The art of the deal
With Cubs season-ticket invoices going out, Theo Epstein's hire would be perfect timing
CHICAGO -- They need to make a T-shirt. Check that, T-shirts plural, thousands of them. The Cubs need to turn Wrigley Field into the world's largest beer garden/printing press.
Obama campaign-style "Believe" T-shirts; Theo Epstein T-shirt jerseys with his name and 12 on the back; Epstein kicking a goat right in his goat tuchus.
This is no time to be shy. The Cubs need to dress this city in Theo Epstein's face and remind everyone this is a Cubs town.
And trust me, the Cubs suits aren't shy. They'd sell naming rights to the players if they could.
Starlin Castro and Wrigley Field used to be the franchise's only marketable assets, but once the five-year, multimillion-dollar deal is final, it's Epstein's team and Epstein's town.
Optimism has finally returned to Wrigley Field, and to the far-reaching, self-pitying Cubs fans across the globe. After a few soul-killing years, positive thoughts can be found in the minds of the disinterested fans, the disaffected employees and the distrustful players.
The timing of this news is fortuitous indeed. Season-ticket invoices are slated to go out on Friday. Don't believe the team's spin, the Cubs need help keeping fans at these prices. It took a lot of work to keep 2011 attendance on par with 2010, which was already down from 2009.
But with Epstein and his golden-boy sheen on his way, everything has suddenly changed for the franchise. For now, anyway. False hopes have been raised before. See: Baker, Dusty; Piniella, Lou; Soriano, Alfonso, etc.
The Ricketts family are good people, and well-liked in baseball circles and among their employees, but this organization needs an infusion of "baseball guys," and Epstein is the perfect blended executive who appeals to old-school types, has the respect of players and is adored by the Tom Rickettses and Wally Haywards of the world.
As they say in Wally's World, Epstein has crossover appeal. He has baseball credibility, which is sorely lacking now that general manager Jim Hendry is gone.
Team president Crane Kenney is the kind of guy who refers to lawyers and marketing executives as "rock stars," but Epstein actually is one. He famously plays guitar, and after two World Series titles, he was more popular in Boston than Steven Tyler.
Landing Epstein, which isn't official as of this writing, is surely a franchise-shifting move, perhaps the first meaningful hire in the Ricketts era.
It's a sign that Tom Ricketts, the sole Ricketts in charge, can get big things done. His reign thus far has been judged harshly, and sometimes unfairly, but this is a home run and Tom deserves to doff his cap to the crowd.
But to paraphrase Dusty Baker, his name is Epstein, not Moses. He's not a miracle worker, and I hope that fans, and the media, remember that when the hype machine gets tuned up.
Franchise fixers have come and gone in the past 30 years, from Dallas Green to "boy wonder" Andy MacPhail. The drought remains intact. Jim Hendry got a window to cut some big checks, but it only got the Cubs close enough to disappoint.
And Epstein is not perfect. He spent more than $100 million to get Daisuke Matsuzaka and his fictional "gyroball" to Boston, six years and $52 million in a contract, and a $51 million negotiating fee to his Japanese team. In the past two offseasons, Epstein has "chased" signing John Lackey to a five-year, $82.5 million deal and Carl Crawford to a seven-year, $142 million deal.
If you're a baseball fan, you know how those deals look right now.
But Epstein had to spend to keep pace with the Yankees. OK, he didn't have to, but there is an arms race scenario between the clubs. Epstein will have money to spend in Chicago, but not silly money.
What Epstein can do, just by his experience and his fresh eyes, is improve the organization, from the ground up, and help the Cubs eliminate the peaks and valleys that have plagued the club for years. Hendry did a lot for this team, but it will be a good thing to get new blood in here.
Epstein will need money from the ownership group, which seems like it's coming, and complete control of the baseball operations, which should be there, considering the front office isn't rich with "baseball guys." Patience wouldn't hurt, either.
I'm sure the first thing Epstein does is create an advanced statistical analysis team, and a computer akin to the Red Sox's "Carmine." Epstein is a known sabermetric guy, though he's not a true "propellerhead," as the old school calls the post-"Moneyball" gurus.
Right now, the advanced stats department, as far as we know, is really just Ari Kaplan. Ricketts hired Kaplan to be the statistical analyst manager in 2010, after Kaplan consulted for teams for two decades, according to his self-aggrandizing website, www.ariball.com.
