it seems clear he expects to win.
There’s no dancing around the need for a culture change, but it won’t be one that involves goats or curses. “I don’t believe in curses,” Epstein said. “I do believe that we can be honest and up front that a team hasn’t gotten the job done,” he added, noting that he’ll be finding out “behind the scenes, what the team does well, and what it needs to do better.”
For statheads, he may as well have been reading from a sabermetrician’s prayer book. He stressed the importance of his “personal approach,” utilizing professional scouting and objective analysis in tandem, and how he uses “both lenses together to get the best view of a player.”
Epstein also made it plain that he’ll be assembling a roster with an awareness of players’ career arcs, especially when it comes to signing free agents.
“The key is to pay for future performance, not past performance,” Epstein said.
For an organization with an unhappy track record concerning long-term free-agent deals, that sort of insight, particularly about players’ peak seasons (from age 26-27 to age 31-32 in his estimation), makes for an overdue update to the approach of Cubs GMs from Jim Frey to Jim Hendry.
In its way, Epstein’s arrival reflects the biggest culture change in the organization’s history since Dallas Green came to Wrigleyville 30 years ago. When Green arrived with a World Series ring on his finger after leading the 1980 Phillies, he also brought in a cadre of men from Philadelphia he’d worked with as part of the team’s player development effort, notably his director of player development and scouting, Gordon Goldsberry. They were responsible for creating one of the best farm systems in baseball for Philadelphia, and they would quickly modernize the Cubs' player development effort and overhaul a moribund department of baseball operations.
Epstein was quick to identify at least one strength he inherits, praising the Cubs’ Rule 4 draft this past June as a good indication that the organization “gets it.” As the latest crop on the player development front, it’s well that he should praise it -- those players might have the biggest impact in creating this new “Cubs way.” During the news conference, both he and owner Tom Ricketts identified player development as the key plank in their platform for creating self-sustaining success for the organization. That may sound long-term, but Epstein was quick to dismiss the “R” word: rebuilding. I wouldn’t expect a quiet offseason campaign.
However affable or well-spoken, Epstein also deflected a few difficult questions with a few well-chosen words. Take the fate of his notably absent field manager of the moment, Mike Quade: “I’ve had a couple of nice conversations with Mike. I’d like to hear about his vision.” Epstein wouldn’t be pinned down on the subject of his anticipated GM hire, Jed Hoyer, but noted that it will obviously free him from day-to-day operations at the big league level to address the wider needs of baseball ops. And he was diplomatic on the subject of the as-yet-to-be-determined compensation headed to the Red Sox for his liberation, blandly noting that the Cubs and Sox “have a great working relationship. Both organizations will be moving forward.”
But perhaps the most refreshing element was the easy confidence born of success that Epstein exuded. He didn’t just show up to today’s news conference mechanically serving up a scripted message of confidence and culture change and new challenges. Instead, he joked about getting spotted in Starbucks. He even dropped an "Office Space" reference, talking about his last few weeks in Boston as if he were Milton of Red Swingline stapler fame, banished to the basement. Quite simply, the guy’s too cool for school.
Today’s introduction was, in short, culture change made manifest in the form of one man in a suit totally at ease with the challenge he’s taken on. That sort of self-assurance doesn’t just come from a couple of World Series rings or nine straight winning seasons under the media microscope in Boston. It comes from an awareness of process, of how results are achieved, and what the means are that you use to achieve them. Whether Epstein achieves change and delivers results remains to be seen. But if ever there was someone to effect change, he’s here now.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.