Theo Epstein’s Masquerade

Draft, Free Agents, Games, History, Management, Media, MiLB, Paul Lebowitz's 2013 Baseball Guide, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Stats, Trade Rumors

The increased use of analytics has also given rise to the loquaciousness of the decision-makers. You can pick any of the new age general managers in baseball and find one of their statements when a somewhat controversial decision is made and interchange them. When they fire a manager, it’s generally even longer. The explanation is convoluted and rife with semantics designed to protect their own interests.

This was evident again today when Theo Epstein – someone who clearly loves to hear his own voice whatever the circumstances – gave this long-winded statement as to why the Cubs’ hand-picked manager to oversee their extended rebuild, Dale Sveum, was fired following a 66-96 campaign. The accolades and qualifications Epstein gave to justify Sveum’s firing are little more than a dressing up of the dismissal of an employee.

Was it justified? Did Sveum deserve to take the fall for what was an organizational failure? Should the Cubs have been better than they were?

Considering the expectations (I had the Cubs’ record exactly right in my preseason predictions) they weren’t supposed to be contenders. They traded away veterans Alfonso Soriano and Scott Feldman during the season. They were functioning with journeyman Kevin Gregg as the closer. A team like the Cubs isn’t meant to be judged based on their record alone which lends more credence to the idea that Sveum is being thrown overboard to quiet the rising number of critics wondering when they’ll get Red Sox-like results from Epstein.

With the number of prospects they have on the way up, if the young players like Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Darwin Barney and Jeff Samardzija take steps back, then the manager is going to take the fall for it. That doesn’t mean he gets the blame.

Much like the Red Sox failure in 2003 was passed off on Grady Little’s call not to pull a clearly tired Pedro Martinez in game seven of the ALCS against the Yankees, the Cubs are holding the manager in front of the GM, president and owner like a human shield. Little’s choice in not yanking Martinez was due in part to an old school decision that if he was going to lose, he’d lose with his best. It was also done in part because the Epstein regime had made the conscious choice to go with a favorite concept of the stat guy in the closer by committee and didn’t give Little a competent short reliever he could trust in a game of that magnitude. It all turned out fine as the Red Sox won the World Series the next year only after signing Keith Foulke, a legitimate closer. Crisis averted.

With the Cubs, Epstein has been lauded for his and GM Jed Hoyer’s trades and restructuring of the minor league system. Whether or not that credit will bear fruit in the coming years for the new manager remains to be seen. Until they perform, prospects are only prospects.

Epstein’s big name free agent signings have long been inconsistent. With the Red Sox, he was able to cover it up with John Henry’s money. Whether that will be the case for the Cubs is as unknown as their young players’ development. For the Cubs this season, he signed Edwin Jackson to a four year, $52 million deal. Jackson went 8-18 with an ERA of nearly five. He signed Kyuji Fujikawa to a two year, $9.5 million deal and Fujikawa wilted under the pressure as set-up man and closer before requiring Tommy John surgery. It cannot be said that these were worthwhile and cost-efficient signings.

When Epstein says, “Jed and I take full responsibility for that,” as he discusses the state of the big league product, it’s little more than a hollow accepting of responsibility. He’s been on the job with the Cubs for two years and is ensconced in his job. There might be a small amount of pressure on him because of his reputation and the expectations that surround his high-profile hiring, lucrative contract of five years at $18.5 million and final say powers, but he’s going to get at least two more years before he’s on the firing line. Hoyer is Epstein’s front man and is safe as well.

If the duo is taking “responsibility,” what’s the punishment? They’ll get roasted on talk shows and in print for a while. Attention will be paid to who they hire as manager because GMs and team presidents, no matter how respected, generally get two managerial hirings before the focus of blame falls to them. For now, though, he’s safe.

He says that Sveum isn’t a “scapegoat,” but then two paragraphs later says that the team needs a “dynamic, new voice…” It certainly sounds like scapegoating to me.

I’m not defending Sveum and many times when a firing of this kind is made, there are behind the scenes issues that the public isn’t privy to. Epstein and Hoyer can fire Sveum if they want to. It’s completely up to them. There’s never been anything wrong with firing the manager for any reason that the front office wants to give. In fact, they don’t even need to give a reason. “I felt like making a change,” is a perfectly acceptable response.

However, to take the firing as an opportunity to provide a new line of defense of the front office and disguise it as a “we’re all at fault” line of faux solidarity is an insult to the intelligence of any person who’s been an observer of Epstein’s behavior since he first came to prominence a decade ago as a 28 year old “genius” who was going to lead the game into a new age with his youth and creativity. Getting past the mask, he’s little more than a younger and supposedly more handsome version of the 1960s era of GMs who threatened and bullied employees just because they could and had a job for life. It sounds like the common “blame the manager” rhetoric. The only difference is that it’s camouflaged by a Yale graduate’s skill with the language and ability to make circular sludge sound like the dulcet tones of a gifted tenor.

