Theo Epstein proved that a snowball really does have a chance in hell. He did the un-doable, building the Chicago Cubs into World Series champions and annual contenders, erasing all the lovable-loser lore. Cubs fans don’t talk about goats anymore. Or curses or black cats or even Steve Bartman.
Epstein, who turned the Cubs into a big-market, first-class professional operation, announced Tuesday that he had resigned as president of baseball operations after nine years in Chicago. He leaves the team to his protege, Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer, who will be promoted into Epstein’s architect role.
What does this mean for the Cubs moving forward? Epstein is a true front office superstar, if there is such a thing. He won two World Series with the long-suffering Boston Red Sox before coming to Chicago and winning in 2016. And while he built an organization around him in Chicago, it was still his instincts that turned the Cubs into champions.
But the truth is, it was time for Epstein to go. For all he did in taking the Cubs to the mountaintop, he seemed to lack the energy or the focus to keep them there. Epstein had always said he believes sports management jobs come with a 10-year shelf life, a theory he first heard from former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh. Epstein was Boston’s architect for 10 years.
And with that time window closing in Chicago, he said he had spent time lately self-evaluating. He acknowledged his success with the Cubs, but said the “last couple years weren’t as impressive. (Maybe) I’m great at and really enjoy building and transformation and triumphing. Maybe I’m not as good at and motivated by maintenance.’’
The core group that Epstein built — Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras — aren’t old yet, but they have been struggling offensively the past three years. The Cubs need to find a new direction.
When Epstein came to Chicago, he had a scorched-earth plan. The Cubs were so far behind the times in everything from scouting to player development. They had no system. With Hoyer at his side, Epstein provided shape to the franchise. Any time the Cubs had anything valuable enough to trade, he traded for prospects or draft choices. Both Epstein and Hoyer are big believers in analytics, finding the players whose stats prove more valuable than might be seen by the naked eye.
So that’s how the Cubs were built. But when you do that, you end up trading away prospects for the pieces needed to win now. Meanwhile, the young players start earning big salaries.
The Cubs have now overspent. The minor league system is depleted. COVID greatly reduced the team’s operating revenue. It has already had layoffs because of it and will face revenue problems again next season if the virus hasn’t gone away.
And Hoyer has to decide which core players to keep and which to get rid of.
“In short, Jed is his own man,’’ Epstein said. “He has his own opinions, his own perspective, his own leadership style. He truly does not need me over his shoulder for the next year while we finish the transition.’’
Epstein said that the Cubs have long-term decisions to make now, and that he knew he wasn’t going to be around for the long term. It seemed to make the most sense, he said, to leave now.
You have to know what Epstein means to this city. As a lifelong Cubs fan, I never thought they would ever win in my lifetime. Before 2016, their most recent World Series win was in 1908, when my grandfather was a fetus.
When they advanced to the World Series, I stood there at Wrigley Field looking around at all the places where I had sat at the park from the time my Dad took me to my first game as a little kid. I wondered what that kid would have thought of the scene. And when they won the Series, I was there, in Cleveland, just standing there, numb.
Epstein said he hears stories like that nearly every day, from fans telling him intimate details of what 2016 meant to them.
The Cubs should be able to get through their current rough patch without a major rebuild, he said. When the Cubs were on the rise, they were defined by their clutch comebacks. Though they continued to win in the past three years, they just didn’t come through offensively when they needed to.
Epstein never replaced leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler for the 2016 team. He had speed and got on base. The Cubs now look like a men’s beer league softball team, swinging for home runs on every pitch. Much of the Major Leagues looks like that now actually. Epstein’s focus seemed to go from pitch counts to exit velocity.
“That’s a regret,’’ he said. “I didn’t do a good enough job or else we would have come through in those situations.’’
It’s impossible to know how the Cubs will change under Hoyer. Epstein said Hoyer is more measured, methodical and contemplative than he is.
It’s Hoyer’s team now, though Cubs fans will always think of it as Epstein’s. Hoyer’s 10-year window starts now. He has a mess to clean up first. And unlike what Epstein saw when he arrived, Hoyer has a legend to live up to.