Theo, Jim Hendry, and Context

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At some point in the midst of a comment thread on one of Brett’s Bleacher Nation articles, someone posted an article from a UMass student journalist about how Theo Epstein was overrated as a general manager.  I shared this article with the folks at Obstructed View, where webmaster mb21 lamented that Theo’s mistakes should be addressed more fairly.  Below is my attempt to do that.  I’m guessing it’s been done before, but I just wanted to give it my own shot.

The story of Theo Epstein should be well-known to most Cubs fans by now.  He went to good schools (pfft, Yale…safety school) and did well, and he was brought on board at the end of 2002 to help out in Boston.  He did the Halloween gorilla suit thing, got the Red Sox to the playoffs six times in nine seasons (read: more than the Cubs while in a tougher division) while keeping the team in contention during his entire tenure.  It kind of went to hell in 2010 and 2011 when the team missed the playoffs, famously in 2011 when the Red Sox lost on the final day of the season to hand the wild card to the Rays.  Of course, if the extra wild card were implemented in 2011, the Red Sox would have been the next team in, but baseball isn’t allowed to use time machines yet.  At that point, the Red Sox pretty much ran him and Terry Francona out of town and Epstein became the President of Baseball Operations for the Cubs.  The jury is still out on whether that’s a good hire or not, but I guess you can do worse than to hire one of the most respected names in baseball and a guy who won a couple of championships.  Then again, there’s Andy MacPhail.

I think the biggest problem is that fans believe that baseball executives are infallible.  That is obviously not the case.  Even the best of the best will make their mistakes.  Brian Cashman of the Yankees has run the legendary team since 1998 and in that span has gotten the team to the playoffs just about every year, winning several pennants and four championships.  Yet he has a massive albatross contract in a declining Alex Rodriguez and a payroll that has to be pared in advance of the new luxury tax restrictions.  Certain GMs, like Oakland’s Billy Beane, are criticized because their methods aren’t good enough to get their teams to the promised land despite exceeding expectations in the regular season.  Beane is famous for saying that his “shit doesn’t work in the playoffs” (paraphrased), which is true because of the variance within a short series.  Even the Cubs’ own Jim Hendry is blasted for not doing enough for the Cubs (some of it rightfully, but some unfairly) because the team tanked so hard in 2007 and 2008.  We’ll come back to Jimbo in a moment, but as a reminder, he was in the front office when the “rotation of the future” in Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano came up, and also boosted the lineup by adding Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez in a couple of very smart trades.  So fans need to realize that every GM provides good with the bad, even if one side outweighs the other.

Back to the UMass article…it seemed that although the author does acknowledge that Theo Epstein brought two championships to Boston, he only focuses on the success in 2004.

Every single GM makes numerous regrettable and stupid decisions. Only Theo has made these monumental mistakes that cost his team millions, along with quality minor leaguers. It was baffling to watch the Cubs pursue him as if he is going to be their savior, and it’s all because of those two years, which did eventually culminate in two world championships.

The bolded statement is categorically untrue (i.e. the author didn’t do his research despite referencing the Cubs as the team Theo ran to) and that’s due in no small part to Jim Hendry.  Hendry’s dealings, though influenced heavily by pre-Ricketts ownership, stuck the Cubs with some albatross-y contracts in Carlos Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano, and signed Carlos Marmol to a rather stupid contract extension when we didn’t need a closer.  Seriously, who needs a closer on a team that’s not going to have many games to close?  Hendry also traded away the remnants of the farm for Matt Garza, and although Matt’s been a solid pitcher, it just didn’t seem worth it to me even though early signs suggest the Cubs may still win that trade.  Want another example?  Tony Reagins, former Angels GM, traded Mike Napoli for all of Vernon Wells‘ expiring contract.  What a facepalm moment.

Theo is human, and while he has done some great things, he can do some really stupid things too.  I’m sure most Cubs fans are still displeased with the swap that sent Tyler Colvin and D.J. LeMahieu to Colorado in exchange for Ian Stewart and some pitcher that I totally forgot.  There was a method to the madness, but sometimes the results don’t pan out like one expects.  That’s unfortunately a part of baseball.  The underlined statement in the quote above irritates me though because the author suggests that everything good happened in the first two years of Theo’s tenure and almost completely disregards the 2007 championship and the other playoff appearances.

Since that ‘04 title run, Epstein has been looked at as a man among boys to Sox fans. He was a key cog in helping finally garner that elusive championship. However, he has not kept to that standard. In fact, he’s made some of the worst moves of any GM over the last seven years. Don’t believe me? Here’s a few guys he’s picked up and what it cost to get them: John Lackey ($82.5 mill), Carl Crawford ($142 mill), Mike Cameron ($15.5 mill), John Smoltz ($5.5 mill), JD Drew ($70 mill), Edgar Renteria ($40 mill), Daisuke Matsuzaka ($103 mill, including bid price), Matt Clement ($25 mill), Julio Lugo ($36 mill) and Bobby Jenks ($12 mill). That doesn’t even include the players he acquired via trade that did nothing for his team: Wily Mo Pena (cost: Bronson Arroyo), Eric Gagne (David Murphy) and Ramon Ramirez (Coco Crisp).