The firing of Sveum might be retrospectively seen as a the catalyst to the Cubs jumping into contention and breaking their World Series drought. Even if that happens, it can’t be masqueraded as anything more than what it is: they’re blaming the manager. No amount of verbal deftness will alter that fact whether it’s coming from Epstein or anyone else.




var addthis_config = {“data_track_addressbar”:true};

Advertisements

National League Fantasy Sleepers

All Star Game, Ballparks, Books, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, MVP, Paul Lebowitz's 2011 Baseball Guide, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Politics, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, Umpires, World Series

Let’s look at some fantasy sleepers in the National League.

Mike Minor, LHP—Atlanta Braves

He got a lot of grief for what was perceived to be a “play me or trade me” demand that he start the season in the big leagues in the Braves’ starting rotation.

It wasn’t that kind of demand at all, but that’s how it was taken.

Putting that aside, with Tim Hudson recovering from back surgery Minor is going to have to start the season in the big leagues. He’ll want to get off to a good start to stake his claim in the rotation and validate his assertion that he belongs.

He racks up the strikeouts, hits hits/innings pitched ratio is great and he doesn’t allow a lot of home runs or walks.

John Mayberry Jr., OF/1B—Philadelphia Phillies

Mayberry has never gotten the chance to play regularly from the start of the season onward, but will in 2012.

With Ryan Howard’s return date increasingly uncertain after the procedure to clean up the infection in his surgical wound, there’s even more reason to pick up Mayberry. The Phillies’ situation in left field is in flux and he’ll also play some first base.

He has 25-30 homer potential.

Chase Utley, 2B—Philadelphia Phillies

Looking at his basic stats, it appears as if he’s on the decline due to age and injury.

It’s nonsense.

Utley has hit in notoriously bad luck in the past two seasons. His BAbip was .288 in 2010, .269 in 2011. He stole 14 bases without getting caught after returning from his knee injury. His power numbers were right in line with what he normally produces.

Utley’s going to have a big comeback year.

Chris Coghlan, INF/OF—Miami Marlins

He may have worn out his welcome with the newly star-studded Marlins, as injuries and bickering with the front office have diminished the former NL Rookie of the Year to a forgotten man.

The Marlins don’t have a prototypical centerfielder on the roster (they’re intent on going with Emilio Bonifacio), Coghlan can play the position defensively and his bat can rebound. He’ll get one last shot with the Marlins; otherwise he’s trade bait and is worth the risk in the hopes of a return to what he once was.

Frank Francisco, RHP—New York Mets

He’s not a great closer, but he strikes out over a batter an inning. If you need someone to get you some saves and don’t want to pay for them, he’s going to be cheap.

These are the Mets and fantasy mirrors reality.

Or reality mirrors fantasy.

Or both reflect a nightmare. Or circumstances.

Or all of the above.

Jonathan Lucroy, C—Milwaukee Brewers

Lucroy has a career minor league OPS of .838 and an OBP of .379. He’s hit 20 homers in a season in the minors and hit 12 in the big leagues last season.

He’ll be cheap and there’s major room for improvement.

Alex Presley, OF—Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates’ outfield situation flanking Andrew McCutchen isn’t set. Presley can run and had an .804 OPS in 231 plate appearances in the big leagues last season.

Jeff Samardzija, RHP—Chicago Cubs

The Cubs are going to trade Carlos Marmol at some point and someone—either Samardzija or Kerry Wood—will have to take over as closer. It makes no sense to use Wood at this stage of his career.

Samardzija overcame his control issues for the most part and struck out 87 in 88 innings last season.

Bud Norris, RHP—Houston Astros

Norris isn’t going to win many games for the Astros, but he strikes out close to a batter per inning and has had excellent hits/innings pitched ratios at every level.

David Hernandez, RHP—Arizona Diamondbacks

I don’t trust J.J. Putz to stay healthy and Hernandez saved 11 games in Putz’s absence last season.

Hernandez struck out 77 in 69 innings and allowed 49 hits.

Cory Luebke, LHP—San Diego Padres

Luebke struck out 154 in 139 innings last season and allowed 105 hits.

He began 2011 in the bullpen, but moved to the starting rotation in the second half. He’ll be a full-time starter in 2012.

Jerry Sands, OF—Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers circumstances in left and right field aren’t settled. Juan Rivera is slated to start in left and Andre Ethier is a free agent at the end of the season and is a good bet to be traded.

Sands has posted huge power numbers in the minors—stats—and has the speed to steal 15-20 bases.

//

Don’t Expect Miracles From Theo Epstein

All Star Game, Books, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, Movies, MVP, Paul Lebowitz's 2011 Baseball Guide, Players, Playoffs, Politics, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, Umpires, World Series

The Cubs paid a lot of money and are going to send undetermined compensation—a prospect or prospects—for the right to hire Theo Epstein while he still had a year remaining on his contract with the Red Sox—Boston.com Story.