I'm sure Kaplan is an extremely bright and capable analyst -- I've heard he's a whiz with databases and technology -- but since we can't see his analysis work for the Cubs, I have to judge him on his website, which is ... interesting. For instance, he wrote that at 2010 spring training, pitcher Charlie Haeger threw 80 percent curveballs. Haeger is a knuckleballer. There's plenty more "analysis" where that came from. It'll be interesting if Epstein keeps him around or just starts fresh.
Here's another question that speaks to the organizational dysfunction. Why did the Cubs invest $2.4 million in a hitting coach in Rudy Jaramillo if they don't teach his style throughout the system? As it stands, each level has a different coach teaching a different hitting style. There needs to be a Cubs Way of doing things and Epstein needs to be the author.
Speaking of a Cubs Way, some wonder if there needs to be an overhaul in the front office. Fans, and reporters, are always asking how Kenney has kept his job through the sale of the Tribune Co. to the Ricketts family.
Most baseball fans of other teams have no idea who is running their business operations department. I'm guessing Kenney is the only one who gets heckled in public.
Let's get it straight, Kenney's main gig is acting as the point man for three separate projects: the new spring training home in Arizona, the Wrigley Field updates and the new home in the Dominican Republic. He will be judged by the successes.
Kenney's reputation as meddler to Hendry has spread across baseball, but he won't have an opportunity, or really a reason, to undercut Epstein.
In fact, I'd bet the two presidents wind up getting along fine. In any event, Epstein is coming in as the savior. He gets a bump in the pecking order by coming over, and is operating in a position of strength.
Ever since Ricketts took over, Kenney hasn't spoken much to reporters. He will admit that's a good thing. He's a suit, not a baseball guy.
Kenney, a heavy even in his days at the Tribune Co., has experience being unpopular. He was one of the public faces on the team's ticket-scalping service, Wrigley Field Premium Tickets, among other unpopular job tasks.
Considering the Arizona spring training deal is done, and is fiscally amenable to the Cubs, I don't see Kenney leaving for a long time, if ever. His next big project is getting the city to foot half the bill for the massive rebuilding of Wrigley Field.
The team can use Epstein's popularity and the new buzz around the franchise to push the city into making an investment, through tax breaks or otherwise, into a private business. Everyone wins. The money supposedly goes right back to the baseball operations.
Hell, if the Cubs can follow the Red Sox Way to the World Series, the cries of taxpayer waste will get trampled by the dreams of a citywide parade.
Forget front-office politics and the minors for a minute. Epstein's easiest task will be to revamp the major league roster on the fly. First up, he needs a new manager, sorry Mike Quade, but no sense keeping a one-year lame duck. Not in this town. Then he needs a new coaching staff.
You can't fire the players, but you can fire the manager and coaches, and that's a crucial decision Epstein has to make.
Bobby Dernier and Pat Listach could stay, I suppose, but the new manager needs better coaches. Ivan DeJesus can do anything in the organization, but he can't coach third base anymore. A new pitching coach is vital. Quade got shafted when Larry Rothschild bolted for the Yankees.
A new manager can't have a new pitching coach. As a young Cubs pitcher said to me late in the season, Rothschild's replacement, Mark Riggins, did as much as he could, but "He's just not Larry, you know."
Epstein needs to figure out if Carlos Pena and Aramis Ramirez are still options at first and third -- the team needs someone to hit with power -- and he's got to spin off Marlon Byrd for a hitter with more pop.
He also might want to trade Geovany Soto and Carlos Marmol, two pieces who could bring back valuable returns. Then, of course, there's the Carlos Zambrano situation. I'm guessing Zambrano and his agent deliver an ultimatum: Trade him to Florida or keep him or release him.
Epstein needs to make sure he avoids pressure, internally or otherwise, to make a Soriano-like splash, while at the same time, not being too cautious.
A president/general manager's presence can sell only so many tickets. To get this team back to 2008 levels of popularity, Epstein needs to build a winner and do it quickly.
The clock hasn't officially started yet, but barring another change of heart (remember his brief 2005 sabbatical?) the Epstein era has begun. He's now the face of the Cubs.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.