That’s a pretty decent list of most of Theo’s expensive mistakes.  Here’s another list from Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe that categorizes most of Theo’s major transactions.  For a comprehensive history of Theo’s transactions while with Boston, check out Steal of Home, which also links to a Google doc (a couple of transactions might have been missed, like the Edgar Renteria trade).  I’m pretty much in agreement that John Lackey sucks (and is currently DL’d while recovering from Tommy John surgery).  Red Sox owner John Henry was reportedly opposed to Carl Crawford’s signing, and it could be argued that Theo grossly overpaid for Crawford especially after he sucked in year one and had to undergo Tommy John surgery in year two before his trade to the Dodgers.

However, let’s look at the other guys listed.  Bronson Arroyo isn’t so good of a pitcher (other than as a pitch-to-contact innings eater) that he was untouchable, though Wily Mo Pena wasn’t exactly a great pickup.  The 2007 World Series championship team, which was almost completely ignored, had Eric Gagne, Julio Lugo, J.D. Drew and Daisuke Matsuzaka.  All four played in the postseason and aside from Gagne sucking ass in the ALDS and ALCS, and Dice-K being less-than-awesome in the same two rounds, Lugo and Drew contributed with the bats in the postseason and got pitching help from both Gagne and Dice-K in the World Series against the Rockies.  So they weren’t completely useless.

The 2002 Red Sox, before Theo took over,  already had some superstars in Nomar Garciaparra, Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon and Pedro Martinez.  One could argue that Theo didn’t fix what wasn’t broken.  By 2003, Theo had added David Ortiz, Bill Mueller and Kevin Millar to the mix, as well as a very talented reliever in Mike Timlin.  Curt Schilling came over in 2004.  And of course all Cubs fans know about Nomar being traded to Chicago while Boston won it all, with another impact player by the name of Kevin Youkilis (drafted pre-Theo but implemented during Theo’s tenure).

And finally we look at 2007, which was again almost completely ignored.  Dustin Pedroia – drafted in 2004.  Mike Lowell and Josh Beckett – acquired in trade (ironically featured on MLBTR today) in 2005.  Jacoby Ellsbury – drafted in 2005.  Jonathan Papelbon – drafted in 2003 (still Theo).  Hideki Okajima – signed in 2006.  Pedro Martinez was gone.  Bronson Arroyo, oh he of the lamented trade, also gone.  No Nomar, no Trot Nixon, no O-Dog, no more Johnny Damon.  Can we at least consider that Theo built the 2007 team almost entirely from scratch?  The only holdovers were David Ortiz (a Theo acquisition), Kevin Youkilis (who started playing under Theo’s tenure), Jason Varitek (the captain), Manny Ramirez (because he doesn’t suck), Curt Schilling, Mike Timlin, Doug Mirabelli (a backup catcher, yay) and Tim Wakefield (who doesn’t age).

The Red Sox were competitive for the rest of Theo’s tenure, though they had to deal with a very good Tampa Bay squad that won the AL East in 2010 and the Wild Card in 2011, not to mention the Yankees.  Injuries to Dice-K and John Lackey were bad news, though Lackey wasn’t that good to begin with.  We’ve already talked about the possible waste of money that was Carl Crawford.

A recurring criticism is that Theo had all kinds of money to spend in Boston under John Henry.  He conceivably has a similar pot of money to spend with the Ricketts family here in Chicago, yet he chose, along with GM Jed Hoyer, to start from scratch and build this from the ground up.  That’s probably going to be a lot more difficult in Chicago than when he had a solid foundation in Boston and just had to maintain the structure.  He also had the previous CBA to work with where draft picks were easier to accumulate and overslot spending wasn’t penalized.

You look at the 2011 team, which was poised to at least force the Rays into a tiebreaker game, and you realize that even a terrible Theo squad won 90 games with a damaged John Lackey, a busted Dice-K, and nobody really picking up the slack behind Beckett and Jon Lester.  You look at the last game of the season and realize that the Red Sox could have forced that tiebreaker if Papelbon hadn’t blown a save at the worst possible time.  Yes, that happens to the best of closers, even to guys like Mariano Rivera.  As bad as Theo’s contracts were, and he did leave the Red Sox in disarray, the team was only six games under .500 in 2012 before they shipped away most of their talent to the Dodgers to clear the salary.  Then you look at the Cubs, who also had a high payroll and were in a weaker division, and you see that in 2010 and 2011, they were almost as bad as those 2012 Red Sox, and they didn’t even hold as big of a fire sale like some of us hoped Jim Hendry would have.

I’m not saying that Theo Epstein would ever be underrated given what he’s done so far in his career.  But I would say that stating he is overrated may be a bit of a stretch when you compare him to his peers.  Let’s give him a couple more years and see what happens with the Cubs.

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