Only hindsight will tell whether or not this is a wise move.

In similar fashion, the Red Sox were set to hire Billy Beane from the Oakland A’s after the 2002 season and send a young infielder named Kevin Youkilis to the A’s for the right to do so.

Beane backed out on the deal that was worth over $12 million and had some insane perks such as letting Beane spend a chunk of his time on the West Coast and run the Red Sox from there.

Retrospectively, it’s hard to see Beane having replicated the success enjoyed by Epstein and his staff with the Red Sox. Two championships; an annual contender with homegrown talent; and daily sellouts speak for themselves.

Now Epstein’s the man with the reputation.

But 5-years at $18.5 million? For a team president?

I’m dubious.

What’s Epstein going to do with the Cubs?

First he’s hiring trusted acolytes from the Padres and his days with the Red Sox including current Padres GM Jed Hoyer.

I wondered yesterday why the Padres were letting Hoyer go without compensation since he’s under contract through 2014, but they’re going to receive prospects from the Cubs as well.

I wouldn’t give up players for an executive, but this is the way business is being done today. Don’t automatically dismiss how good the prospects might be because few knew what Youkilis was before Moneyball.

If anyone’s thinking the Cubs are going to be a lean machine of inexpensive “finds” that the “genius” Epstein discovered using some arcane formula that he and only he knows, you haven’t been paying attention.

Back when Beane was set to take over the Red Sox, an important factor in his potential for success or failure is that the details of Moneyball and Beane’s strategies weren’t widely known because the book had yet to be published. He was operating from a personal strategy borne out of desperation that not all were privy to; now, everyone has the same stats and are, again, reliant on old-school scouting techniques; an intelligent manager; superior coaching; smart trades; good free agent signings; and luck.

Those who point to other clubs who’ve been successful on a budget aren’t delving into the requisite factors of a team like the Rays maintaining excellence without any money and a decrepit, uninviting ballpark—they’ve got a load of starting pitching from being so consistently terrible for years; locked up key components like Evan Longoria; and have been masterful at finding bullpen arms and putting them in a position to succeed with an altered approach and a superlative defense.

There’s a baseline of talent with the Cubs—just as there was one with the Red Sox when Epstein was placed in charge there. It’s not as deep nor as good, but they have some starting pitching with Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster and Carlos Zambrano (who’s a lunatic, but might be salvageable); they have Starlin Castro; and relievers Jeff Samardzija, Sean Marshall and Carlos Marmol.

It’s not a barren wasteland and there’s no mandate to cut costs due to monetary constraints.

This whole series of events is a bit incestuous and reminiscent of the decried “old boys club” of yesteryear when former players or loyal executives were placed in the perch of GM rather than finding someone qualified to do the job with a breadth of experience in every aspect of running an organization.

Epstein, who wanted to leap from the Red Sox Hindenburg, got his out—and a lot of money and power—with the Cubs.

Hoyer is leaving a situation where he couldn’t spend big and is grabbing the Epstein ladder to be his top lieutenant and run the club on a day-to-day basis while Epstein acts presidential.

Another former Epstein assistant, Josh Byrnes, is taking over in San Diego.

This is a similar dynamic to that which was rebelled against with Moneyball—that “old boys club”. Outsiders have become insiders, except that now, it’s not a litany of former players and longtime employees, but young college graduates who cut their teeth as interns, crunched numbers and worked their way up; it’s reaching its logical conclusion with the failures of such names as Paul DePodesta, whose tenure with the Dodgers was a nightmare that cannot be conveniently laid at the feet of Frank McCourt as many set out to do in his weak defense.

Beane himself has become a punchline.

And that’s a far cry from what was essentially a blank check and contract that Red Sox owner John Henry used to lure Beane to the Red Sox.

In today’s world, a GM has to be savvy to finances, scouting, development and stats; he has to delegate; and he (or she—Kim Ng is going to interview for the Angels job) has to be able to express himself to the media, saying things without saying anything to get into trouble.

Epstein has all these attributes.

But so did Beane.

Could another GM candidate like Jerry DiPoto or Tony LaCava go to the Cubs and do essentially what Epstein’s going to do? What he did with the Red Sox? Spend money, draft well, make some trades that might or might not work out and cover up any free agent mistakes with more money?

Yes.

And could they do it at a cheaper rate than $18.5 million for Epstein; presumably another $5 million for Hoyer; and the prospects that are going to the  Padres and Red Sox?

Again, I say yes.

Time will tell if this was a smart move. Just as the Red Sox were fortunate that Beane backed out on them and they hired Epstein, the Cubs could see one of the people they had a chance to hire go elsewhere and become the man they think they’re hiring now, except another club will benefit from that unknown.

The Cubs got the man they wanted.

We’ll see if it works out or if they would’ve been better off to have had the negotiations come apart, leaving them to hire someone younger and with the same attributes that got Epstein the Red Sox job in the first place.

//